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 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Jakarta is the senior general’s 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.
An Indonesian government video showed Min Aung Hlaing, dressed in a dark suit, stepping off a Myanmar Airways International plane after it landed in the capital Saturday.
He will join Indonesian President Joko Widodo and the Sultan of Brunei, the current chair of ASEAN, as well as leaders and foreign ministers from most of the 10-country group, which also includes Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Laos.
Dozens gathered outside the ASEAN headquarters, which was ringed by heavy security, calling for democracy to be restored.
A diplomatic source told AFP that ASEAN was likely to call on the junta to end violence against civilians and to allow a special envoy to meet with the detained Suu Kyi, but would stop short of calling for her release.
The meeting is closed to media.
The general’s involvement has angered activists, human rights groups and a shadow government of ousted Myanmar lawmakers, which was not invited to the talks.
“Meetings that contribute to a solution to the deepening crisis in Myanmar are welcome,” the latter said in a statement.
“(But) meetings that exclude the people of Myanmar but include murderer-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing… are unlikely to be helpful.”
The lawmakers called on the junta to “stop murdering civilians”, release more than 3,000 political prisoners and return power to the country’s democratically elected government.
“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,” rights group 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 expect major breakthroughs from the meeting, saying instead it is 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, “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.”