The meeting between the Malaysian ambassador to Myanmar and a military government minister yesterday was to convey a decision of a Petronas subsidiary operating in the country to suspend operations temporarily, Wisma Putra said today.
The Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs added that the meeting was not to be construed as any form of recognition of the State Administration Council (SAC), which now runs Myanmar following a military coup on February 1 to replace the country’s democratically elected government.
The meeting drew criticism from MPs, who said it sent wrong messages and was totally inappropriate at this time as it contradicted regional and national opposition to the junta regime.
Images circulated on social media today showed Malaysian ambassador Zahairi Baharim meeting the junta’s Electricity and Energy Minister Aung Than Oo in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw.
Wisma Putra said the meeting was to tell the ministry that Petronas Carigali Myanmar (Hong Kong) Limited (PCML), a subsidiary of Petronas, is suspending temporarily the upstream operations of the Yetagun gas project.
“Malaysia’s position on Myanmar is clear and consistent. We have persistently called for an immediate end to violence, unconditional and immediate release of political detainees, and resumption of an inclusive dialogue involving all concerned parties for a political transition and peaceful settlement of the ongoing crisis in the interest of Myanmar and her people,” Wisma Putra said.
Clips of the meeting aired on a TV station owned by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military), snapshots of which were tweeted by Free Rohingya Coalition co-founder Ro Nay San Lwin, have since gone viral.
According to Ro Nay, Zahairi is the first Asean ambassador to have a meeting with the junta.
However, it should be noted that representatives from Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam were present at a Tatmadaw parade in the Myanmar capital two weeks ago.
Southeast Asia political analyst Bridget Welsh said Zahairi’s meeting with Oo gave legitimacy to the junta.
“This endorsement of the government engaged in crimes against humanity conflicts with other statements by Malaysian leaders and speaks to a worrying shift in Asean,” she tweeted.
A spokesperson for the Milk Tea Alliance Network for Malaysia likewise told Malaysiakini that the meeting legitimised the junta and was also confusing.
“It’s confusing as Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has been playing a leading role with Brunei to organise Asean conversations around the killings in Myanmar, MPs have called for the removal of Myanmar’s Asean membership and Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has condemned the coup – all good things but (the ambassador’s meeting) confuses things,” the spokesperson added.
The Milk Tea Alliance is a loose coalition of pro-democracy activists from across Southeast Asia and East Asia that is slowly expanding across the world.
Klang MP Charles Santiago said the meeting sent mixed messages at a time when the rest of Southeast Asia was working to find a solution to the political unrest in Myanmar.
Hundreds of peaceful protesters are reported to have died at the hands of the military, with thousands more detained.
“It sends the wrong message to Asean because other countries will think that while we talk about rule of law, a return to democracy, etc, here is our ambassador doing something else,” he told FMT, adding that the visit seemed to offer legitimacy to the regime.
He said that it signalled to the Myanmar army that Malaysia was willing to work with them, although Muhyiddin has said he stood with the rest of the region in support of finding a peaceful solution to the crisis, backing calls from Indonesian president Joko Widodo for an emergency summit involving regional leaders.
“If I were the foreign minister (Hishammuddin Hussein), I would recall the ambassador and replace him,” Santiago said, stating that the envoy’s actions were not line with the country’s position.
“The question is, does the foreign minister have control over his ambassadors? Clearly, the answer is ‘no’ because he is acting inconsistently with the message put out by his own government and ministry.”
Subang MP Wong Chen called the meeting “absolutely inappropriate”.
Former ambassador Dennis Ignatius said it was time for Malaysia and Asean to deliver an ultimatum to the junta to restore Myanmar’s democratically-elected government – or be expelled from Asean.
“It is simply scandalous that Malaysia and other Asean countries have not come out more forcefully against Myanmar’s military regime.
“How many more lives have to be lost before Asean finds the courage and the moral conscience to act?
“And if Asean does not have the courage of its convictions to do so, Malaysia must act alone and immediately break off diplomatic relations with Myanmar,” he told Malaysiakini.