Indonesian foreign minister to visit Myanmar as pressure mounts on generals

Protest against the military coup, in Yangon
FILE PHOTO: An armoured vehicle is seen on a street during a protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, February 14, 2021. Picture taken February 14, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

February 23, 2021

(Reuters) – Indonesia’s foreign minister plans to fly to Myanmar on Thursday in the first known visit by a foreign envoy since the Feb. 1 military coup, a leaked government document said, as Western pressure mounts over a crackdown on protesters.

Retno Marsudi will arrive in the capital Naypyitaw in the morning and depart several hours later, according to the letter from the Ministry of Transport dated Feb. 23 seen by Reuters, which an official said was authentic.

Retno has been rallying support in Southeast Asia for a special meeting on Myanmar and sources said Jakarta proposed the region sends monitors to ensure the generals hold “fair and inclusive elections”.

The proposal was met with anger from some of the protesters, who are demanding the immediate release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and recognition of the November polls won by her party.

Hundreds gathered outside Indonesia’s embassy in Yangon on Tuesday to voice their opposition to the election proposal.

The meeting in Myanmar prompted scepticism from some Twitter users and The Future Nation Alliance, a Myanmar-based activist group, said in a statement a visit by Retno would be “tantamount to recognising the military junta”.

The group demanded foreign officials meet with Htin Lin Aung, a representative of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), formed by ousted lawmakers, who has been appointed the “sole responsible official for foreign relations”.

“We strongly oppose and condemn Indonesia for sending a government envoy to Burma for official communications with the coup regime,” the statement said.

An Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman said Retno was in Thailand and may travel to other countries in the region afterwards but could not confirm which. Earlier, he said a new election was not Indonesia’s position.

The move emerged as the leader of the new junta called for energetic efforts to revive an ailing economy and Western countries considered more sanctions.

A general strike shut businesses on Monday and huge crowds gathered to denounce the military’s Feb. 1 coup and demand the release of Suu Kyi and her allies, despite a warning from authorities that confrontation could get people killed.

The Group of Seven (G7) rich nations on Tuesday condemned intimidation and oppression of those opposing the coup. “Anyone responding to peaceful protests with violence must be held to account,” group foreign ministers said in a joint statement.

‘AILING ECONOMY’

Protesters gathered again on Tuesday though in much smaller numbers. There were also small marches in favour of the military, media reported.

There were no reports of violence.

Military chief General Min Aung Hlaing, in a meeting with his ruling council on Monday, called for state spending and imports to be cut and exports increased.

“The council needs to put its energy into reviving the country’s ailing economy. Economic remedy measures must be taken,” state media quoted him a saying.

The army seized power after alleging fraud in Nov. 8 elections, detaining Suu Kyi and much of the party leadership. The electoral commission dismissed the fraud complaints.

The crisis raises the prospect of isolation and investor jitters just as the COVID-19 pandemic has undermined consumption and choked off tourism.

Min Aung Hlaing did not link the protests directly to economic problems but said the authorities were following a democratic path in dealing with them and police were using minimal force, such as rubber bullets, state media reported.

The security forces have shown more restraint compared with earlier crackdowns against people who had pushed for democracy during almost half a century of direct military rule.

Even so, three protesters have been shot and killed. The army has said one policeman died of injuries sustained during the protests.

The military has accused protesters of provoking violence but U.N. Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said the millions who marched on Monday in a “breathtaking” turnout showed they were prepared to face up to military threats.

“The generals are losing their power to intimidate and with it, their power. It is past time for them to stand down, as the people of Myanmar stand up,” Andrews said on Twitter.

SANCTIONS

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Tuesday called for restoring the “legitimate civilian government”, adding: “There, as everywhere, democracy must prevail

The European Union said it was considering sanctions that would target businesses owned by the army, but the bloc ruled out any curtailing its trade preferences to avoid hurting poor workers.

“We are not prepared to stand by and watch,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in Brussels on Monday.

Singapore’s central bank said it had not found significant funds from Myanmar in banks in Singapore but warned them to remain vigilant to any transactions with companies and individuals subject to sanctions.

The United States imposed sanctions on two more members of the junta and warned it could take more action. It had already placed sanctions on Myanmar’s acting president, several military officers and three companies in the jade and gems sector.

Myanmar’s giant neighbour China, which has traditionally taken a softer line, said any international action should contribute to stability, promote reconciliation and avoid complicating the situation, media reported.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies, Robert Birsel and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Stephen Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore and Philippa Fletcher)