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Southeast Asian leaders will appoint an envoy to mediate talks between "all parties” in Myanmar, one of the most concrete moves yet aimed at ending months of violence since a Feb. 1 coup that has seen the military regime kill hundreds of pro-democracy protesters.

Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing agreed to the dialogue process at a special summit on Saturday of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has come under increasing pressure to take action to end the bloodshed. The leaders reached consensus on an "immediate cessation of violence,” according to a statement released after the meeting.

"There is an echo of distress among ASEAN member states to learn, on a daily basis, what is unfolding in Myanmar,” Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said at the meeting in Jakarta. "Many around the world want an explanation, and we are finding it increasingly tough to explain. The international community expects ASEAN to act and address what is happening in our very own backyard.”

The move to appoint a special envoy is unusual for ASEAN, which traditionally has avoided direct interventions into domestic political disputes. Still, it remains unclear if the military regime will release Aung San Suu Kyi and other detained civilian leaders, or if the junta will alter a plan to hold a fresh election in early 2022 following a yearlong period of emergency rule.

Myanmar’s pro-democracy National Unity Government, a parallel administration formed earlier this month by Suu Kyi’s allies, called the ASEAN statement "encouraging news.”

"We look forward to firm action by ASEAN to follow up its decisions and to restore our democracy and freedom for our people and for the region,” Dr. Sasa, the unity government’s spokesperson who goes by one name, said in a statement.

Myanmar’s military has struggled to take control of the country since the coup, killing more than 700 people in a bid to end a widespread civil disobedience movement comprising students, civil servants and even diplomats. The unrest has sent the economy into free-fall, with persistent work stoppages disrupting business and foreign investors spurning the country.

While the U.S., U.K. and European Union have put targeted sanctions on Myanmar’s generals and army-connected companies, Asian nations have largely avoided measures that would hit the military’s finances even while condemning the violence to varying degrees.

Demonstrators calling for democracy in Myanmar take part in a rally outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations building in Jakarta on Saturday.  | AFP-JIJI
Demonstrators calling for democracy in Myanmar take part in a rally outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations building in Jakarta on Saturday. | AFP-JIJI

At the summit on Saturday, ASEAN leaders "expressed our deep concern on the situation in the country, including reports of fatalities and escalation of violence,” according to the statement. It said the ASEAN envoy would visit Myanmar but didn’t provided a time-frame or specify who would join the talks.

The statement also stopped short of mentioning Suu Kyi by name, and a five-point consensus didn’t include the release of dissidents, with the statement only saying "we also heard calls for the release of all political prisoners including foreigners.”

The word "coup” wasn’t mentioned.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said he "conveyed the importance of the Myanmar military leadership to make a commitment to ending the use of force by the Myanmar military.”

"At the same time, all parties must exercise restraint so that tensions can be defused,” he added.

Ahead of the meeting, Western nations and international organizations had called for tougher action from Asian countries on Myanmar, including imposing sanctions on companies with ties to the military. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield earlier this month called on ASEAN countries "to review their financial and other linkages to the military.”

In Myanmar on Sunday, residents were critical of the ASEAN consensus, saying it fell short of restoring democracy and holding the army accountable for hundreds of civilian deaths.

There were no immediate protests in Myanmar's big cities a day after the meeting, but several people took to social media to criticize the deal.

"ASEAN's statement is a slap on the face of the people who have been abused, killed and terrorized by the military," said a Facebook user called Mawchi Tun. "We do not need your help with that mindset and approach."

"Statement doesn't reflect any of people's desires," wrote Nang Thit Lwin in a comment on a news story in domestic Myanmar media on the ASEAN deal. "To release prisoners and detainees, to take responsibility for dead lives, to respect election results and restore democratic civilian government."

Aaron Htwe, another Facebook user, wrote: "Who will pay the price for the over 700 innocent lives."

Besides the junta chief, the leaders of Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Brunei were at the meeting, along with the foreign ministers of Laos, Thailand and the Philippines.

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