The army general, who has ruled Myanmar since his civilian government was overthrown, arrived in Indonesia on Saturday for a meeting with leaders of other Southeast Asian nations after some of them expressed concern over the army’s murder of hundreds of democracy protesters had.
It was the first time since the February 1 coup that Army Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing had set out outside Myanmar. Critics feared his presence with heads of state at the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would create the appearance of legitimacy.
Myanmar politicians, who have formed what is known as a government of national unity, this week called on Interpol and the Indonesian police to arrest the general upon arrival in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, for crimes against humanity, including the ethnic cleansing campaign, the more than 730,000 Rohingya expelled Muslims out of the country in 2017.
The National Unity Government, which claims it is the legitimate government of Myanmar, asked the 10-nation regional association known as Asean to give it a seat at the summit and refuse to meet with General Min Aung Hlaing until he stops killing civilians.
“Meetings that exclude the people of Myanmar but involve the killer Min Aung Hlaing, who murders the people of Myanmar, is unlikely to be helpful,” said group spokesman Dr. Sasa, who has only one name, in a statement on Friday.
Many leaders of the National Unity Government were elected to parliament in November and would have taken office on the day of the coup.
A statement from the Indonesian government announcing the arrival of General Min Aung Hlaing identified him as the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military rather than the country’s leader.
The talks later on Saturday, billed as a meeting of heads of state and government, were intended to focus solely on the situation in Myanmar. The meeting was announced just days before officials arrived in Indonesia.
Since taking power, the military has quelled protests across Myanmar by arresting elected leaders, shooting civilians on the street, beating people, and raiding and looting homes. As of Saturday, soldiers and police had killed at least 745 people and arrested more than 3,300, according to a human rights group that has been persecuting the chaos.
The junta has issued arrest warrants for more than 1,100 other people. It was announced on Thursday that all 24 cabinet ministers and deputy ministers of the National Unity Government had been charged with treason and unlawful association.
The United States and the European Union have imposed targeted sanctions on regime leaders and military-owned companies, but diplomatic efforts to stop the killing have been unsuccessful. The United Nations Security Council, which China and Russia can count on to support the Myanmar regime, has taken no action.
Asean, which has a policy of non-interference in member state affairs, issued a statement in March “calling on all parties not to incur further violence”, seemingly ignoring the one-sided nature of the killings.
Participants at the summit on Saturday included the heads of state and government of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Brunei. The Philippines, Thailand and Laos were expected to send representatives.
The governments of Indonesia and Malaysia have separately voiced their concerns about the coup, and Indonesia played a leading role in convening the meeting.
Some Asean members, including Singapore and Thailand, have close business ties with Myanmar and its military, the Tatmadaw, which owns two of the country’s largest conglomerates.
Three Asean members, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, sent representatives on March 27 to celebrate Armed Forces Day in Tatmadaw. On that day, soldiers and police killed at least 160 demonstrators in their largest one-day rampage since the coup.
Some of the Asean member states may be reluctant to speak up about their own human rights abuses, such as the slaughter of thousands in the Philippines in the war on drugs and Vietnam’s practice of sentencing dissidents to long prison terms.
Asean stood ready in 2017 when the Tatmadaw waged a ruthless campaign of murder, rape and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims who fled in large numbers across the non-Asean border into Bangladesh. Almost all Rohingya refugees are still there, living in poor, overcrowded camps.
As Commander in Chief of the Tatmadaw, General Min Aung Hlaing oversaw the military operations against the Rohingya.
International human rights groups urged Asean not to meet with the general. Rather, they said the group should impose sanctions on the leaders of the junta, press for the release of detainees and seek an end to the killings.
“Min Aung Hlaing, who faces international sanctions for his role in military atrocities and brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, should not be welcomed at an intergovernmental meeting to deal with a crisis he has caused,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.