By Wilawan Watcharasakwet and Ronna Nirmala
The U.N.’s special envoy on Myanmar met behind closed doors with Thailand’s leader Friday, trying to find solutions to the Burmese crisis, as ASEAN dithered on naming its emissary to the coup-ridden country, which has already blocked the proposed visit.
Christine Schraner Burgener, the United Nations envoy, told Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-c-cha in Bangkok that she hoped Thailand could work with Myanmar’s junta to restore peace in that country, where close to 800 people have been killed since the military overthrew an elected government in a February coup.
“I held very constructive talks today in [Bangkok] with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai on a peaceful solution in Myanmar in the interest of the people,” Schraner Burgener said via Twitter.
According to a Thai government spokesman, the U.N. envoy said she was meeting Prayuth as part of her on-going negotiations on Myanmar with officials from countries in the region. Last month, Schraner Burgener held talks with leaders – including Burmese junta chief Min Aung Hlaing – on the sidelines of a special summit on Myanmar convened in Jakarta by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“She said she hoped that Thailand would seek cooperation from Myanmar’s armed forces to find a peaceful solution,” Anucha Burapachaisri, the government spokesman, said in a statement.
Prayuth told the U.N. envoy that Thailand supports attempts to ease the situation in Myanmar, the statement said.
Prayuth, a former army chief who engineered his own coup in 2014, is said to be close to the Myanmar military. Thailand and Myanmar are both members of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc.
U.N. envoy Schraner Burgener has been in Thailand since early April to monitor the situation in neighboring Myanmar and speak to ASEAN members on how best to end the post-coup violence.
Myanmar security forces have killed at least 788 people – mostly anti-coup protesters – since the Feb. 1 military takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based Myanmar human rights group.
ASEAN envoy ‘nowhere to be seen’
Meanwhile, there is no sign of an ASEAN envoy, three weeks after the bloc’s members agreed to appoint a special emissary to go to Myanmar to talk to all parties involved in the turmoil. At their meeting in the Indonesian capital on April 24, ASEAN leaders and top diplomats hammered out a so-called consensus on Myanmar.
In addition to naming an envoy and agreeing to allow that person to visit Myanmar, the ASEAN consensus called for an immediate end to violence, constructive dialogue among all parties and the provision of humanitarian assistance coordinated by the bloc.
But the consensus began to unravel almost immediately. The Myanmar junta did not stop the violence and has continued to turn its guns on protesters.
On April 26, the junta chief said he would act on the ASEAN agreement only after there was “stability” in the country.
The next day, the parallel civilian government said it would not participate in talks with the military unless the more than 3,000 political prisoners were freed. No one from the parallel government was invited to the ASEAN meeting on Myanmar.
Then on May 7, the Myanmar’s junta said it would not agree to a visit by the ASEAN envoy until it could establish stability in the country.
On Tuesday, Singapore’s top diplomat said the bloc needed to immediately implement the consensus reached in Jakarta.
“This will not be an easy process. The cooperation of the Tatmadaw [the Myanmar armed forces] will be needed,” Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said while answering questions in parliament, according to an official transcript.
The junta’s “contemptuous” response to the ASEAN agreement shows the limits of the consensus-based decision-making process that the bloc “prides itself on,” said Marzuki Darusman, former chair of a United Nations fact-finding mission on Myanmar.
“While ASEAN was giving Min Aung Hlaing the red-carpet treatment in Jakarta, people were still dying on the streets defending democracy,” he wrote in an op-ed piece in the Bangkok Post earlier this week.
An ASEAN envoy to Myanmar is “nowhere to be seen, nor is the purported dialogue involving the opposition,” Darusman said.
“If Myanmar is the ultimate test for ASEAN’s ability to solve crises, it is one it is currently failing.”
On Friday, the Bangkok Post echoed that criticism in an editorial.
The world is once again looking to ASEAN “to see how it will respond to this challenge,” the editorial said.
“So far, there has been no significant move by the bloc; rather, a collective silence which is a letdown. If anything, it might give Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing the false impression that the region condones his behavior.”
Still, ASEAN must forge ahead with naming an envoy and “put the ball in the court of the military leader,” Ong Keng Yong of the Nanyang Technological University Singapore, said during an online discussion held by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore on Friday.
An envoy’s visit to Myanmar “has to happen soon,” Bruneian Foreign Minister II Erywan Yusof said at the discussion, in pre-recorded remarks.
He did not say how long it would take to name an envoy. He did not say either that the ASEAN chair and secretary general would visit Myanmar in the coming days, as some regional news sites had reported.
Prayuth and the Burmese military
Separately, a report in Japan’s Nikkei Asia on Wednesday cited an unnamed high-level source as saying that Thailand has “maintained back channels, and [Prayuth and Min Aung Hlaing] can communicate without having to meet.”
The reference was to criticism of Prayuth having skipped the special ASEAN leaders’ meeting on Myanmar on April 24. Many analysts had said the Thai PM did not go to the meeting because he was close to Myanmar’s junta chief.
“The PM does not have to attend the ASEAN summit to engage with [Min Aung Hlaing],” the source told Nikkei Asia.
Prayuth chose Myanmar as the first foreign country to visit after he seized power in May 2014, and four years later, Thailand awarded Min Aung Hlaing a royal decoration.
Some analysts said this this week that if anyone could convince Myanmar’s junta to stop the violence, that would be Prayuth.
“Prayuth should use these links to make clear that the price of Tatmadaw intransigence is too high for Thailand and ASEAN. He should pressure Min Aung Hlaing to back down,” John Blaxland, professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at Australia’s ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, said on Twitter.
“Prayuth has agency. He just needs resolve.”