By Panu Wongcha-um and Orathai Sriring
BANGKOK, June 18 (Reuters) – Thailand’s caretaker government was preparing to host talks with the foreign minister of Myanmar’s military junta on Monday, a day later than planned, as key Southeast Asian nations signalled they would stay away from the divisive meeting.
Bangkok has been pushing to reengage with Myanmar’s generals – who have been locked in conflict with armed opposition militias since seizing power in a 2021 coup – in the face of opposition from other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has barred the junta from senior level meetings.
Thailand, whose prime minister himself first took power in a coup, sent out an invitation just four days ago to ASEAN foreign ministers, inviting them to what it said would be an informal meeting starting on Sunday.
The invitation, seen by Reuters and verified by two sources, referenced a proposal at an earlier summit “that it was time for ASEAN to fully re-engage Myanmar at the leaders’ level”.
Myanmar’s junta-appointed Foreign Minister Than Swe is to attend the talks, two sources with knowledge of the meeting told Reuters.
Late on Sunday, the Thai foreign ministry released a statement saying the “informal dialogue” would start on Monday. It would not amount to a formal ASEAN meeting, the ministry said, but would “help support ASEAN’s efforts” to end the violence in Myanmar.
The statement said the talks are “expected to be attended by high-level representatives from Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, India, China, Brunei, and Vietnam” but did not elaborate on exactly who would attend. It did not say why the date had changed.
Myanmar’s generals have been barred for nearly two years from senior-level ASEAN meetings for failing to honour an agreement to start talks with opponents linked to the ousted civilian government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
She is now imprisoned along with hundreds of other former government officials and anti-military activists. The junta says it is fighting terrorists who aim to destroy the country.
Thailand’s outgoing Foreign Minister, Don Pramudwinai, touted the initiative in an interview with local news outlet Matichon.
“The current situation has changed a lot. There is now more fighting within Myanmar,” he was quoted as saying. “Myanmar also has a roadmap leading to elections… These things have given us the need to continue our interactions with Myanmar.”
Critics of Thailand’s initiative say it risks legitimising Myanmar’s military government and is inappropriate because it is outside the official ASEAN peace initiative, known as the “five-point consensus”.
Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, said on Friday “it would be premature to re-engage with the junta at a summit level or even at a foreign minister level”.
Malaysia said it would not be attending. The Philippines, which did not respond to questions over the weekend, is seen as firmly in the camp of isolating Myanmar’s generals.
India and China are not ASEAN members but as regional powers have attended other informal meetings on Myanmar.
Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government (NUG), made up of loyalists to Suu Kyi’s ousted administration, condemned the Thai initiative.
“Inviting the illegitimate junta to this discussion will not contribute to the resolution of Myanmar’s political crisis,” it said in a statement on Saturday.
Malaysia’s former foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, also criticised the Thai-hosted talks on his Twitter account.
“Thailand is calling ASEAN countries to fully engage with the Myanmar junta leaders in an informal meeting. @ASEAN must stop this nonsense!” he tweeted, adding that the regional grouping should support the official five-point peace process.
A group of 81 Myanmar activist groups released an open letter on Sunday condemning the “secretive initiative”, saying it was in “blatant contradiction” with ASEAN’s policy of excluding junta officials to high-level meetings.