U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed to his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations his strong concerns about the military coup in Myanmar and called on ASEAN to urge the junta toward restoring democracy, the government said Wednesday.
After the virtual foreign ministerial meeting arranged on the same day by Brunei, the chair of ASEAN, Blinken tweeted that the 10-member group is "key to the future of the Indo-Pacific," apparently in mind of China's growing clout in the region.
The top U.S. diplomat's attendance at the meeting came as the administration of President Joe Biden is stepping up engagement with Southeast Asian nations amid its ongoing efforts to shore up international support to counter China's assertiveness.
Blinken and the ASEAN foreign ministers discussed regional and international challenges, including combating the coronavirus pandemic, acting boldly against the climate crisis, strengthening human capital development and the "urgency" of action on Myanmar, the State Department said in a press release.
He stressed the U.S. contribution to the response to the pandemic, including donating more than 23 million vaccine doses to ASEAN member states, and announced that the United States plans to provide $500,000 to their COVID-19 response fund to support the purchase of vaccines, the department said.
On Myanmar, the secretary of state "expressed grave concerns about the military coup" in the country and called on ASEAN to "take joint action to urge the military to end the violence, release all those unjustly detained, and restore Burma's path to democracy," it said.
The situation in Myanmar, an ASEAN member, has sparked international condemnation as violence has been seen against anti-coup protesters by the country's security forces since the military ousted the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in the Feb. 1 coup.
The coup has reversed the Southeast Asian country's democratization less than a decade after its transition to civilian rule.
Blinken said in a separate statement that he welcomed ASEAN's move to appoint Bruneian diplomat Erywan Yusof as special envoy to Myanmar, tasked with facilitating dialogue between the military rulers and their opponents.
The envoy's appointment was endorsed during a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers also held on Wednesday.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
In a related move, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had a phone call with a representative of Myanmar's government in exile the same day, according to the State Department, the first such announced contact between a senior U.S. official and the National Unity Government for Myanmar.
Sherman and Zin Mar Aung, who serves in the role of foreign minister of the NUG, discussed ongoing efforts to return Myanmar to a path to democracy, including continued U.S. support for the pro-democracy movement, the department said.
They also held talks on efforts to combat rising coronavirus infections in Myanmar and to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of the country, it added.
The NUG was established in April by members of the National League for Democracy party led by Suu Kyi.