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Protesters hold portraits of Myanmar’s ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest against the military coup. File photo

US confident in Asean’s plan for post-coup Myanmar. Others, not so much

  • ‘Diplomacy takes time’, says US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on maiden visit to Southeast Asia as she lends support to the bloc’s five-point proposal to defuse the crisis
  • Her backing comes amid reports that Indonesia and Thailand are at loggerheads over the matter
The number two US diplomat on Wednesday said Washington remained confident in Asean’s five-point consensus plan to defuse Myanmar’s post-coup crisis, even as criticism mounts over the blueprint’s failure to take off nearly six weeks after it was agreed.
The vote of confidence from Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman stood in sharp contrast to downcast remarks by unnamed Association of Southeast Asian Nations diplomats quoted in a news report a day earlier who claimed the bloc was “haemorrhaging” amid internal sniping over the matter.

Speaking to regional journalists, Sherman acknowledged frustration over the lack of progress, saying “we all wish results would take place yesterday”.

But “we also understand that sometimes diplomacy needs to take time to make sure that all the ducks are in the row [so that] we can proceed forward and reach success,” Sherman said in the telephone briefing.

Sherman was speaking from Bangkok in Thailand, following visits to Jakarta in Indonesia, and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, in what was her maiden trip to Southeast Asia since being confirmed by the US Senate on April 14.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen greets Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP
The diplomat, who previously served in the Barack Obama administration, said it was noteworthy that there had been “unanimity” over Asean’s five-point consensus plan as this was unusual in the 10-nation organisation.

Asean held special talks in Jakarta on April 24 with the coup’s architect, senior general Min Aung Hlaing, and subsequently said an agreement had been forged on five issues: ending violence, constructive talks among “all parties concerned”, the sending of aid to Myanmar, the appointment of a special envoy to facilitate talks, and for the envoy to be allowed visits to the country.

UN envoy urges Asean to act as Myanmar junta ignores consensus plan

But the junta chief has prevaricated, saying a day after the meeting that his administration would only implement the plan after the situation in the country had stabilised.

In late May – more than a month after the meeting – he intimated to Chinese state-linked media that the time was still not right to implement the plan.

Sherman did not directly respond to questions over the delay in implementing the Asean plan.

She said: “We are confident that the international community supports the work of Asean and we will work with each other to bring whatever is necessary to bear, to get the military regime to come to the table and acknowledge that Burma needs to get back on the path to the democratic future that its people have chosen.”

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. Photo: AFP

One of the hurdles in implementing the five-point plan has been a lack of consensus within the bloc on who should be appointed the special envoy, and that person’s duties.

In an exclusive report on Tuesday, Reuters said Indonesia and Thailand were “at loggerheads” over the matter.

Indonesia, the region’s most populous nation, initially favoured a single envoy to lead a task force while Thailand, whose military has close ties to neighbouring Myanmar, pushed for a “friends of the chair” body of multiple representatives, the sources told Reuters.

A compromise supported by most Asean states was for three envoys probably made up of representatives from Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei, the report said.

Brunei is the current chair of the bloc.

Suspend Myanmar from Asean if military won’t back down: lawmakers

The kingdom’s second minister for foreign affairs, Erywan Yusof, and Asean’s secretary general Lim Jock Hoi were expected to meet the junta leaders this week, the report said, adding that there was no indication whether this delegation would hold talks with anti-junta figures currently in hiding or imprisoned.

The bloc has also yet to formally acknowledge the National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel administration formed by anti-junta figures, some of whom are in exile overseas.

The junta has classified the NUG as a “terrorist group”.

The February 1 coup toppled the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD), and the party’s top leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and hundreds of others including civil activists and journalists remain in military custody.
Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Photo: AP

Meanwhile more than 841 people have been killed in the military’s brutal crackdown on anti-coup protesters, according to the local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

Speaking in Jakarta on Wednesday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the “appointment of a special envoy must be done immediately and communication with all parties must be maintained”.

“Inclusive dialogue should be encouraged to solve the political crisis in Myanmar and to bring democracy back to Myanmar’s political sphere in accordance with the will of the people of Myanmar,” Retno said.

Also weighing in on Wednesday was the independent Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights Group, which urged Asean officials taking part in the planned trip this week to Myanmar to “make it clear to Min Aung Hlaing that constructive dialogue cannot be possible while political prisoners remain behind bars”.

“Otherwise, this trip to Myanmar may be completely worthless,” said former Thai foreign minister and APHR board member Kasit Piromya.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: u.s. backs asean bid to defuse crisis even as doubts grow