By Shailaja Neelakantan
ASEAN will invite a “non-political representative” from Myanmar to its summit this month, the bloc’s chair said on Saturday, confirming that the Burmese military coup leader will be shut out of the high-level meeting.
In response, Myanmar’s junta issued a statement Saturday alleging the decision was taken without all members’ agreement – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations decides on issues and actions based on consensus, but the regional bloc has not recognized the Burmese junta chief as the leader of the country.
BenarNews had reported that ASEAN foreign ministers agreed at an emergency meet Friday to bar Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from the summit, because he had reneged on implementing steps to restore peace and democracy.
“[S]ome ASEAN member states recommended that ASEAN give space to Myanmar to restore its internal affairs and return to normalcy in accordance with the will of the people of Myanmar,” ASEAN chair Brunei’s statement said, referring to the period before the Feb. 1 military coup.
ASEAN’s member states considered the question of Myanmar’s representation at the Oct. 26-28 leaders’ summit, Brunei said. Some members had received the Myanmar civilian shadow government’s request to attend, it added.
“Following extensive discussions, there was no consensus reached for a political representative from Myanmar,” the ASEAN chair’s statement said.
“Therefore, in view of the competing claims to attend the [summit] … the meeting accepted the decision to invite a non-political representative from Myanmar.”
Myanmar was represented at Friday’s ministerial meeting by the junta-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, who voiced the military’s “reservations” on the bloc disinviting Min Aung Hlaing, the statement said.
The Burmese junta-appointed Foreign Ministry declared its disapproval in stronger language.
“Myanmar is extremely disappointed and strongly objected [to] 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 ASEAN, the ASEAN charter and its principles,” it said in a statement on Saturday.
It also claimed the decision to keep Min Aung Hlaing out of the summit “would greatly affect the unity and centrality of ASEAN.” And it said it “reminded” ASEAN members that discussions on who would represent Myanmar were not necessary “as there is no provision in [the] ASEAN Charter” on such matters.
The military-appointed foreign minister also said ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar “should avoid engagement with parties currently undergoing legal proceedings” and groups the junta has declared illegal.
The election-winning National League for Democracy’s now-jailed leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian shadow National Unity Government (NUG), among others, were the entities to be avoided, the junta emissary said, according to Brunei’s statement.
Erywan Yusof, ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar, canceled his trip to the country this week after being refused meetings with all parties concerned.
Min Aung Hlaing had agreed to these meetings and four other steps – called the five-point consensus – at an ASEAN meeting in April that was called to discuss the post-coup situation in Myanmar.
The coup’s mastermind has since tested other ASEAN members’ patience, with security forces continuing to kill anti-coup activists with impunity, in contravention of the consensus. During the more than eight months since the coup, Burmese security forces have killed close to 1,180 people, mostly anti-coup protesters.
‘Breakthrough for ASEAN’
Stern action against Min Aung Hlaing was needed, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Saturday.
“This was a difficult but necessary decision to uphold ASEAN’s credibility,” the minister said on Twitter, about what some said was the bloc’s growing irrelevance.
“I urge the Myanmar military authorities to swiftly and fully implement the five-point consensus.”
The decision to bar the junta leader was “a real breakthrough for ASEAN,” said Southeast Asia analyst Aaron Connelly, referring to the group’s legendary delays and dithering on important decisions.
“It restores credibility to ASEAN diplomacy, and deprives the [junta] of an opportunity to portray itself as a legitimate government – portrayals which it had been using to discourage further resistance inside Myanmar,” Connelly, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said on Twitter.
Still, questions remain about who exactly can be considered a “non-political representative” from Myanmar.
Some people on social media feared the Burmese military would not allow a genuine non-political person to attend the ASEAN summit. The junta may also send a stealth military representative, other observers worried.
Evan Laksmana, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said that technical-level talks – as opposed to high-level meetings – can be held with a non-political representative.
But “who can be deemed as ‘non-political’ but ‘equal’ to ASEAN leaders?” he asked on Twitter on Saturday.
“Can the summit be called an ASEAN summit if one member is not politically represented?”