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Malaysian FM: ‘Junta should be more open to ASEAN proposals’

The Myanmar junta should do more to help ASEAN deliver humanitarian aid across the turmoil-hit country, Malaysia’s top diplomat said after meeting in Washington with the Burmese opposition’s foreign minister.

Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah spoke to reporters here on Saturday after his first in-person meeting with Zin Mar Aung, his counterpart from the opposition “shadow” government of Myanmar, made up of elected leaders who were overthrown in a military coup in February 2021.

“I think the junta should be more open to ASEAN proposals, especially in the current situation in helping to distribute the humanitarian assistance,” Saifuddin told a press conference.

“We have to be transparent. We want to make sure that whatever that is distributed will reach the actual target group. What we don’t want to happen is for humanitarian assistance to be weaponized by the junta and used in a certain way that is so discriminatory, that only certain people will receive the assistance.”

The two diplomats met at a hotel near the White House, a day after the leaders of Malaysia and other members of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations met with President Joe Biden and other senior U.S. officials for a special U.S.-ASEAN Summit here.

Saifuddin described his discussion with Zin Mar Aung as a “heart-to-heart” one that focused largely on how to improve the distribution of humanitarian aid inside Myanmar.

Zin Mar Aung, who represents the National Unity Government (NUG) on the world stage, later took to Twitter to post a message about the meeting with Saifuddin.

“Had a productive meeting with Foreign Minister of Malaysia @saifuddinabd about the dire situation in Myanmar, and how the NUG and Malaysia can work together to restore peace and democracy in Myanmar, including humanitarian assistance and support for the Myanmar refugees,” she tweeted on Sunday.

During her visit to Washington, Zin Mar Aung also met with Wendy Sherman, a senior U.S. State Department official who played a prominent role at the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, on the sidelines of that meeting.

Among his ASEAN counterparts, Saifuddin has been leading calls lately for the Southeast Asian bloc to hold informal talks with the National Unity Government.

The Burmese military government, in the meantime, has denounced reports of engagements in the U.S. capital between State Department and NUG officials and has sent protest notes to all ASEAN countries and the United States calling on them to not speak with the shadow government, Reuters reported on Saturday. It cited a statement from the junta-appointed foreign ministry.  

During their meeting, Saifuddin and Zin Mar Aung also discussed the possibility of Malaysia allowing the NUG to open an office in Kuala Lumpur, Saifuddin said, adding this idea had yet to be discussed in detail.

Given the NUG’s prominent role in Myanmar, the opposition government could play an important role in helping deliver and distribute humanitarian aid, Saifuddin said.  

“[W]e have the same understanding that humanitarian assistance must be organized in a certain way that it is transparent. We cannot have only the junta doing the humanitarian assistance,” Saifuddin told reporters.

“Malaysia’s proposal is that you must have a strong presence of international organizations, and the best way is to have organizations under the auspices of the United Nations.”

The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is in Myanmar already, but more needs to be done, according to Saifuddin. Malaysia is proposing that each of ASEAN’s other member-states offer up one NGO to help deliver aid to the Burmese people, he said.

Brutal crackdown

According to human rights groups, at least 1,800 civilians have been killed during a brutal crackdown against opponents of the coup led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the junta chief, who was barred from attending the Washington summit.

ASEAN has been heavily criticized for failing to carry out a five-point consensus that leaders from the bloc as well as the junta chief had agreed to at an emergency summit in Jakarta in April 2021.

Since then, the junta has refused to allow a special envoy from ASEAN to meet with NUG officials during his visits to the country, and which was framed among the five points in the so-called consensus.

At Saturday’s news conference, a reporter asked Saifuddin whether the conditions existed for ASEAN to open informal talks with the NUG.

“I think the conditions [are] already here,” he said. “Now we are saying [that] after one year, nothing [has] moved. Since nothing [has] moved, more people are killed, more people [have] fled the country.”

“We can’t wait for another one year, so we have to be creative,” Saifuddin said. “And this is why we are saying, look, we have been for one year talking to the junta and nothing seems to be moving, so it’s about time we also talk to the NUG, even if it is in an informal way.”

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news service.