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Myanmar’s junta chief meets with ASEAN representatives

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Talks indicate Min Aung Hlaing’s growing confidence four months after coup

BANGKOK/YANGON — Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the chief of Myanmar’s military, met Friday with Brunei’s Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Dato Erywan Pehin Yusof and compatriot Lim Jock Hoi, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw.

Sources in the Myanmar military told Nikkei Asia that the meeting between the military chief and the two ASEAN officials started at 2 p.m.

The details of their talks are yet to be announced, but the acceptance of the two officials’ visit indicates the junta chief’s growing confidence in the military’s control over the situation, four months after the Feb. 1 coup, enough to open dialogue with the international community.

The two sides are expected to have discussed the five points agreed upon at the extraordinary ASEAN summit in Jakarta in April, including the dispatch of a special ASEAN envoy and humanitarian aid to Myanmar. Brunei is currently the chair of ASEAN, and the two officials representing the bloc are believed not to have met pro-democracy groups including ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Prior to the Brunei’s emissaries’ visit, the junta chief met Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, on Thursday. According to a person familiar with the meeting, Maurer’s request for a resumption of prison visits by Red Cross staff and greater humanitarian assistance in conflict zones “was not refused” by Min Aung Hlaing.

Myanmar’s leaders seem to be more confident that they have suppressed anti-coup protests and solidified military control over the country, leading them to be more open to dialogue with the international community.

The National Unity Government, formed by pro-democracy politicians, has attacked the military’s legitimacy both at home and abroad, while fighting between the military and armed civilians or ethnic militia continues. In urban areas, however, clashes between security forces and peaceful demonstrators have dropped off.

The military has said it will hold another general election after the current state of emergency is lifted. One likely scenario is to hold the election under conditions favorable to the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party, allowing the military to retain the power in practice.

On May 24, Suu Kyi appeared in court in person for the first time, having previously appeared via videoconference. After the hearing, the military through state-affiliated media released a photograph of Suu Kyi sitting in a face mask in the defendant’s seat, intended to impress upon domestic and international observers that Suu Kyi no longer has influence over her country’s current issues.

In late May, the military-appointed election commission suggested at a meeting of representatives from political parties that it may dissolve the National League for Democracy, of which Suu Kyi is the leader. It also called on the Ministry of Home Affairs, which has jurisdiction over the police, to investigate whether there have been any cases of political parties violating registration requirements. If such evidence appears, the NLD’s party registration could be revoked. Suu Kyi and the NLD are increasingly likely to vanish from the political stage.

The junta’s dialogue with ASEAN is likely to speed up. After returning from the ASEAN summit in April, Min Aung Hlaing said at a meeting of the State Administration Council, the official name of the junta, that he would “consider accepting envoys once the country was stable.” The focus will be on the timing of when the envoys are accepted and whether they will be able to meet with Suu Kyi. But in any case, the military likely holds the initiative.

According to Reuters, nine ASEAN countries, excluding Myanmar, in mid-May sent a letter to Lichtenstein, which had proposed in the United Nations General Assembly a resolution calling for an arms embargo on Myanmar. The letter expressed opposition to the proposal, indicating the fact that the ASEAN members need to show favorable consideration to the military in order to promote dialogue.

China and Russia, which hold veto power in the U.N. Security Council, are also maintaining their support for the Myanmar military. It is unclear whether the sanctions imposed by Western countries would be effective enough to force the military to change its stance.

There are high expectations on ASEAN to serve as intermediary between the military and the pro-democracy citizens. But even ASEAN, which adheres to the principle of non-interference in countries’ internal affairs, is “not monolithic” internally, according to an ASEAN diplomatic source, and there are no concrete ideas about how to proceed in negotiations with the military.

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