The Association of Southeast Asian Nations voiced "revulsion" on Thursday at the killings in Yangon and sternly demanded that fellow member Myanmar stop using violence against demonstrators.
In unusually blunt language for the group, the nine other foreign ministers said they were "appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used" on crowds and demanded the Myanmar government "immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators."
Nine protesters were killed in Myanmar's main city, Yangon, on Thursday when soldiers and police fired on crowds protesting against decades of army rule and economic hardship, state media said. They were the country's biggest pro-democracy demonstrations in two decades, led by Buddhist monks.
The ministers "expressed their revulsion to Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win over reports that the demonstrations in Myanmar are being suppressed by violent force and that there has been a number of fatalities," said the statement, issued after talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
The statement was striking because the group operates on a consensual basis and holds as a core principle "noninterference in the internal affairs of one another."
A U.N. spokeswoman had announced that Myanmar's junta agreed to receive a U.N. envoy to discuss the crisis in the Southeast Asian country, ruled by the army since 1962. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent Ibrahim Gambari, a Nigerian U.N. undersecretary-general, on a mission to the region. He was in Myanmar's neighbor Thailand awaiting a visa.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the ASEAN reaction "a very good statement," when she concluded a meeting with ASEAN ministers and two senior Myanmar diplomats.
She refrained from publicly rebuking Myanmar in the presence of its diplomats but said she spoke to them privately, adding, "The United States is determined to keep an international focus on the travesty that is taking place."
During the ASEAN meeting, which was closed to the press, Rice "made it very clear that it was unacceptable for the government to use violence against these peaceful protesters," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told the U.N. General Assembly that Thailand was "gravely concerned." As a fellow Buddhist nation, Thailand "finds as unacceptable the commission of violence and bodily harm to Buddhist monks and other demonstrators in Yangon."
Myanmar's foreign minister was not present when the ASEAN statement was issued; his representative sat stony-faced and had no comment after the meeting. The statement also urged Myanmar to release political detainees, including democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.
A U.N. spokeswoman said Ban urged authorities in the former Burma "to engage in a constructive dialogue with his special adviser and to commit to a path of peaceful and inclusive national reconciliation."
A report by Gambari, particularly a negative one, would keep the issue before the U.N. Security Council. China and Russia, which have friendly ties with Myanmar's authorities, in January vetoed a U.S.-drafted resolution calling on the junta to stop persecuting minority and opposition groups.
A senior Western diplomat said the Gambari mission gave the Myanmar authorities a "face-saving vehicle" to open a dialogue with the opposition if they chose to. A refusal to receive him would send a clear message of the junta's intentions.
ASEAN, Southeast Asia's main diplomatic and trade group, consists of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. Myanmar joined in 1997.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Paul Taylor and Evelyn Leopold)