Thailand justifies talks with Myanmar as key ASEAN members stay away

BANGKOK (Reuters) -Thailand on Monday justified hosting talks aimed at re-engaging with Myanmar’s shunned military, saying dialogue was necessary to protect its border with the strife-torn country, even as top diplomats of key Southeast Asian neighbours stayed away.

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

But Thailand’s outgoing military-backed government invited ASEAN foreign ministers, including that of Myanmar, to discuss a proposal for the bloc to “fully re-engage Myanmar at the leaders’ level”, according to an invitation seen by Reuters and verified by sources.

Critics see the meeting as undermining a unified ASEAN approach to the Myanmar crisis, centred on a peace plan agreed with the junta two years ago. But Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, himself a former coup leader, said direct talks were necessary to protect his country.

“We suffer more than others because Thailand has more than 3,000-km shared land border as well as a maritime border,” Prayuth told reporters. “That is why the talks are necessary. It is not about taking sides.”

His foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, earlier said Myanmar’s crisis was creating refugees problems and hitting trade hard.

“We can say that Thailand is the only country in ASEAN that wants to see the problems end as soon as possible,” he told broadcaster Thai PBS.

Other ASEAN countries “should be thanking us,” he said.

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

According to two other knowledgeable sources, the foreign ministers of Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia did not attend, with some sending junior representation.

Other than Myanmar and host Thailand, Laos was the only country to send its top diplomat, they said.


Indonesia as ASEAN chair has for months been trying to advance the peace process by engaging key stakeholders in Myanmar’s conflict.

Its foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, said ASEAN 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.

The military took over in Myanmar in 1962 and suppressed all opposition for decades until it launched a tentative opening up 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 and crushed pro-democracy protests.

With Myanmar again drawing Western condemnation and sanctions, ASEAN drew up a five-point peace plan, including an end to violence, humanitarian access and dialogue involving all stakeholders, but Myanmar’s generals have not delivered, frustrating the bloc.

Malaysia’s foreign ministry in a statement said it was important for ASEAN demonstrates unity in support of Indonesia’s effort.

Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, told a press conference in Singapore with his U.S. counterpart last week that it was “premature to re-engage with the junta” at a high level. It was not immediately clear on Monday if an official from Singapore was attending the talks in Thailand.

An organisation of Southeast Asian lawmakers, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, called the talks a “betrayal of the Myanmar people and an affront to ASEAN unity”.

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Devjyot Ghoshal in Bangkok, Ananda Teresia in Jakarta, Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Kay Johnson, Robert Birsel, Martin Petty and Alistair Bell)