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ASEAN Chair, Secretary General to Visit Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy Wed,  May 8, 2021

Three weeks have elapsed since the historic special meeting of ASEAN leaders at the organization’s Jakarta-based Secretariat, and the bloc’s chair and chief now plan to have their feet on the ground in Myanmar after the end of Ramadan next week. They are scheduled to hold further talks with the military regime leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and concerned senior officials.

The visit comes amid growing calls for more assertive ASEAN action in implementing the five-point consensus agreed in Jakarta on April 24. Some critics have interpreted the lack of immediate tangible action as the bloc’s effort to buy time for the military regime.

According to a high-level informed source who asked not to be identified, the joint visit will be made after Ramadan, which will end on Wednesday. The date has not yet been scheduled pending confirmation from Naypyitaw.

In addition, the source added that the name of the ASEAN special envoy will soon be announced by the ASEAN chair, Sultan Hassanal Bokiah of Brunei. Two prominent names included on the short list were former Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda and former Thai vice foreign minister Weerasak Footrakul.

Both have wide-ranging experience in engaging with Myanmar. Wirajuda was involved with the humanitarian task force assisting Myanmar during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Weerasak is a former ambassador to Myanmar from 1991-94 and served as vice foreign minister from 2015-19.

It is not certain how the regime would accept either of them as special envoy. Weerasak is known to be conservative and close to the military in Myanmar. He got to know several high ranking military leaders when he served as ambassador.

He is now an appointed senator in Thailand. It is not known whether he will be able to take a balanced view on Myanmar and understand its citizens, who are opposed to the illegitimate coup. Sources familiar with him expressed doubt over his ability as special envoy.

Wirajuda when serving as foreign minister strongly criticized Myanmar over the Rohingya issue. The former foreign minister has also criticized Thailand in the past for towing Rohingya out to sea and demanded an end to persecution of Rohingya in the region.

The joint visit by the ASEAN chair, represented by Brunei Foreign Minister II Dato Erywan Yusof and Secretary General of ASEAN Dato Lim Jock Hoi will be the first by the ASEAN team following the five-point consensus. The trip will allow the chair and ASEAN chief to make a preliminary in-person assessment of the overall situation after the military’s power seizure on Feb. 1.

The cessation of violence agreed to at the Jakarta meeting has not yet completely occurred, although there has been a reduction in fighting and shooting incidents. Interviews with residents in Yangon and Mandalay reveal that the use of lethal weapons has subsided but the numbers of arrests of activists, journalists and medical professionals and civil servants has increased.

However, fighting between the Tatmadaw and armed ethnic groups, especially the Karen, Shan and Kachin, has continued sporadically. Judging by the numbers of fleeing villagers from the border areas to Thailand in the past three weeks, the Thai authorities are confident that the situation is under control.

Last week, the National Unity Government, set up by ousted lawmakers, announced the formation of people’s defense forces with the objective to stop the use of violence against the people.

Meanwhile, concerns have been expressed among the Thai security apparatus that growing numbers of the civil disobedience movement are joining the armed ethnic groups, especially the Karen and Shan. Recent news footage showed some of them engaging in military training in preparation for fighting against the Tatmadaw in the future.

Local civil society organizations based in Bangkok and along the border have already provided cash and humanitarian assistance to receiving centers. Aid has also been sent across the border to dissuade the villagers from crossing and remain inside Myanmar.

Muslim members of ASEAN finish observing Ramadan next week. In Brunei, the fast-breaking festival of Eid-Al-Fitr will begin on May 13 and continue to May15. In Indonesia, it runs from May13-17.

SOURCE – The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Wed, May 8, 2021

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