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ASEAN ministers meet to discuss stuttering Myanmar peace plan

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Southeast Asian foreign ministers began a special meeting on Friday to try to address a political crisis in Myanmar, with some countries set to push for a tougher response to the ruling military’s reluctance to follow an agreed peace roadmap.

The junta’s failure to cease hostilities, allow humanitarian access and start dialogue with all parties in the five months since the roadmap was announced has tested the credibility of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is leading the international diplomatic effort.

The online meeting began on Friday evening, according to sources from two ASEAN governments.

Myanmar’s military seized power in a Feb. 1 coup led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, which ended a decade of tentative democracy and triggered a backlash that has plunged the country into chaos.

But the lack of progress so far has exasperated several ASEAN members, including the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, which have indicated they could back excluding Min Aung Hlaing from an ASEAN leaders’ summit later this month.

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah earlier on Friday said the meeting would discuss ASEAN special envoy Erywan Yusof’s hopes to visit Myanmar next week, and gauge its willingness to commit to what it agreed to.

“If there is no real progress then Malaysia’s stand would remain that we do not want the general to be attending the summit. No compromise on that.”

Myanmar has been one of ASEAN’s most divisive issues since it joined the bloc in 1997 as a military dictatorship lambasted by the West for its iron-fisted rule, testing ASEAN’s unity and denting its international image.

Shutting out Min Aung Hlaing, though not formally recognised as an ASEAN leader, would be a big step for the bloc, which has a policy of non-interference in each other’s affairs and has long favoured engagement over punitive measures.

The junta boss in April agreed to ASEAN’s five-point plan on a way out of the turmoil since the military overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi, alleging fraud in an election her party won in a landslide.

NO PROTOCOL

Saifuddin, Malaysia’s top diplomat, said that without a consensus, there was no protocol for excluding an ASEAN member. However, he believed there would be a solution.

“We do not have a system where you downgrade a particular member’s representation to the summit. So there are probably other ways of doing this,” he said.

Zaw Min Tun, the Myanmar junta spokesman, this week said ASEAN envoy Erywan would not be allowed to meet Suu Kyi because she is charged with crimes.

Myanmar’s foreign ministry late on Thursday said it was committed to the ASEAN plan and receiving the envoy.

It suggested that Erywan should prioritise ways to “build trust and confidence” on his first trip.

Thailand’s foreign ministry took a conciliatory tone and saw Erywan’s visit as “an important first step in the process of confidence-building with a goal of encouraging dialogue”.

“We also believe in the collective wisdom of all ASEAN member states, including Myanmar, to overcome all challenges together, in the spirit of the ASEAN family,” it said.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um in Bangkok; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Robert Birsel, William Maclean)

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