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Myanmar: Military chief urged to stop violence on first foreign trip

Myanmar: Military chief urged to stop violence on first foreign trip thumbnail

image copyrightHandout/Indonesian Presidency

image captionThe general (left) is in Jakarta for a regional summit that is expected to focus on Myanmar

South East Asian leaders have urged the head of the Myanmar army, which took power in a coup in February, to end the violent crackdown in the country.

In his first known foreign trip since the takeover, General Min Aung Hlaing heard calls for the military to stop killing protesters and to release political prisoners.

More than 700 people have been killed since the coup in February.

The talks in Indonesia were the first big effort to address the crisis.

Leaders and foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) took part in the summit that was held in the capital Jakarta despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin called for an immediate end to the violence against civilians and the unconditional release of political prisoners. “The deplorable situation in Myanmar must stop immediately,” he said.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo also called the situation “unacceptable” and urged the general to allow the aid into Myanmar.

After the meeting, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the general was “not opposed” to a visit by as Asean delegation or humanitarian assistance, adding: “He said he heard us, he would take the points in which he considered helpful.”

Demonstrators gathered near the venue of the summit, beating pots and pans and holding signs that read “Restore democracy” and “We stand against the military coup”. Protests were also held in Myanmar’s main cities but there were no immediate reports of violence.

‘Clear splits over taking action or not’

Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House

Despite the risk of massive refugee flows or even civil war, Asean members have been divided over whether to even hold a meeting. There are clear signs of splits between governments that want to take action and those that don’t.

Asean appears divided along geographical lines, with the “mainland” countries – those physically closest to China – more opposed to intervention in Myanmar, while the “maritime” countries – those furthest from China – are more in favour of taking action.

Among the latter group, it is host Indonesia that has been pushing hardest for a collective response to the crisis.

But persuading the other nine countries to take a unified stance will be just as much a challenge as persuading the Myanmar junta to de-escalate the crisis.

image copyrightReuters

image captionProtesters across Myanmar are calling for an end to the coup

While the bloc prides itself on its ability to persuade rather than coerce, that ability is much weaker if the organisation is not united.

United Nation’s Secretary-General António Guterres had called for the Asean summit to resolve the crisis and prevent “possible grave humanitarian implications beyond Myanmar’s borders,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

There have been calls for Myanmar, also known as Burma, to be expelled from Asean but the members historically do not get involved in each other’s internal affairs.

The UN special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, is in Jakarta for meetings on the sidelines of the summit.

media caption“We are in danger of seeing a civil war”

Mass protests have been taking place across Myanmar since the military seized control and declared a year-long state of emergency.

The armed forces claim there had been widespread fraud during a general election late last year which had returned elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party (NLD) to power.

The military promised instead that it would hold “free and fair” elections once the state of emergency is over.

image copyrightReuters

image captionMin Aung Hlaing has medals galore, but little public support

In the past few weeks, the military has been increasing its use of force against protesters – with one incident earlier this month in the city of Bago seeing more than 80 people killed.

Witnesses told local media that soldiers had used heavy weapons and had shot at anything that moved.

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