BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN: Myanmar’s junta boycotted a Southeast Asian summit yesterday after its chief was banned from the event, deepening the regime’s isolation nine months after it took power in a coup. The virtual gathering kicked off three days of meetings hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with US President Joe Biden as well as Chinese and Russian leaders set to attend.
Myanmar topped the agenda of yesterday’s talks between regional leaders, with the country still in chaos following February’s military takeover and the subsequent deadly crackdown on dissent. Facing calls to defuse the crisis, ASEAN-which includes Myanmar-has drawn up a roadmap aimed at restoring peace but there have been doubts over the junta’s commitment to the plan. Its refusal to let a special envoy meet ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi prompted the bloc to bar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from this week’s summit.
The putsch snuffed out Myanmar’s short-lived experiment with democracy, and Nobel laureate Suu Kyi now faces a raft of charges in a junta court that could see her jailed for decades. The 76-year-old, a thorn in the generals’ side for many years, was due to testify in court for the first time in a closed-door hearing from which the media have been barred. Min Aung Hlaing’s exclusion from the Southeast Asian summit was an unprecedented snub from an organization often seen as toothless.
The junta slammed the decision as a breach of the bloc’s policy of non-interference in member states’ affairs. The 10-member group invited a senior official from the junta-appointed foreign ministry in the general’s place. But the regime said on the eve of the meeting that sending a more junior figure would “affect our country’s sovereignty and image”. At the opening of the summit, a big screen showed the leaders participating-with just a blue display carrying the word “Myanmar”, where the country’s representative was supposed to be.
‘ASEAN minus one’
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, among several ASEAN states that have spoken out strongly against the coup, lamented that “progress has been slow” following the Myanmar coup. “This has real consequences for the people of Myanmar and ASEAN’s credibility as a rules-based organization,” he told the summit. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen-whose government is itself frequently accused of being authoritarian-also criticized the “lack of cooperation” from the junta.
“We are in the situation of ASEAN minus one,” he told the meeting. Cambodia is set to take over the rotating chairmanship of the bloc from Brunei, which is running this week’s meetings. As the leaders met online, small pro-junta rallies took place in several townships in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, where protesters carried portraits of military figures and banners declaring their support for the armed forces, local media reported.
While some have hailed the decision to bar the junta chief as significant, observers think it unlikely the bloc will go further, such as by suspending Myanmar. And they see little chance of decisions at this week’s meetings that could prompt a change of course from the junta. A draft summit statement by the meeting’s chair, seen by AFP, “expressed concern” and “called on all parties concerned in Myanmar to implement their commitment to the ‘five-point consensus'”.
The “five-point consensus” is the plan drawn up by ASEAN to defuse the crisis. It made no mention of Myanmar’s absence from the meeting, as it was drafted before the summit started. The draft statement also said concerns were raised about “serious incidents” in the South China Sea-where Beijing and several Southeast Asian states have overlapping claims. This year’s meetings are taking place online due to virus-related travel difficulties. Biden will take part in a US-ASEAN summit later in the day, as well as a meeting with the bloc and other world leaders today. – AFP