Southeast Asian countries will invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to a regional summit this month, delivering an unprecedented snub to the military leader who led a coup against an elected civilian government in February this year.
The decision, taken by foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at an emergency meeting on Friday night, marks a rare bold step for the consensus-driven bloc, which has traditionally favoured a policy of engagement and non-interference.
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On Saturday, Singapore’s foreign ministry said the move to exclude military government chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was a “difficult but necessary decision to uphold ASEAN’s credibility”.
The statement noted “insufficient progress” in the implementation of a five-point plan agreed by ASEAN leaders in April to end turmoil following the coup.
ASEAN’s current chair Brunei said a non-political figure from Myanmar would be invited to the October 26-28 summit, after no consensus was reached for a political representative to attend.
“As there had been insufficient progress … as well as concerns over Myanmar’s commitment, in particular on establishing constructive dialogue among all concerned parties, some ASEAN Member States recommended that ASEAN give space to Myanmar to restore its internal affairs and return to normalcy,” Brunei said in a statement.
It did not mention Min Aung Hlaing or name who would be invited in his place.
Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for Myanmar’s military government, blamed “foreign intervention” for the rare exclusion of Min Aung Hlaing from the summit, and told the BBC Burmese news service that the United States and representatives of the European Union had pressured other leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to exclude the military leader from the summit later this month.
“The foreign interventions can also be seen here,” he said. “Before, we learned that some envoys from some countries met with US foreign affairs and received pressure from EU.”
An official statement from Myanmar’s military on Sunday morning said ASEAN’s decision went against its longtime central principle of consensus.
“Myanmar is extremely disappointed and strongly objected the outcomes of the Emergency Foreign Ministers’ Meeting as the discussions and decision on Myanmar’s representation issue was done without consensus and was against the objectives of the ASEAN, the ASEAN Charter and its principles,” it said.
‘Political stopgap measure’
More than 1,000 civilians have been killed and thousands arrested by Myanmar security forces, according to the United Nations, amid a crackdown on strikes and protests which has derailed the country’s tentative democracy and prompted international condemnation.
The military government says those estimates of the death toll are exaggerated.
Mustafa Izzuddin, a global affairs analyst at consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore, called the exclusion “a political stopgap measure for ASEAN to assuage international criticism”.
“It ensures its [ASEAN’s] regional reputation as an organisation that can still play an active role in Southeast Asian affairs,” he told AFP news agency.
Izzuddin also said the move sent a “political signal” to the military government “that ASEAN is not one to be pushed around, and that Myanmar must show its seriousness and its commitment to roll out the five-point plan”.
Brunei added that some member states had received requests from Myanmar’s National Unity Government, formed by opponents of the military government, to attend the summit.
ASEAN has faced increasing international pressure to take a tougher stand against Myanmar, having been criticised in the past for its ineffectiveness in dealing with leaders accused of rights abuses, subverting democracy and intimidating political opponents.
A US State Department official told reporters on Friday that it was “perfectly appropriate and in fact completely justified” for ASEAN to downgrade Myanmar’s participation at the coming summit.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in a tweet her country had proposed that Myanmar “should not be represented at the political level” at the summit until it restores “its democracy through an inclusive process”.
Singapore urged Myanmar to cooperate with ASEAN’s envoy, Brunei’s second foreign affairs minister Erywan Yusof.
Erywan has delayed a long-planned visit to the country in recent weeks and has asked to meet all parties in Myanmar, including deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained in the coup.
Zaw Min Tun, the military government spokesman, said this week Erywan would be welcome in Myanmar, but would not be allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi because she is charged with crimes.