Myanmar violence looms over Asean summit
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Myanmar violence looms over Asean summit

Rights group says use of ‘enhanced blast’ munitions in attack that killed 170 was a war crime

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi greets her Thai counterpart Don Pramudwinai, who is heading the Thai delegation to this week’s Asean summit. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has skipped the event to continue campaigning for the May 14 election. (Photo: AFP)
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi greets her Thai counterpart Don Pramudwinai, who is heading the Thai delegation to this week’s Asean summit. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has skipped the event to continue campaigning for the May 14 election. (Photo: AFP)

LABUAN BAJO, Indonesia: Southeast Asian nations are at a “crossroad”, a senior Indonesian minister warned on Tuesday, as escalating violence in junta-controlled Myanmar loomed over a regional summit.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) — long decried by critics as a toothless talking shop — has been leading diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis resulting from the coup staged more than two years ago.

But those efforts have been fruitless, as the junta ignores international criticism and refuses 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.

It also fuelled calls for Asean to take tougher action to end the violence or risk being sidelined.

“Asean is at a crossroad,” Mahfud MD, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for politics, legal and security, warned on Tuesday, the first day of the summit on the Indonesian island of Flores.

“Crisis after crisis is testing our strength as a community. And failure to address them would risk jeopardising our relevance,” he said according to a copy of his remarks, listing Myanmar among the emergencies facing the bloc

Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that last month’s air strike in the central Sagaing region was a “likely war crime”, and urged Asean to “signal its support for stronger measures to cut off the military’s cash flow and press the junta for reform”.

The Myanmar military used “thermobaric” munitions for the April attack on an opposition building that killed more than 160 people, the group said.

The air strike using an “enhanced-blast” type munition on the village of Pa Zi Gyi caused “indiscriminate and disproportionate civilian casualties in violation of international humanitarian law”, and was an apparent war crime, HRW said.

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

Few details have been released about the shooting in Shan State, but Indonesia and Singapore both confirmed that members of their embassies in Yangon were in the group.

Singapore said its two staff members were unharmed. It condemned the attack in a statement late Monday.

Indonesia, the Asean chair this year, said two of its diplomats were in the vehicles and were “in good condition”.

Mediation attempts fail

The shooting happened days before the May 9-11 Asean summit, where foreign ministers and national leaders will continue efforts to kick-start a five-point plan agreed upon with Myanmar two years ago after mediation attempts to end the violence failed.

The foreign ministers held talks on Tuesday while their countries’ leaders were scheduled to meet on Wednesday and Thursday.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is not attending the summit as he is busy campaigning for the April 14 election. Deputy Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai, who is also foreign minister, is heading the Thai delegation.

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

In her opening remarks on Tuesday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the ministers had already discussed “the implementation” of the peace plan, but she did not elaborate.

A Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP that Sunday’s shooting “raises the urgency of Myanmar as a key discussion point at this summit”.

The US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about the shooting and urged the junta to “meaningfully implement the Five-Point Consensus”.

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

There was a vacant chair for Myanmar at the foreign ministers’ meeting on Tuesday.

Marsudi said last Friday that her country was using “quiet diplomacy” to speak with all sides of the Myanmar conflict and spur renewed peace efforts.

Asean has long been criticised for its inaction, but its initiatives are limited by its charter principles of consensus and non-interference.

Other nations, such as China and individual member countries of Asean, have taken the lead in trying to resolve the Myanmar crisis.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo on Tuesday welcomed international support for the bloc’s efforts on Myanmar, but said the resolution should “remain Asean-led”.

US-based analyst Zachary Abuza said the group was unlikely to offer more than “another milquetoast statement of condemnation” despite Sunday’s attack.

“Had a diplomat been killed, there would have been more pressure on the organisation to do something, but frankly they’ve been so feckless in the past two years that it’s hard to see them actually acting in a meaningful way,” Abuza told AFP.

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