JAKARTA (Reuters) -Finding unity over how to deal with Myanmar's junta continued to evade Southeast Asian nations on Thursday, as foreign ministers meeting in Jakarta struggled to agree on a communique that would include a reference to their neighbour's internal strife.
Gathered in the Indonesian capital for their annual meeting, foreign ministers from the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had been expected to issue a joint communique on Wednesday, but by early afternoon on Thursday there was still no sign.
The cause of the delay was unclear but an ASEAN official said a communique was being finalised and would be released soon.
ASEAN, which includes Myanmar among its 10 members, has pushed, without success, for the implementation of a five-point peace plan agreed with the junta shortly after a coup in early 2021.
No Myanmar representatives were present in this week's meeting. Junta officials have been barred from high-level ASEAN meetings due to the lack of progress on the plan, which calls for a halt to violence and talks between the military and its pro-democracy opponents.
The inability to exert more influence over the junta has fed long-held doubts about ASEAN's effectiveness as a regional political bloc.
ASEAN chair Indonesia on Wednesday urged the group's foreign ministers to remain united in tackling the escalating violence in Myanmar.
Malaysia, a vocal critic of the junta, urged ASEAN to strongly condemn the junta's actions, including violence.
"I pressed for a stronger statement on this issue to be included in the joint communique of the ASEAN ministerial meeting," Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir said in a statement late on Wednesday.
Several Southeast Asian nations have passed through periods of military rule, and avoiding criticism of fellow members has been a hallmark of ASEAN's diplomacy for years, though Myanmar has tested patience more than most.
ASEAN is also this week holding meetings with envoys from the United States, China, Russia and other major partners.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to meet Chinese diplomat Wang Yi later on Thursday, the latest in series of interactions between the rival powers.
Rifts within ASEAN over Myanmar were highlighted when Thailand invited Myanmar military officials to a meeting last month aimed at "re-engaging" with the junta.
Most ASEAN members shunned the meeting, which Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai defended, saying his country was suffering in terms of its border, trade and refugee problems.
Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam engaged with the junta in informal talks last year, while Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines declined to participate.
Don said on Wednesday said he had recently met Myanmar's jailed former leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He is the first foreign official to be granted access to the Nobel laureate since her detention by the military more than two years ago.
Malaysia's Zambry said any peace effort should adhere to the five-point consensus and should not be done alone.
He also said Don tried to find a solution through dialogue during his recent visit to Naypyitaw, but did not provide any other details.
Myanmar's shadow National Unity Government, made up of loyalists to Suu Kyi's ousted administration, has discouraged ASEAN from engaging with the junta unless it releases all political prisoners.
While ASEAN is sticking with the peace consensus, analysts have called for the bloc to explore other avenues, including extending the term of a special envoy to Myanmar beyond one year.
Indonesia, as ASEAN chair this year, is working behind the scenes to bring all stakeholders in the Myanmar conflict together for informal talks, but diplomats say it is struggling to make headway.
(Reporting by Kate Lamb and Stanley Widianto; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor, A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Rob Birsel & Simon Cameron-Moore)