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ASEAN Summit Opens Without Myanmar Presence  

FILE PHOTO: Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted the elected government in a coup, presides at an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, opened a three-day regional summit without Myanmar, after the country's ruling junta refused to send a nonpolitical representative to the meeting in place of its top military leader.

ASEAN ministers decided on October 15 to exclude Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing from the summit. This was considered ASEAN’s biggest rebuke of Myanmar since February 1, when the Myanmar military toppled a civilian government under the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Instead, the regional bloc invited Chan Aye, permanent secretary in the junta’s foreign ministry, to attend the ASEAN virtual summit as a nonpolitical representative.

Myanmar military government spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun said the invitation “didn’t place Myanmar at the same level” as the other countries and was thus rejected.

“For us, attending a meeting that doesn’t place us at the same level with others is like an assault to the sovereignty of our nation,” he said, according to Bloomberg. “Given that it’s a summit for state leaders, they should invite the state leader.”

This handout photo released by the host broadcast, ASEAN Summit 2021, on October 26, 2021 shows Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (C) taking part in the 39th Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.
This handout photo released by the host broadcast, ASEAN Summit 2021, on October 26, 2021 shows Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (C) taking part in the 39th Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.

Sun Yun, co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, said the junta is sending a signal to ASEAN by choosing not to send anyone.

“The signal is that the junta sees itself as the sole, legitimate ruler of the country and does not accept ASEAN’s attempt to influence its decision,” she told VOA Mandarin via email. The Stimson Center is a Washington think tank.

Myanmar has been one of ASEAN's most divisive issues since it joined the bloc in 1997 as a military dictatorship criticized by many Western nations for its authoritarian rule. Even after that regime lost power in 2015, in the nation’s first openly contested election in 25 years, Myanmar has tested ASEAN with its treatment of the Rohingya minority and other issues.

The decision not to invite Min Aung Hlaing was an unprecedented move for the 10-member regional bloc, which traditionally does not interfere in its members' internal affairs.

Current ASEAN chair Brunei issued a statement on October 16, saying that it could not reach a consensus on inviting the general to attend the summit.

The statement said that because of “insufficient progress” in the situation in Myanmar, the bloc wanted “to allow Myanmar the space to restore its internal affairs and return to normalcy.”

Neither the ASEAN chair nor the bloc’s secretary-general mentioned Myanmar’s absence during opening remarks at Tuesday’s virtual meeting, according to Al-Jazeera. [[

When the Myanmar military launched its coup in February, it imprisoned dozens of elected government officials including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, triggering large-scale protests across the country.

Since then, the military has used force to suppress the opposition, and the international community has condemned the junta. The junta has described members of the opposition as terrorists.

To mediate the situation in Myanmar, ASEAN's special envoy to Myanmar Erywan Yusof requested a meeting on October 10-14 which the junta rejected.

Since the establishment of ASEAN in 1967, it has rarely commented on the internal affairs of its member states. According to Yuyun Wahyuningrum, Indonesia’s representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, the strong response to Myanmar stems from the junta’s failure to keep to the bloc’s Five-Point Consensus, which was hammered out at an April 24 meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, attended by coup leader Min Aung Hlaing.

“All member states agreed that the issue in Myanmar is a regional issue, requiring a regional solution and all member states to commit to it. If Myanmar or any country in the region does not commit to a Five-Point Consensus, there should be an implication,” Wahyuningrum told VOA Mandarin via phone.

The plan called for the immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.

In the days following the Jakarta meeting, Myanmar’s junta called the points in the plan “suggestions” that it would consider only when Myanmar “returns to stability” as its priority was to “maintain law and order," reported Reuters.

Nicholas Coppel, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar and an adjunct associate professor at Monash University in Melbourne, agreed with Wahyuningrum.

“ASEAN is sending a very clear signal that the Senior General Min Aung Hlaing would not be welcomed at another leaders’ meeting until there is some improvement in regards to implementing the Five-Point Consensus,” he told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview.

Sun, of the Stimson Center, said she doesn’t see any further moves by the regional bloc, which is known as an organization based on consensus.

“While the decision to invite a nonpolitical figure was a major move for ASEAN and shows that ASEAN members are frustrated with Myanmar, I don’t think the organization will take further moves to suspend Myanmar’s membership or expel the country,” she told VOA. “It is laudable, but I don’t expect much more.”