Myanmar Crisis Tops Agenda at Divided ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting

(L-R) Malaysian Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir, Philippines' Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Laos' Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith, Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Erywan Yusof, Cambodia's Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, East Timor's Foreign Minister Bendito Freitas and ASEAN Secretary General Ka

Jakarta, Indonesia -- ASEAN foreign ministers gathered in Indonesia on Tuesday for talks dominated by the crisis in Myanmar, with the regional bloc divided over how or whether to reengage with the coup-wracked country's ruling junta.

The two-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting will be followed by talks later in the week with Beijing, Washington and other powers where top US diplomat Antony Blinken will seek to push back on China's assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Myanmar has been ravaged by deadly violence since a military coup deposed Aung San Suu Kyi's government more than two years ago and unleashed a bloody crackdown on dissent.

ASEAN has long been decried as a toothless talking shop, and it remains split over diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis.

Those fractures were laid bare in a draft joint communique seen by AFP, where a section on Myanmar was left blank as ASEAN members failed to agree on a unified position beforehand.

"The para is still being discussed... member countries are still taking time to propose their submission," a Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP.

The only time ASEAN has failed to issue a joint communique was over a decade ago in 2012 due to a language dispute about the South China Sea.

ASEAN members were making "extra efforts" in the days before the meeting -- a prelude to a leaders' summit in September -- to unite the group around the Myanmar issue, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

However the official was "not too optimistic" that would happen given that a "few members have different perspectives on how to approach the problem", they said.

Myanmar remains an ASEAN member but has been barred from high-level meetings over the junta's failure to implement a five-point plan, agreed two years ago, to end the violence and restart negotiations to resolve the crisis.

ASEAN efforts to kick-start the plan's execution have been fruitless, as the junta ignores international criticism and refuses to engage with its opponents.

Thailand, meanwhile, hosted the junta's foreign minister for controversial "informal talks" last month, deepening the divisions between the ASEAN members.

Cambodia sent a junior diplomat while Indonesia and Malaysia snubbed the meeting.

- 'Clearer' plan -

The bloc's initiatives are limited by its charter principles of consensus and noninterference, but analysts say the meeting could push members to do more.

"It is hoped there will be a clearer implementation plan on what will ASEAN do going forward," Lina Alexandra of Jakarta-based think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies told AFP.

As the meeting opened, NGO Human Rights Watch in a press release urged ASEAN chair Indonesia, bloc members and allies to "create a coalition of concerned governments to... press the junta" more strongly on its rights abuses.

On Thursday, an ASEAN-plus-three ministerial meeting with Japan, South Korea and China will take place ahead of an 18-nation East Asia Summit foreign ministers' meeting on Friday, which will also include Washington and Beijing.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to attend the latter meeting, again putting him in the same room as US Secretary of State Blinken after a brief March meeting as Moscow's Ukraine invasion grinds on.

Washington and ASEAN members will seek to "push back" on Beijing's actions in the dispute-rife South China Sea, top US diplomat for East Asia Daniel Kritenbrink told reporters Saturday.

China has made sweeping claims in the strategic waterway despite protests from several ASEAN members who argue for unimpeded freedom of navigation and that their own territorial claims be respected.

The draft ASEAN joint communique called for self-restraint in the waterway and said there was "positive momentum" in talks over a code of conduct.

"We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety, and freedom of navigation in and above the South China Sea," it said.

© Agence France-Presse

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