Southeast Asian leaders will hold talks on the Myanmar crisis with the junta leader, Min Aung Hlaing, who has become the center of international outrage over a military coup and crackdown that has left more than 700 dead.
The senior general was expected to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in the Indonesian capital on Saturday, on his first overseas trip since security forces staged a coup that toppled to civil leader Aung San Suu Kyi in early February.
Massive protests by an angry population have been met with brutal repression that has left blood in the streets.
An estimated 250,000 people have been displaced, according to a UN envoy, with Myanmar’s top democratically elected leaders in hiding or under house arrest.
On Saturday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and the Sultan of Brunei, current Asean president, would join leaders and foreign ministers from the majority of the group of 10 countries, which also includes Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Laos.
Protests were expected around Asean’s headquarters, which is surrounded by heavy security. The meeting was to be closed to the media.
The general’s expected participation has angered activists, human rights groups and a government in the shadow of toppled Myanmar lawmakers, which was not invited to the talks.
“The crisis started by a murderous and unrepentant Myanmar army has engulfed the country and will cause serious consequences, humanitarian and more, for the entire region,” Amnesty International said before the meeting.
“The Indonesian authorities have a duty to investigate Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other Myanmar military officers who may join his delegation in Jakarta,” he added.
There has also been calls on the regional bloc to expel Myanmar.
But Asean generally takes a hands-off approach to members’ internal affairs.
Few analysts expected big breakthroughs from the meeting, saying it was instead an opportunity to bring the Myanmar military to the negotiating table and pave the way for a possible resolution.
“We have to be realistic here. I don’t think the summit is going to confirm a complete plan on how to get Myanmar out of the conflict, ”said Mustafa Izzuddin, senior analyst for international affairs at Solaris Strategies Singapore.
“But rather I think it will start the conversation and maybe set the parameters for how a solution could be found.”
UN special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, is expected to be on the sidelines of the summit.
While the EU and Washington have stepped up sanctions against Myanmar to force the military’s hand, Asean is unlikely to scold the coup leaders or demand the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, observers said.
“Asean wants to embrace (Myanmar) so that it can create and safeguard peace in Southeast Asia,” said Beginda Pakpahan, an international relations expert at the University of Indonesia.
“The second goal is to find a long-term solution through constructive engagement.”
But the crisis engulfing Myanmar has challenged the future of the bloc and its consensus-based approach.
“This summit is really a test of ASEAN’s credibility not only within the region but also outside the region,” said Izzuddin.
“International eyes are on him to see if the regional approach that ASEAN has taken to find a resolution in Myanmar is effective.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism