South-east Asian leaders have shut out Myanmar’s top general from their annual summit this week after he refused to take steps to end deadly violence in his country following a military coup.
Myanmar has protested against the exclusion of senior general Min Aung Hlaing, who currently heads its government and ruling military council, from the summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean).
Brunei, which currently leads the 10-nation bloc, will host the three-day event starting on Tuesday by video due to coronavirus concerns.
The talks will be joined by US president Joe Biden and the leaders of China and Russia, and are expected to spotlight Myanmar’s worsening crisis and the pandemic, as well as security and economic issues.
Asean’s unprecedented sanctioning of Myanmar strayed from its bedrock principles of non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs and deciding by consensus, meaning just one member can effectively veto a group decision.
Myanmar cited the violation of those principles enshrined in the group’s charter in rejecting the decision to bar its military leader from the summit.
But the regional group has few other options as the general’s intransigence further risked tainting its image as a diplomatic refuge for some of the most intractable tyrants in Asia.
A senior Asean diplomat, who joined an October 15 emergency meeting where the foreign ministers decided to rebuff Myanmar, said its guiding principles bind but “will not paralyse” the bloc.
The diplomat called Asean’s more forceful response “a paradigm shift”, but added its conservative principles would likely stay.
“In serious cases like this, when the integrity and credibility of Asean is at stake, Asean member states or even the leaders and the ministers have that latitude to act,” said the diplomat.
Instead of Myanmar’s top general, the country’s highest-ranking veteran diplomat, Chan Aye, was invited to the summit as the country’s “non-political” representative, the diplomat said. It remains unclear if Chan Aye will attend.
Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign minister joined the online emergency meeting two weeks ago. It was held in a calm manner, although some ministers bluntly expressed their opposition to the February 1 military takeover that ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, which overwhelmingly won last November’s vote.
Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan declared that his government still recognises Ms Suu Kyi and ousted president Win Myint, both of whom have been detained, as Myanmar’s legitimate leaders, according to the diplomat.
Malaysian foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah, a staunch critic of the military’s seizure of power, told his Asean counterparts that the principle of non-interference cannot be used “as a shield to avoid issues being addressed”, given that the Myanmar crisis has alarmed the region.
In a separate online forum last week, he suggested officials and others should “do some soul-searching” for Asean “on the possibility of moving away from the principle of non-interference toward ‘constructive engagement’ or ‘non-indifference’.”
Asean has been under intense international pressure to take steps to help end the violence that has left an estimated 1,100 civilians dead since the army took power in Myanmar and locked up Ms Suu Kyi and others, igniting widespread peaceful protests and armed resistance.
UN special envoy Christine Schraner Burgener warned last week that Myanmar “will go in the direction of a failed state” if violent conflicts between the military, civilians and ethnic minorities spiral out of control and the democratic setback was not resolved peacefully.
Ms Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide victory in 2015 after more than five decades of military rule. But the military remained powerful and contested her National League for Democracy party’s win in last November elections as fraudulent.
Asean has not recognised the military leadership, although Myanmar remains a member.