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Thailand Defends Divisive Myanmar Junta Talks

FILE - Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, March 20, 2023.
FILE - Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, March 20, 2023.

Thailand on Monday defended hosting talks with the Myanmar junta that have split the regional bloc leading diplomatic efforts to end the chaos engulfing the country since the military seized power.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since a February 2021 coup that ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with more than 3,600 civilians killed in the military's crackdown on dissent, according to a monitoring group.

The generals have been barred from high-level meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc, of which Myanmar is a member.

But Thailand's caretaker government, which is dominated by army-linked parties, last week invited junta foreign minister Than Shwe to the informal two-day meeting.

The move has split ASEAN and drawn criticism that it is undermining the bloc's efforts to tackle the crisis.

However, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha said the talks were needed.

"We suffer more than others because we share more than 3,000 kilometres of land and sea border with Myanmar," Prayut told reporters.

"We need to talk, otherwise people will be affected. Today is just a meeting, we did not agree on anything."

Indonesia and Malaysia, among the junta's harshest critics within ASEAN, snubbed the meeting, while Singapore warned it was premature to engage the junta at such a high level.

Cambodia sent a junior foreign ministry official while China, long a key supporter of the Myanmar military, dispatched Deng Xijun, its special envoy for Asian affairs.

The split is a fresh blow to ASEAN's already faltering efforts to defuse the crisis.

No progress has been made towards implementing a five-point peace plan agreed on two years ago and the last ASEAN summit, in May, ended without any significant progress on the matter.

Fighting between the army and rebel groups in Myanmar has periodically sent thousands of people fleeing across the border into Thailand.

Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said the kingdom was suffering the effects of the crisis more than other countries in the region.

"Thailand is the only country that wants to find a solution," he told reporters.

"None of the other ASEAN members care as much as us."

Prayut, a former army chief who himself seized power in a coup in 2014, suffered a heavy defeat at last month's Thai general election but is still in the post in a caretaker capacity.

A senior Southeast Asian official familiar with the matter told AFP at the weekend they suspected the outgoing Thai government was trying to find a way to persuade ASEAN to let Myanmar attend high-level meetings again.