Asean rebukes Myanmar over use of force

Ministers express revulsion at tactics used by junta to suppress protests.

ASEAN has taken the unprecedented step of expressing revulsion over Myanmar’s bloody suppression of the pro-democracy demonstrations there.

Asean foreign ministers “expressed their revulsion to Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win over reports that the demonstrations in Myanmar are being suppressed by violent force, and that there have been a number of fatalities”, in a statement after a meeting here on Thursday.

They demanded that the country’s military junta “immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators”.

The Myanmar foreign minister was conspicuously absent from the Asean meeting.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs separately said it was “shocked” after a Singaporean in Yangon told the embassy there that he had been injured by the Myanmar military.

“It appeared that he had been injured by riot control munitions commonly known as ‘rubber bullets’,” the ministry said in a statement.

“It underscores the need for the Myanmar authorities to exercise utmost restraint and desist from the use of force.”

In Yangon yesterday, crowds taunted soldiers and police who barricaded the city centre to prevent more mass protests against 45 years of military rule and deepening economic hardships.

Soldiers clubbed activists and fired tear gas. Troops also occupied Buddhist monasteries and cut public Internet access.

The government seemed intent on clearing the streets of the highly revered saffron-robed monks, who have led the demonstrations, by sealing off key monasteries.

Eliminating their role could embolden troops to intensify crackdowns on remaining civilian protesters, some feared.

Potentially deadly games of cat and mouse went on for hours around the barbed wire barriers in a city terrified of a repeat of 1988, when the army killed an estimated 3,000 people in its crushing of an uprising.

Here in New York, the Asean foreign ministers said that they were appalled that automatic weapons were being used against the protesters in the latest demonstrations.

The ministers strongly urged Myanmar to seek a political solution and national reconciliation, and work towards a peaceful transition to democracy.

They also called for the release of all political detainees, including opposition leader and Nobel Prize laureate Aung Sung Suu Kyii.

“We had a full and frank meeting because the things we had to say and do, we did with a heavy heart,” Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo, the chairman of Asean, told The Straits Times.

“But in the end, the statement protected Asean and enabled ministers to hold their heads up high.”

Clearly, there were deep-seated concerns among the ministers that developments in Myanmar had a serious impact on the reputation and credibility of Asean – a point that was highlighted in the statement.

The rare rebuke suggested a shift away from years of Asean’s policy of non-interference in the affairs of a member state. When asked why such a statement had been issued against another member, Mr Yeo replied: “But the situation is unprecedented. Not since 1988 has the situation reached such a heated moment.”

The Myanmar government claims that 10 people have been killed since the violence began earlier this week. Dissident groups have put the number as high as 200. The dead included a Japanese journalist.

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