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ASEAN leaders say 'deeply concerned' about Myanmar violence

AFP . Labuan Bajo
10 May 2023 10:00:15 | Update: 10 May 2023 13:04:25
ASEAN leaders say 'deeply concerned' about Myanmar violence
(L-R) Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai, Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, Laos' Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone, Brunei's Prime Minister Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia's President Hun Sen, Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and East Timor's Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak pose for family photo during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Labuan Bajo on May 10, 2023 — AFP Photo

Southeast Asian nations said Wednesday they are "deeply concerned" about the violence ravaging Myanmar, and condemned a recent attack on a convoy of diplomats delivering humanitarian aid in the country.

Turmoil in junta-ruled Myanmar has dominated talks at this week's Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Indonesia, as the regional bloc faces criticism for its perceived inaction.

ASEAN has led diplomatic attempts to resolve the festering crisis, but its efforts so far have failed to stem the bloodshed unleashed by a military coup in 2021.

"We were deeply concerned with ongoing violence in Myanmar and urged the immediate cessation of all forms of violence and the use of force to create a conducive environment for the safe and timely delivery of humanitarian assistance and inclusive national dialogues," ASEAN leaders said in a statement.

The junta has ignored international criticism and refused to engage with its opponents, which include ousted lawmakers, anti-coup "People's Defence Forces" and armed ethnic minority groups.

An air strike on a village in a rebel stronghold last month that reportedly killed about 170 people sparked global condemnation and worsened the junta's isolation.

Pressure on the regional bloc increased Sunday after a convoy of vehicles carrying diplomats and officials coordinating ASEAN humanitarian relief in Myanmar came under fire.

Singapore and Indonesia said earlier that staff from their embassies in Myanmar were in the vehicles that came under fire in eastern Shan State but were unharmed.

"We condemned the attack and underlined that the perpetrators must be held accountable," ASEAN leaders said in their statement.

Addressing the summit Wednesday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said he was "confident" the 10-member bloc could deal with growing global challenges if its members were united.

"With unity, ASEAN will be able to play a central role in bringing peace and growth," Widodo said through a translator as he opened the leaders' session of the summit.

- Low expectations -

Foreign ministers and national leaders meeting on the Indonesian island of Flores are trying to kickstart a five-point plan agreed upon with Myanmar two years ago after mediation attempts to end the violence failed.

Myanmar remains an ASEAN member but has been barred from top-level summits due to the junta's failure to implement the peace plan.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha is being represented by his deputy at the twice-yearly gathering due to elections at home. 

Ahead of the arrival of officials in Labuan Bajo, the army deployed more than 9,000 personnel, warships and F-16 fighter jets to the small fishing town that serves as the entrance to Komodo National Park, where tourists can see the world's largest lizards.

Jakarta's chairmanship of the bloc this year had raised hopes ASEAN could push for a peaceful solution, using its economic weight as well as its diplomatic experience.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Friday that her country was using "quiet diplomacy" to speak with all sides of the Myanmar conflict and spur renewed peace efforts.

But a senior Indonesian minister said Tuesday that ASEAN was at a "crossroad" and risked becoming irrelevant if it failed to deal with Myanmar and other regional emergencies. 

ASEAN's charter principles of consensus and non-interference have hamstrung its ability to stop the violence in Myanmar, which critics say poses an existential threat to the bloc.

Divisions among its members over Myanmar and other issues, including China's growing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea, have undermined the bloc.

Expectations for progress at this summit are low.

"Indonesia has indicated they are planning to release an implementation plan for the five-point consensus," said Aaron Connelly, an analyst for International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. 

"I don't think that there's going to be very much there that will surprise people."