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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold up a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi and raise three-finger salutes, during a demonstration to mark the second anniversary of Myanmar’s 2021 military coup, outside the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok, Thailand, February 1, 2023. REU

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BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand on Monday hosts talks aimed at re-engaging Myanmar’s shunned military leaders though important Southeast Asian neighbours are staying away from a gathering critics view as undermining regional unity on the strife-torn country’s crisis.

Myanmar’s generals have been barred from high-level meetings of the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) since they seized power in a 2021 coup and unleashed violence on those who challenged their takeover.

The outgoing Thai military-backed government has invited ASEAN foreign ministers, including the one appointed by Myanmar’s junta, to discuss a proposal for the regional bloc to “fully re-engage Myanmar at the leaders’ level”, according to an invitation seen by Reuters and verified by sources.

Thailand’s foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, who called the meeting, told broadcaster Thai PBS an interview aired on Monday that Myanmar’s crisis was sending refugees across their common border and had hit trade hard.

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“Thailand is the most affected if we let this prolong,” Don said. “We can say that Thailand is the only country in ASEAN that wants to see the problems end as soon as possible, which will be beneficial to us.”

Myanmar’s junta-appointed foreign minister, Than Swe, is due to join the talks, two sources with knowledge of the meeting told Reuters.

But some ASEAN members have declined to attend and others are only sending junior officials.

Indonesia, which as the current ASEAN chair has for months been trying to engage key stakeholders in Myanmar’s conflict in an effort to kick-start a peace process, has declined to join the talks.Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the latest meeting of the bloc had “arrived at no consensus to re-engage or develop new approaches to the Myanmar issue”, according to a letter seen by Reuters and verified by a source.

ASEAN FRUSTRATION

The military took over in Myanmar in 1962, isolating it for decades until a tentative opening up began in 2011. But its experiment with democracy, which included elections swept by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, came to end when the military ousted her government, reimposed strict military rule and crushed protests.

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With Myanmar again drawing Western condemnation and sanctions, ASEAN came up with a five-point plan, including an end to violence, dialogue and humanitarian assistance, but Myanmar’s generals have ignored ASEAN’s effort to the increasing frustration of the bloc.

Malaysia’s foreign minister has also declined to attend the Thai talks, saying it remained supportive of the efforts being undertaken by Indonesia. His ministry suggested the Thai effort undermined ASEAN unity.

“It is important that ASEAN demonstrates its unity in support of the ASEAN Chair and ASEAN processes which are in line with the mandate and decisions made by the ASEAN leaders,” the Malaysian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Cambodia on Monday said Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who last year served as an ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar, would be represented by his deputy. The government had on Friday said Prak Sokhonn would lead the Cambodian delegation.


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