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Protesters march holding slogans during a protest at Pazundaung township in Yangon, Myanmar, on July 14, 2021.The Associated Press

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked his Southeast Asian counterparts Wednesday to press for an end to violence in Myanmar, its return to democracy and the release of all political prisoners in a video conference attended by the military-led nation’s top diplomat.

In the meeting with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Blinken also underscored the U.S. rejection of China’s “unlawful” territorial claims in the South China Sea and stressed that Washington stands with nations at odds with Beijing in the sea disputes.

Blinken’s meeting with the 10-nation bloc also addressed the coronavirus pandemic, State Department spokesman Ned Price said, as surging infections fill hospitals and morgues and further devastate Southeast Asian states’ once-bustling economies.

Blinken “called on ASEAN to take joint action to urge the end of violence, the restoration of Burma’s democratic transition and the release of all those unjustly detained,” Price said in a statement, using the former name for Myanmar.

The U.S. and European nations have been the most vocal opponents of the military takeover that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in February. Suu Kyi was arrested and detained with top members of her National League for Democracy party, including President Win Myint.

Last week, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the rights situation in Myanmar has changed from a political crisis to a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe,” adding that nearly 900 people have been killed and 200,000 forced to flee their homes because of military raids. The World Food Program has estimated that more than 6 million people are in severe need of food aid, she said.

Blinken urged ASEAN to take immediate action “to hold the Burmese regime accountable” to a consensus forged in April by the bloc’s heads of state with Myanmar’s military leader. The five-point document called for an immediate end to violence and the start of a dialogue among contending parties with a special ASEAN envoy mediating in the talks.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. pressed for the restoration of the political conditions before the Feb. 1 military takeover, but lamented that “So far, nothing’s happened.”

Although highly contentious issues were raised, the two-hour meeting was “very civil,” a Southeast Asian diplomat told The Associated Press. The diplomat was involved in the meeting but spoke on condition of anonymity for lack of authority to publicly discuss what went on.

It was not immediately clear if Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign minister responded to Blinken’s concerns or to the previous ASEAN demands.

ASEAN member states have recommended to Myanmar officials the names of possible ASEAN envoys from Thailand and Indonesia but there has been no response. Two ASEAN representatives who travelled to Myanmar last month asked to meet Suu Kyi and other detainees but were rebuffed, the Southeast Asian diplomat said.

The South China Sea territorial disputes involve four ASEAN states. Ahead of his meeting with ASEAN on Wednesday, Blinken accused China of continuing “to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway,” and upheld a Trump-era rejection of nearly all of China’s maritime claims in the region.

China deplored Blinken’s remarks, saying he was sowing discord among Asian countries and stoking disputes.

“The U.S. always poses as a defender of international law and keeps making an issue of the South China Sea, but it has not joined the UNCLOS,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a daily briefing, referring to the 1982 U.N. treaty that governs the use of the world’s seas and oceans.

An international arbitration tribunal, acting on a complaint filed by the Philippines, in 2016 declared most of China’s sweeping territorial claims invalid. Beijing has refused to recognize the ruling.

Blinken’s meeting with his ASEAN counterparts was to have taken place in May but he was unable to secure an online connection as he took a flight for an emergency trip to Israel. The bloc’s foreign ministers, who waited for nearly an hour, decided to cancel the meeting. The State Department later apologized.

Founded in 1967 in the Cold War era, ASEAN is a diverse collective of democracies and authoritarian states that has become a battleground for regional influence between the U.S. and China. Its members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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