The army general who has ruled Myanmar since leading the overthrow of its civilian government met Saturday in Indonesia with leaders of other Southeast Asian nations who expressed concern about the army’s killing of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters.
It was the first time since the Feb. 1 coup that the army’s commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, had ventured outside Myanmar. Critics feared that his presence with heads of state at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting would give him the appearance of legitimacy.
Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, said the assembled leaders had conveyed to the general that his regime must halt violence by the military, release political prisoners, open the country to humanitarian aid and commit to continuing dialogue.
“The situation in Myanmar is something that is unacceptable and must not continue,” Joko said in a video statement after the meeting. “Violence must be stopped, and democracy, stability and peace in Myanmar must be restored.”
He added that his view reflected a consensus of the 10-nation association known as ASEAN, which had invited Min Aung Hlaing to the summit of the region’s leaders.
Since seizing power, Myanmar’s military has crushed nationwide protests by arresting elected leaders, shooting civilians in the streets, beating people, and raiding and looting homes. As of Saturday, soldiers and the police had killed at least 745 people and detained more than 3,300, according to a rights group that has been tracking the mayhem.
Myanmar politicians who have formed what they call a National Unity Government called on Interpol and the Indonesian police this past week to arrest Min Aung Hlaing upon his arrival in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, for crimes against humanity, including the ethnic cleansing campaign that drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country in 2017.
The National Unity Government, which asserts that it is the legitimate government of Myanmar, also had urged ASEAN to give it a seat at the summit meeting and refuse to meet with Min Aung Hlaing until he halted the killing of civilians.
“Meetings that exclude the people of Myanmar but include murderer in chief Min Aung Hlaing who is murdering the people of Myanmar are unlikely to be helpful,” the group’s spokesman, Sasa, who goes by a single name, said in a statement Friday.
A statement from the Indonesian government announcing Min Aung Hlaing’s arrival for the summit identified him as the commander in chief of Myanmar’s military, not as the country’s leader.
Many members of the National Unity Government were elected to Parliament in November and would have taken office on the day of the coup. On Thursday, the junta announced that all 24 of the group’s cabinet ministers and deputy ministers had been charged with treason and unlawful association.
Myanmar’s ousted civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who before the February coup would have attended a meeting like Saturday’s, is now under house arrest. The prime minister of Malaysia, Muhyiddin Yassin, and the prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, earlier called for her release, as did the Philippine government.
During the summit, Muhyiddin also urged Myanmar to end the killings and violence and to release all political detainees promptly and unconditionally, news agencies reported.
The United States and the European Union have imposed targeted sanctions on regime leaders and military-owned businesses, but diplomatic efforts to stop the killing have been unsuccessful. The U.N. Security Council, where China and Russia can be counted on to support the Myanmar regime, has taken no action.
The comments by Joko and Muhyiddin were unusual for ASEAN, which has a policy of noninterference in the affairs of member nations. It issued a statement in March calling on “all parties to refrain from instigating further violence,” seemingly ignoring the one-sided nature of the killings.
On Saturday evening, the ASEAN Secretariat issued a statement on the meeting noting that there had been a consensus on several points: an immediate cessation of violence; constructive dialogue to reach a peaceful solution; the appointment of a special envoy from ASEAN; and humanitarian assistance to be provided by ASEAN.
“We, as an ASEAN family, had a close discussion on the recent developments in Myanmar and expressed our deep concern on the situation in the country, including reports of fatalities and escalation of violence,” the statement said. “We acknowledged ASEAN’s positive and constructive role in facilitating a peaceful solution in the interest of the people of Myanmar and their livelihoods.”
Indonesia played a key role in organizing Saturday’s summit. In addition to Joko and Muhyiddin, those attending included the leaders of Brunei, Cambodia, Singapore and Vietnam. Laos, the Philippines and Thailand sent representatives.
Some members of ASEAN, including Singapore and Thailand, have close business ties with Myanmar and its military, known as the Tatmadaw, which owns two of the country’s largest conglomerates.
Three member nations, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, sent representatives to the Tatmadaw’s Armed Forces Day celebration March 27. On that day, soldiers and the police killed at least 160 protesters in its largest single-day killing spree since the coup.
Some of ASEAN’s members may be reluctant to speak out on human rights issues because of their own violations, such as the Philippines’ slaughter of thousands in its war on drugs and Vietnam’s practice of giving long prison sentences to dissidents.
ASEAN stood by in 2017 as the Tatmadaw waged a ruthless campaign of murder, rape and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims, who fled in large numbers across the border into Bangladesh, which is not an ASEAN member. Nearly all the Rohingya refugees are still there, living in squalid, overcrowded camps.
As the Tatmadaw’s commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing oversaw the military operations against the Rohingya.
International rights groups had urged ASEAN not to meet with the general. Rather, they said, the group should impose sanctions on the junta’s leaders, press for the release of detainees and seek an end to the killings.
“Min Aung Hlaing, who faces international sanctions for his role in military atrocities and the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, should not be welcomed at an intergovernmental gathering to address a crisis he created,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch.