Thailand is set to host talks aimed at re-engaging Myanmar’s shunned military leaders in an initiative critics said undermined regional unity on the strife-torn country’s deadlocked crisis.
The outgoing Thai military-backed government, in a statement released on Sunday, said the purpose of its informal dialogue is to discuss a range of topics to complement the efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to resolve the situation in Myanmar.
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It said the meeting will be attended by representatives from Laos, Cambodia, India, China, Brunei and Vietnam, as well as Myanmar – a highly contentious issue because ASEAN leaders had agreed to exclude the country’s generals from the 10-member bloc’s meetings.
Myanmar’s generals, who seized power in a 2021 coup after toppling the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, have failed to honour a deal agreed with ASEAN two months afterwards to end the violence and initiate talks with groups opposed to their power grab.
The Thai invitation to ASEAN foreign ministers, published on Twitter by Human Rights Watch, said the meeting would discuss a proposal for the regional bloc to “fully re-engage Myanmar at the leaders’ level”.
Really shocking & galling that @MFAThai Minister Don Pramudwinai presumes to organize this meeting with SAC military junta when the policy of @ASEAN @Menlu_RI chair & Thai majority that supported @MFPThailand have exactly the opposite position! #WhatsHappeninginMyanmar #Thailand pic.twitter.com/YxCa32ejYh
— Phil Robertson (@Reaproy) June 18, 2023
Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign minister, Than Swe, is due to join the talks, two sources with knowledge of the meeting told the Reuters news agency.
But some ASEAN members have declined to attend and others are sending only junior officials.
Indonesia, which as the current ASEAN chair has for months been trying to engage key stakeholders in Myanmar’s conflict in an effort to kick-start a peace process, declined Thailand’s invitation.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the latest meeting of the bloc had “arrived at no consensus to re-engage or develop new approaches to the Myanmar issue”, Reuters reported, citing Jakarta’s response to the Thai efforts.
A Malaysian government statement, meanwhile, said its foreign minister, Zambry Abdul Kadir, would not be able to attend “due to prior commitments”, but went on to emphasise that ASEAN’s peace plan “remained ASEAN’s valid reference and mandate in addressing the Myanmar issue”.
The Malaysian statement suggested the Thai effort undermined ASEAN unity.
“It is important that ASEAN demonstrates its unity in support of the ASEAN Chair and ASEAN processes which are in line with the mandate and decisions made by the ASEAN leaders,” it said.
Cambodia said Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who last year served as an ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar, would be represented by his deputy.
Myanmar groups opposed to military rule blasted the meeting plans.
A statement signed by representatives of more than 300 civil society organisations called it “a complete affront to the people of Myanmar who have sacrificed their lives to resist the Myanmar military’s attempt to seize power through years-long terror campaign against the whole nation”.
It added, “In organizing this meeting, the caretaker Government of Thailand is acting without the mandate and any consultation with the ASEAN Chair. As a member state of ASEAN, Thailand must not deviate from the bloc’s agreement, and must halt this meeting at once.”
Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai on Monday defended the meeting, saying it was aimed to give Myanmar an opportunity to provide an update on its situation.
Thailand did not organise it on behalf of ASEAN, and an open invitation was sent out to all nations that might be interested in hearing from Myanmar, he said.
“Thailand is the most affected if we let this prolong,” he told Thai television, noting that Myanmar’s crisis was sending refugees across their common border and had hit trade hard.
“We can say that Thailand is the only country in ASEAN that wants to see the problems end as soon as possible, which will be beneficial to us,” he added.
The Thai foreign ministry statement did not say where the meeting would be held, but the Bangkok Post newspaper cited Don as saying it would be held in the eastern resort city of Pattaya.
Some Thai critics also questioned why the meeting was suddenly called, even as the current caretaker government was likely to be replaced by August by opposition parties that won the May elections.
Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the progressive Move Forward Party, which won the most seats in Parliament, has suggested that his government would take a tougher stance on Myanmar than the current administration of retired general Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Prayuth, who has been in power since he led a coup to seize power from an elected civilian government in 2014, has been criticised for his friendly position towards Myanmar’s military leaders.