11 July 2024

Myanmar’s junta sent a senior official to a gathering of ASEAN foreign ministers in Laos on Monday — the first time the diplomatically isolated country has attended a high-level meeting of the regional bloc in more than two years.

The country has been ravaged by deadly violence since a 2021 military coup deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government and unleashed a bloody crackdown on dissent.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has led diplomatic efforts to ease the crisis but has little to show for it, with more than 4,400 people killed and nearly 20,000 in detention in the military crackdown according to a local monitoring group.

ASEAN has barred junta leaders from its summits and ministerial meetings since October 2021, and the generals have refused invitations to send “non-political” representatives.

But on Monday senior foreign ministry bureaucrat Marlar Than Htike attended the talks in picturesque Luang Prabang.

Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith welcomed Myanmar’s attendance after two years and said he hoped for progress, though he cautioned against expecting a swift end to the crisis.

“This time we feel a little bit optimistic that the engagement may work, although we have to admit that the issues that are happening in Myanmar will not resolve overnight,” he said.

“We are sure that the more we engage Myanmar, the more understanding … about the real situation that is happening in Myanmar.”

– ASEAN tensions –

ASEAN’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have been repeatedly stymied, with little progress made since 2021 when the bloc agreed on a five-point peace plan — which Myanmar signed up to but has failed to implement.

Friction between ASEAN members escalated last year over differing approaches to the crisis, especially after the previous Thai government’s decision to meet junta foreign minister Than Shwe.

Laos, a one-party communist state with deep ties to Myanmar’s most important ally China, is chairing ASEAN for the first time since 2016.

Saleumxay said “many members welcome the participation of non-political representation from Myanmar”.

Laos’ calls for engagement follow a move by the Laotian special envoy of ASEAN, Alounkeo Kittikhoun, to meet with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in the capital Naypyidaw earlier this month.

Myanmar state media reported at the time that the two discussed “efforts of the government to ensure peace and stability”.

But a spokesman from Indonesia — which along with Singapore and the Philippines has taken a firm line on Myanmar — insisted Monday’s attendance did not signal a change in policy.

“It is true that a Myanmar representative was present at the ASEAN FM meeting in Luang Prabang. The attendance was not by a minister-level or political representative. So, it is still in line with the 2022 agreement of the ASEAN leaders,” he told AFP.

The continued need for humanitarian aid to Myanmar was also highlighted, with Laos welcoming efforts led by Thailand for humanitarian assistance. The kingdom shares a long border with Myanmar.

“All ASEAN member countries express their will to support, to make sure that we can provide full and effective assistance and support to Myanmar people,” he said.

by Agence France Presse