Myanmar junta leader set to join ASEAN summit

YANGON (AFP) – Junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing is set to join Southeast Asian leaders at a special summit in Jakarta next week, the Thai Foreign Ministry said yesterday, in what will be the coup leader’s first official trip since the military deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Since the February 1 coup, Myanmar has been in turmoil – with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets to demand a return to democracy.

The junta has sought to quell the anti-coup movement with lethal force, killing more than 720 people and detaining some 3,100 activists, journalists and dissidents, according to a local monitoring group.

The international community has largely condemned the junta for its use of force against unarmed civilians – deploying targetted sanctions against top military brass, their families and army-linked businesses.

But regional leaders have sought to open communications with the regime, and yesterday Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed a summit in Jakarta over Myanmar’s situation will include Min Aung Hlaing.

“Several leaders have confirmed their attendance including Myanmar’s MAH (Min Aung Hlaing),” said spokesman Tanee Sangrat in a message to reporters.

The meeting of the 10-country bloc of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is expected to address the ongoing crisis in post-coup Myanmar, and will be on April 24 in Jakarta.

Myanmar military chief General Min Aung Hlaing. PHOTO: AFP

The junta has consistently justified the putsch by alleging widespread fraud in November’s elections, which Suu Kyi’s party had won in a landslide.

The military said it will hand back power to a civilian administration after elections are held in about a year – though they recently extended the timeline to a two-year period.

News of the junta leader’s attendance comes the same day the country’s prisons are set to release more than 23,000 prisoners nationwide.

Myanmar typically grants an annual amnesty to thousands of prisoners to mark its traditional New Year holiday – which in previous years have been joyous affairs with city-wide water fights.

But this year, anti-coup activists have used the holiday as an opportunity to protest the growing death toll and mass arrests.

A prison official told AFP on condition of anonymity that jails across the country will start freeing more than 23,000 people.

“We will release more than 800 prisoners from Insein prison” in commercial hub Yangon, he added, declining to elaborate.

In February, the junta released a similar number of prisoners, with some rights groups at the time fearing the move was to free up space for opponents of the military as well as cause chaos in communities.

Just before Armed Forces Day, the regime also freed around 900 jailed demonstrators.