ASEAN leaders demand Myanmar coup leaders end killings

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Activists display banners and posters during a rally against the military coup in Myanmar near the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat ahead of a leaders’ meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday, April 24, 2021. Southeast Asian leaders are to meet Myanmar’s top general and coup leader in an emergency summit in Indonesia Saturday, and are expected to press calls for an end to violence by security forces that has left hundreds of protesters dead as well as the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Southeast Asian leaders demanded an immediate end to killings and the release of political detainees in Myanmar in an emergency summit with its top general and coup leader Saturday in the Indonesian capital, Indonesia’s president said.

The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also told Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing during the two-hour talks in Jakarta that a dialogue between contending parties in Myanmar should immediately start, with the help of ASEAN envoys, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said.

“The situation in Myanmar is unacceptable and should not continue. Violence must be stopped, democracy, stability and peace in Myanmar must be returned immediately,” Widodo said during the meeting. “The interests of the people of Myanmar must always be the priority.”

The messages conveyed to the Min Aung Hlaing was unusually blunt and could be seen as a breach of the conservative 10-nation bloc’s bedrock principle forbidding member states from interfering in each other’s domestic affairs. But Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said that policy should not lead to inaction if a domestic situation “jeopardizes the peace, security, and stability of ASEAN and the wider region” and there is international clamor for resolute action.

“There is a tremendous expectation on the part of the international community on how ASEAN is addressing the Myanmar issue. The pressure is increasing,” Muhyiddin said and added that the current ASEAN chairman, Brunei Prime Minister Hassanal Bolkiah, and the regional bloc’s secretary general, should be allowed access to Myanmar to meet contending parties, encourage dialogue and come up with “an honest and unbiased observation.”

Daily shootings by police and soldiers since the Feb. 1 coup have killed more than 700 mostly peaceful protesters and bystanders, according to several independent tallies.

It was not immediately clear if and how Min Aung Hlaing responded to the blunt messages.

It was the first time he traveled out of Myanmar since the coup, which was followed by the arrests of Aung San Suu Kyi and many other political leaders.

ASEAN’s diversity, including the divergent ties of many of its members to either China or the United States, along with a bedrock policy of non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs and deciding by consensus, has hobbled the bloc’s ability to rapidly deal with crises.

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Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi expressed hopes on the eve of the summit that “we can reach an agreement on the next steps that can help the people of Myanmar get out of this delicate situation.”

Following the coup, ASEAN, through its current chair Brunei, issued a statement that did not explicitly condemn the power grab but urged “the pursuance of dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar.” Amid Western pressure, however, the regional group has struggled to take a more forceful position on issues but has kept to its non-confrontational approach.

Critics have said ASEAN’s decision to meet him was unacceptable and amounted to legitimizing the overthrow and the deadly crackdown that followed. ASEAN states agreed to meet Min Aung Hlaing but did not address him as Myanmar’s head of state in the summit, a Southeast Asian diplomat told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for lack of authority to discuss the issue publicly.

The London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International urged Indonesia and other ASEAN states to investigate Min Aung Hlaing over “credible allegations of responsibility for crimes against humanity in Myanmar.” As a state party to a U.N. convention against torture, Indonesia has a legal obligation to prosecute or extradite a suspected perpetrator on its territory, it said.

“The Myanmar crisis triggered by the military presents ASEAN with the biggest test in its history,” said Emerlynne Gil of AI. “This is not an internal matter for Myanmar but a major human rights and humanitarian crisis which is impacting the entire region and beyond.”

Indonesian police dispersed dozens of protesters opposing the coup and the junta leader’s visit.

More than 4,300 police fanned out across the Indonesian capital to secure the meetings, held under strict safeguards amid the pandemic. Indonesia has reported the highest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Southeast Asia.

The leaders of Thailand and the Philippines skipped the summit to deal with coronavirus outbreaks back home. Laos also canceled at the last minute. The face-to-face summit is the first by ASEAN leaders in more than a year.

Aside from Myanmar, the regional bloc groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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