ASEAN Leaders Urge Myanmar Junta to Stop Attacks on Civilians

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (C) and other leaders take part in the retreat session at the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta on September 5, 2023. Photo by Mast IRHAM / POOL / AFP

Jakarta, Indonesia -- Southeast Asian leaders strongly condemned violence and attacks on civilians in Myanmar, directly blaming the ruling junta, with host Indonesia saying at a summit on Tuesday there had been scant progress on an agreed peace plan.

Myanmar has been ravaged by deadly violence since the 2021 military coup deposed Aung San Suu Kyi's government and prompted a bloody crackdown on dissent.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- long decried by critics as a toothless talking shop -- met in the Indonesian capital Jakarta to seek a united voice on the crisis.

The leaders "urge the Myanmar Armed Forces in particular, and all related parties concerned in Myanmar to de-escalate violence and stop targeted attacks on civilians, houses and public facilities, such as schools, hospitals, markets," they said in a 19-point statement seen by AFP.

"We strongly condemned the continued acts of violence in Myanmar."

Rights groups have accused the junta of air strikes on rebel strongholds and civilian infrastructure.

Diplomatic attempts to solve the crisis have been fruitless, with the junta ignoring the five-point peace plan agreed with ASEAN members two years ago as well as international criticism, and refusing to engage with its opponents.

An earlier draft statement seen by AFP -- issued by Indonesia with input from all members and thrashed out over several difficult meetings between foreign ministers  -- had left its Myanmar section blank.

That illustrated the lack of consensus in the 10-member bloc on dealing with a junta whose leaders remain banned from high-level ASEAN meetings.

- 'No significant progress' -

Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged unity and cooperation "for peace and prosperity" in the region, but his top diplomat said the peace process agreed with the junta to end the violence remained stuck.

"The conclusion is that there is no significant progress in the implementation of the five-point consensus," Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters.

She also confirmed the Philippines would chair ASEAN instead of Myanmar in 2026, after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said earlier Tuesday Manila was ready to step in to replace the junta rulers.

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun confirmed it would be replaced as chair.

"Myanmar will skip ASEAN chairmanship in 2026," he told AFP, without providing details.

Myanmar previously withdrew from the ASEAN chair in 2006 over a potential boycott by Washington, the European Union and other international powers. The chair went to the Philippines that year.

Myanmar chaired the bloc in 2014 under Thein Sein, the country's first civilian head of state in more than 50 years.

Another regional diplomat said some ASEAN members were pushing for the junta to be re-invited to the meetings.

Thailand has held its own bilateral talks with the junta and deposed democracy leader Suu Kyi in recent months, further dividing the bloc.

As the summit proceeded without a political representative from Myanmar, officials from political parties in the country sanctioned by the military told AFP the junta would likely hold elections in 2025.

But the United States has said any elections under the junta would be a "sham".

- Map controversy -

Beijing's actions in the South China Sea -- which it claims almost in its entirety -- were also to feature prominently in discussions, according to the earlier draft communique.

China released a new official map last week claiming sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea, sparking sharp rebukes from countries around the region, including Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Leaders were to express concern about "land reclamations, activities, serious incidents" in the waterway, the draft said.

Another Southeast Asian diplomatic source said leaders would aim for the "aspirational goal" of concluding talks with China over a code of conduct in the South China Sea by 2026.

Later in the week, Indonesia will host the 18-nation East Asia Summit, which will include the United States, China, Japan, India and Russia.

Representing Beijing and Moscow will be Premier Li Qiang and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov respectively.

US Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Jakarta late Tuesday to attend ASEAN's gathering and the East Asia Summit in place of President Joe Biden.

It is her third trip to Southeast Asia in less than three years, and the White House stressed her focus on "strengthening alliances and partnerships" in the region.

"At both summits, the vice president will underscore the United States' enduring commitment to the Indo-Pacific generally and to ASEAN centrality specifically," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters Tuesday.

Harris is also slated to take part in a roundtable with Russia's Lavrov.

© Agence France-Presse

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