BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Southeast Asian nations urged restraint and a halt to further violence in Myanmar, where clashes between security forces and protestors since the February 1 military coup has left at least 21 people dead.

ASEAN foreign ministers held an online meeting on Tuesday — their first since the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi — calling for “a peaceful solution through constructive dialogue” and expressed the bloc’s readiness to help Myanmar return to normalcy.

“We expressed our concern on the situation in Myanmar and called on all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility,” read a statement issued by Brunei, this year’s ASEAN chair.

“We also called on all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution, through constructive dialogue, and practical reconciliation in the interests of the people and their livelihood.

“In this regard, we expressed ASEAN’s readiness to assist Myanmar in a positive, peaceful and constructive manner.”

The virtual meeting, chaired by Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs YB Dato Seri Setia Hj Erywan PDPJ Hj Md Yusof, was attended by all 10 ASEAN foreign ministers, including Myanmar’s military-appointed envoy Wunna Maung Lwin.

During the videoconference, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore called for the release of Myanmar’s political detainees — including Suu Kyi — while Singapore also proposed that the UN special envoy on Myanmar facilitate dialogue between the country’s rival factions.

ASEAN efforts ‘meaningless’ unless junta willing to engage

The toppling of Myanmar’s civilian government — and the violent crackdown on protesters that followed — is ASEAN’s most serious political crisis in years, with the grouping under increasing pressure to deal with the issue.

Indonesia’s foreign minister, who has been pushing a regional diplomatic effort to come up with a solution to the crisis, urged Myanmar to “open its doors” to ASEAN.

“The ASEAN meeting is held to discuss and find a solution, but it takes two to tango,” Retno Marsudi told reporters after the foreign ministers’ meeting.

“ASEAN’s good intentions and readiness will be meaningless if Myanmar does not open its door for ASEAN.”

Retno called for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar, while pledging that ASEAN countries would not break their pledge of not interfering in each other’s affairs.

“At the same time, upholding and implementing values of democracy, respect of human rights, good governance, rule of law and constitutional government are equally important,” she said.

“If ASEAN fails to uphold and implement these principles, Indonesia is concerned that ASEAN will not be able to fully serve its people, which would hinder the aspiration to build an ASEAN Community.”

Lack of unity on Myanmar would ‘undermine’ ASEAN’s standing

Singapore’s top diplomat also warned that lack of ASEAN unity on Myanmar would undermine the group’s standing.

“It would not be credible for us to meet under the scrutiny of the whole world and not be able to issue a statement to convey publicly and officially our views on this distressing and tragic situation in Myanmar occurring right now,” Vivian Balakrishnan said while addressing ministers in the meeting.

The foreign minister said Singapore was “appalled” by the use of lethal force against unarmed protestors, but admitted that ASEAN could not do much unless Myanmar’s military leaders were willing to work with ASEAN to de-escalate tensions.

He added that Singapore did not support broad-based economic sanctions against Myanmar, such as those imposed by the US and UK.

“Foreign investors, including in Singapore, are beginning to re-evaluate their investments in Myanmar’s economy. This will inevitably impact the welfare and the livelihood of the people of Myanmar and the long-term development of Myanmar,” he said. “You would understand why the weight of expectation and hope lies now on the shoulders of the military authorities.”

Meanwhile, Malaysian foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein asked Myanmar to consider visits to the country by the ASEAN secretary-general and a representative from Brunei.

Myanmar’s coup comes just five years after the country saw a peaceful transition to a democratically-elected government following 50 years of military rule. ⠀

The military justified the coup saying there was wide-scale fraud in the November election won by Suu Kyi’s party, but the election commission rejected this claim.

Since the army seized control, people have taken to the streets by the thousands, leading to security forces using water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition to try to disperse protesters.

At least 21 people have died in the clashes, while more than 1,100 people have been detained, according to activists.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has pledged to hold new elections and hand power to the winner but has given no time frame.