World19 minutes ago (Oct 26, 2021 06:14AM ET)
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A bird flies near the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretariat building, ahead of the ASEAN leaders’ meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 23, 2021. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan
By Ain Bandial
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (Reuters) – Southeast Asian leaders sharply criticised Myanmar’s junta as a regional summit opened on Tuesday without a representative from the country, following its top general’s exclusion for ignoring a peace roadmap agreed six months ago.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had said it would accept a non-political figure from Myanmar, but the junta on Monday rejected that, saying it would only agree to its leader or a minister attending.
In an unprecedented snub to the leader of a member state, ASEAN had decided to sideline junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who led a Feb. 1 coup that spiralled into violence and nationwide chaos, for his failure to cease hostilities, allow humanitarian access and start dialogue with opponents, as agreed with ASEAN in April.
The decision was a huge insult to Myanmar’s military and a rare, bold step by a regional grouping known for its code of consensus, non-interference and engagement.
“Today, ASEAN did not expel Myanmar from ASEAN’s framework. Myanmar abandoned its right,” said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who will become the group’s chairman next year.
“Now we are in the situation of ASEAN minus one. It is not because of ASEAN, but because of Myanmar.”
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said ASEAN had a slot ready for Myanmar, but it chose not to join.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo in his remarks to leaders lamented Myanmar’s “unwelcome attitude” towards ASEAN’s diplomatic efforts, Retno said.
“ASEAN’s decision to invite a Myanmar representative on a non-political level was a heavy one, but it had to be done,” she said.
“The president reminded that it’s important for us to honour the principles of non-interference. But on the other hand, we’re obligated to uphold other principles … like democracy, good governance, respect for human rights, and a constitutional government.”
Myanmar’s military, which ruled the country for 49 of the past 60 years, has objected strongly, to ASEAN’s uncharacteristically strict response, accusing it of departing from its norms and of allowing itself to be influenced by other countries, including the United States.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired general considered the ASEAN leader closest to Myanmar’s coup-makers, urged the country to implement a five-point roadmap it agreed with ASEAN.
He said the issue was crucial for the bloc’s reputation and a test of its resolve.
CREDIBILITY AT STAKE
“ASEAN’s constructive role in addressing this situation is of paramount importance and our action on this matter shall have a bearing on ASEAN’s credibility in the eyes of the international community,” Prayuth said.
ASEAN made the call days after its special envoy Erywan Yusof said the ruling State Administrative Council (SAC) denied him sufficient access, including to ousted, democratically-elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is charged with multiple crimes.
Prayuth said he was hopeful the junta would trust ASEAN’s intentions and that Erywan could visit Myanmar soon and make an “important first step in the process of confidence-building”.
Myanmar security forces have killed more than 1,000 people and detained thousands more, many tortured and beaten, according to United Nations envoys, who say army offensives in civilian areas have caused massive displacement.
Myanmar has rejected that as biased and exaggerated by unreliable sources and blames “terrorists” allied with a shadow National Unity Government (NUG).
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met on Monday with representatives of the NUG, an alliance of pro-democracy groups, militias and ethnic minority armies formed after the coup.
ASEAN leaders were due also to collectively meet leaders of the United States, China and South Korea, while U.S. President Joe Biden will attend a joint session by video link.
Some analysts predict a lengthy standoff between Myanmar and ASEAN after a crisis they said has exposed the bloc’s weaknesses and its need to take a different approach.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said ASEAN’s best chance of success was to engage outside powers and all sides in Myanmar.
“The non-interference principle no longer holds because Myanmar’s armed forces lowered the standards of acceptable governance so low that it has alienated and undermined ASEAN in the international community,” Thitinan said.
(Reporting Ain Bandial in Bandar Seri Begawan; Additional reporting by Tom Allard in Sydney, Stanley Widianto in Jakarta; A. Ananthalakshmi in Kuala Lumpur, Panu Wongcha-um in Bangkok; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)
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