Southeast Asian leaders set for Myanmar crisis talks

·3-min read

Southeast Asian leaders will hold Myanmar crisis talks Saturday with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing who has become the focus of international outrage over a military coup and crackdown that has left more than 700 dead.

The senior general was expected at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Indonesia's capital, marking his first foreign trip since security forces staged a coup that ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in early February.

Mass protests by an angry population have been met by a brutal crackdown that has left blood on the streets.

An estimated 250,000 people have been displaced, according to a UN envoy, with Myanmar's democratically elected top leaders in hiding or under house arrest.

On Saturday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and the Sultan of Brunei, the current chair of ASEAN, were to be joined by leaders and foreign ministers from most of the 10-country group, which also includes Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Laos.

Protests were expected around ASEAN's downtown headquarters, which is being ringed by heavy security. The meeting was to be closed to media.

The general's expected involvement has angered activists, human rights groups and a shadow government of ousted Myanmar lawmakers, which was not invited to the talks.

"The crisis initiated by a murderous and unrepentant Myanmar military has engulfed the country, and will cause severe aftershocks -- humanitarian and more -- for the entire region," Amnesty International said ahead of the meeting.

"The Indonesian authorities are duty-bound to investigate Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other Myanmar military officials who may join his delegation to Jakarta," it added.

There have also been calls for the regional bloc to expel Myanmar.

But ASEAN generally takes a hands-off approach to members' internal affairs.

Few analysts expected major breakthroughs from the meeting, saying instead it was a chance to bring Myanmar's military to the bargaining table and pave the way for a possible resolution.

"We have to be realistic here. I don't think the summit is going to bear out a full-blown plan on how to get Myanmar out of the conflict," said Mustafa Izzuddin, senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore.

"But rather I think it will start the conversation and perhaps lay the parameters as to how a resolution could be found."

United Nations special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, is expected on the sidelines of the summit.

While the EU and Washington have ramped up sanctions against Myanmar to force the military's hand, it is unlikely ASEAN would scold the coup leaders or demand Suu Kyi's release, observers said.

"ASEAN wants to embrace (Myanmar) so it can create and safeguard peace in Southeast Asia," said Beginda Pakpahan, an international relations expert at the University of Indonesia.

"The second objective is to find a long-term solution through constructive engagement."

But the crisis engulfing Myanmar has delivered a big challenge to the future of the bloc and its consensus-driven approach.

"This summit is really a test of ASEAN's credibility not just within the region but also outside of the region," Izzuddin said.

"International eyes are on (it) to see whether the regional approach that ASEAN has taken to find a resolution in Myanmar is effective."

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