ASEAN begins a summit this week amid uncertainty over Myanmar’s participation after the regional bloc barred the Burmese junta chief from attending and Naypyidaw threatened to skip the meeting.
Myanmar’s military government said Monday that it had not decided whether to send a senior diplomat invited by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to the meeting as the country’s “non-political representative,” in place of Min Aung Hlaing, the senior general who led a coup that toppled an elected government on Feb. 1.
ASEAN invited the Permanent Secretary of the junta-appointed Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a spokesman for the military government confirmed. But many Burmese criticized ASEAN via social media for inviting the diplomat, saying he was most definitely not a “non-political representative.”
“Such summits are supposed to be attended by heads of state or government only,” Zaw Min Tun, the junta’s spokesman, told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a BenarNews sister entity.
“As we have said, this is an infringement of ASEAN rules and regulations and [its] non-interference policy. We believe that this degrades our country’s position and sovereignty. So we are not sure if we will attend the summit.”
The ASEAN summit, which opens Tuesday and runs through Thursday, will be held virtually due to concerns about COVID-19.
At a special meeting earlier this month, ASEAN foreign ministers barred Min Aung Hlaing from the summit after the bloc’s special envoy to Myanmar said no progress had been made on ASEAN’s five-point roadmap to putting the country back on a path to peace and democracy.
Min Aung Hlaing led the coup that toppled the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which had won elections decisively in November 2020.
The regional bloc said it would instead “invite a non-political representative from Myanmar” to the summit.
However, many Burmese on social media said that the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not a non-political representative because he held that position at the ministry appointed by the junta.
“It’s totally disappointing ASEAN has invited permanent secretary of SAC’s MOFA … as non-political representative for Myanmar,” said Robert Minn, whose bio says he is a member of the youth wing of the NLD. He was referring to the State Administration Council, the official name for the junta.
For its part, the junta said that ASEAN was violating its charter.
The invitation to a “non-political representative “is not in line with [the] ASEAN Charter, ASEAN procedures and precedent,” the SAC-appointed foreign ministry said in a statement posted on Facebook.
“Myanmar would be pursuing the due processes under the ASEAN Charter and the Protocol to the ASEAN Charter on Dispute Settlement Mechanisms in resolving the differences on Myanmar’s representation at the ASEAN Meetings.”
Last Friday, the Burmese foreign ministry also said that “the matter of participation at the summits was deliberately linked with the domestic affairs of Myanmar.”
The statement was alluding to ASEAN’s principle of non-interference in member-states’ domestic affairs, a founding principle of the 54-year-old bloc in addition to one about its 10 member-states taking all decisions by consensus.
While ASEAN has not revealed what issues would be discussed at the summit, the situation in post-coup Myanmar will most certainly be on the agenda. Close to 1,200 people – most of them pro-democracy protesters – have been killed by Burmese security forces since the coup.
On Friday, Tom Andrews, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, told the U.N. General Assembly that he feared “even more mass atrocity crimes” because the Burmese junta had been moving tens of thousands of troops and weaponry to the north and northwest.
ASEAN Plus One Summits
Brunei, the 2021 holder of the bloc’s rotating chair, will host the summit.
Participants at the meeting will discuss the future direction of the bloc and its community-building efforts, its COVID-19 response and views on regional and international issues of common concern, the Malaysian foreign ministry said in a statement Monday. Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah will attend the summit, it added.
The leaders of the ASEAN states will also take part in ASEAN Plus One summits with the leaders of the U.S., Australia, India, China, Japan, and South Korea, the statement said. ASEAN has inked free-trade agreements with these countries as part of efforts to strengthen the region’s role in the global supply chain.
Indonesia President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will be attending the ASEAN and related summits, according to Retno Marsudi, Jakarta’s top diplomat. Jokowi is expected to attend 13 meetings and deliver a speech at the ASEAN business and investment summit (ABIS), she said.
From the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte will also be attending the meetings, his spokesman Harry Roque told a news briefing Monday.
“As usual, these ASEAN summits are regular,” Roque said when pressed about what issues the country would raise during the meeting.
Still, it will not be business as usual, according to Chester Cabalza, a political and defense analyst at International Development and Security Cooperation, a Manila think-tank.
“It seems that the regional bloc is starting to redefine its relevance and role in the changing global security [scenario],” Cabalza told BenarNews, adding that the change was welcome.
Indeed, this ASEAN summit will be the bloc’s first high-level meeting since the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia announced a new pact, called AUKUS, under which Washington and London will provide Canberra with the technology for building nuclear-powered submarines.
AUKUS has divided ASEAN. Some members have welcomed it, others not.
The Philippines and Singapore said AUKUS would help restore a regional “imbalance” and lead to stability in Southeast Asia.
Malaysia and Indonesia, however, warned that AUKUS may spur a regional arms race.
The new pact had rendered ASEAN irrelevant and the bloc was to blame for that, some analysts told BenarNews last month.
“The fact that it cannot resolve the South China Sea issue, can’t even get China to agree to the Code of Conduct after 20 years … It shows that ASEAN can’t be taken seriously based on its historical track record,” James Chin, an academic at Tasmania University, told BenarNews at the time.
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