US Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked his Southeast Asian counterparts Wednesday to jointly press for an end to violence in Myanmar, its return to a democratic path, and the release of all political prisoners in a video conference attended by the military-led nation's top diplomat.
In the meeting with Association of Southeast Asian Nations representatives, Blinken also underscored the US rejection of China's “unlawful" claims in the South China Sea and stressed that Washington stands with the nations at odds with Beijing in the sea disputes in the face of China's “coercion.”
Blinken's meeting with the 10-nation bloc also addressed the coronavirus pandemic, State Department spokesman Ned Price said, as surging infections fill hospitals and morgues and further devastate Southeast Asian states once-bustling economies.
Blinken “called on ASEAN to take joint action to urge the end of violence, the restoration of Burma's democratic transition, and the release of all those unjustly detained,” Price said in a statement, using the former name for Myanmar.
The US and European nations have been the most vocal opponents of the military takeover that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government in February. Suu Kyi was arrested and detained with top members of her National League for Democracy party, including President Win Myint.
Last week, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the rights situation in Myanmar has changed from a political crisis to a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe,” adding that nearly 900 people have been killed and 200,000 forced to flee their homes because of military raids.
The World Food Program has estimated that more than 6 million people are in severe need of food aid, she said.
Blinken urged ASEAN to take immediate action “to hold the Burmese regime accountable” to a consensus forged in April by the bloc's heads of state with Myanmar's military leader. The five-point document called for an immediate end to violence and the start of a dialogue among contending parties with a special ASEAN envoy mediating in the talks.
Although highly contentious issues were raised, the two-hour meeting was “very civil,” a Southeast Asian diplomat told The Associated Press. The diplomat was involved in the meeting but spoke on condition of anonymity for lack of an authority to discuss what went on publicly.
It was not immediately clear if Myanmar's military-appointed foreign minister responded to Blinken's concerns or to previous ASEAN demands.
ASEAN member states have given Myanmar officials the names of its possible envoys from Thailand and Indonesia but there has been no response. Two ASEAN representatives who traveled to Myanmar last month asked to meet Suu Kyi and other detainees but were rebuffed, the Southeast Asian diplomat said.
Blinken's meeting with his ASEAN counterparts should have taken place in May but he failed to secure an online connection as he took a flight for an emergency trip to Israel. The bloc's foreign ministers, who waited for nearly an hour, decided to cancel the meeting. The State Department later apologized.
Founded in 1967 in the Cold War era, ASEAN is a diverse collective of democracies and authoritarian states that has become a key battleground for regional influence between the US and China. Along with Myanmar, its members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.