Activists and regional analysts are slamming ASEAN for inviting the Burmese junta chief to a special summit called for this coming weekend to discuss the turmoil in member-nation Myanmar after the military coup.
Myanmar military ruler Min Aung Hlaing is among leaders of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) expected to attend the meeting, which is to take place at the regional bloc’s headquarters in Jakarta on April 24, a spokesman for the Thai foreign ministry said.
“I can confirm that Brunei [the ASEAN] Chair has proposed the date April 24 with venue at the Secretariat in Jakarta. Several leaders have confirmed their attendance including Myanmar’s Min Aung Hlaing. Some leaders have yet to confirm,” spokesman Tanee Sangrat told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, via a text message.
Indonesia and Malaysia were the two ASEAN members to first push for a leaders’ summit to discuss the situation in Myanmar. However, in the run-up to the special meeting officials from across the bloc, including host-nation Indonesia, have mostly been tight-lipped about the summit.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will attend the meeting, a source close to him confirmed to BenarNews.
But Thai PM Prayuth Chan-o-Cha will not be attending, and the country will likely be represented by its top diplomat, Don Pramudwinai, and the deputy prime minister, Tanee said. Prayuth, the former Thai junta chief, “has decided to opt out” of going to the ASEAN summit, the Bangkok Post reported on Monday, citing a government source who did not elaborate about the decision.
Irine Putri, a lawmaker from the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), said Min Aung Hlaing should not be welcomed in Jakarta.
“The government of Indonesia must not grant recognition to the junta as the legitimate government of Myanmar, because this regime has massacred civilians and suppressed the democratic movement,” Irine said in a statement.
More than 700 people, mostly anti-coup protesters, have been killed by the Burmese military and security forces since the generals toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government on Feb. 1, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Myanmar human rights group based in Thailand.
Irine said ASEAN should invite representatives of the National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel government launched Friday and that comprises lawmakers who won seats in the November 2020 election, which the Myanmar military overturned by force.
“Myanmar is on the brink of a civil war, and we know that NUG and the people of Myanmar will not back down. ASEAN needs to pressure the military regime to return the mandate to the civilian government,” she said.
The NUG also has representatives from the country’s major ethnic groups, most of which have their own armies.
ASEAN needs to be clear that it is not recognizing the junta of member-state Myanmar and must talk with the NUG, said Scott Marciel, the former American ambassador to Myanmar.
“ASEAN’s agreement to let Min Aung Hlaing represent Myanmar at the upcoming summit raises the stakes for the bloc,” Marciel said via Twitter on Sunday.
“To avoid major damage to its standing, ASEAN needs to consult with the NUG and come out of the summit with tangible actions to show it is not accepting the junta.”
The post-coup killings by Myanmar’s military regime tests key principles of the bloc’s charter, such as the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, he pointed out.
“This will be an important meeting for Myanmar, but even more important for ASEAN. One of its member states has been taken over by a murderous force that has no legitimacy and threatens regional stability. A direct challenge to ASEAN‘s charter and its centrality,” Marciel had tweeted earlier.
Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at Nottingham University based in Malaysia, echoed the calls by Marciel and Irine.
“There is no need to bring a murderer to the table,” Welsh told BenarNews.
“ASEAN might as well give them the guns to kill Myanmar people. Some are also doing this, enabling the murders. Instead, the NUG should be there.”
Min Aung Hlaing should be behind bars, according to Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect.
“General Min Aung Hlaing is responsible for crimes against humanity and belongs in handcuffs. He should be arrested under universal jurisdiction if he leaves Myanmar,” Adams tweeted over the weekend.
“The National Unity Government should be invited to ASEAN summit instead.”
ASEAN ‘condemned’ by Myanmar activists
On Monday, 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, a group named after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence, condemned ASEAN’s invitation to the new junta chief. The Southeast Asian bloc, more often than not, has overlooked the lack of democracy in Myanmar, the group said.
[T]hroughout Myanmar’s struggle for democracy over the last 30 years, ASEAN had always sided with the military,” the group said in a statement posted on Twitter and Facebook.
“We, therefore, severely denounce and condemn ASEAN’s invitation offered to the junta and will hold ASEAN responsible for further oppression enacted by the repressive regime in the future, emboldened by ASEAN’s acceptance.”
Hundreds of social media users, meanwhile, posted tweets with the hashtag “ASEANrejectSAC,’ launched on Sunday, in a bid to ensure that ASEAN disinvites Myanmar’s commander-in-chief. The hashtag refers to the junta’s official name, the State Administrative Council.
The Milk Tea Alliance, a movement which has organized pro-democracy protests in Asia, on Monday urged the United Nations and ASEAN to act firmly to address the humanitarian and political crisis in Myanmar and completely disengage with the military junta.
“Cowardly responses from the international community for decades have emboldened the Myanmar military to commit the gravest crimes with impunity,” the alliance said in a statement.
“The pattern needs to change, and it needs to change now.”
The NUG, for its part, deplored Min Aung Hlaing’s expected presence at the Jakarta meeting.
“If ASEAN is considering actions related to Myanmar affairs, I would like to say it will not work unless negotiating with the NUG, which is supported by the people and has full legitimacy,” NUG Deputy Foreign Minister Moe Zaw Oo told Voice of America on Sunday.
ASEAN countries were still weighing their stance on the NUG, Nottingham University’s Welsh said.
“This is being discussed as I understand. ASEAN’s reservations on recognizing NUG would probably be because they want things simple. Some in ASEAN also like the Tatmadaw,” she said, using the official name of Myanmar’s armed forces.
Welsh was alluding to how ASEAN has its share of former military leaders and one-party states.
Among ASEAN members, Thai leader Prayuth became prime minister after a coup he spearheaded as the army chief in 2014. The former general retained the post in a 2019 election, which opposition parties viewed as rigged in the military’s favor.
Cambodia, Lao, and Vietnam are all one-party states. And Brunei, this year’s holder of the ASEAN chair, is a sultanate.
“In the decades after Myanmar joined the grouping in 1997, ASEAN served as a diplomatic umbrella shielding Myanmar’s previous military regimes and their human rights violations from criticism from the international community, led by Western countries,” Naing Khit, a commentator on political affairs, wrote last week in The Irawaddy, a regional news website.
ASEAN has been roundly criticized for not reaching a consensus on how to deal with Myanmar’s junta.
At a March meeting, foreign ministers from the member-states couldn’t come to a consensus in calling for the release of Suu Kyi and other democratically elected Myanmar leaders detained by the military since the coup. Instead, ASEAN merely called for a halt to violence in Myanmar and urged dialogue to end the crisis.
On Monday, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said he was disappointed by divisions within ASEAN that have prevented the regional grouping from a united response on Myanmar.
“The situation requires a robust international response grounded on a unified regional effort. I urge regional actors to leverage their influence to prevent further deterioration and, ultimately, find a peaceful way out of this catastrophe,” Agence France-Presse quoted the U.N. chief as saying during a video conference of Security Council leaders.
‘Presence of junta important’
Ideally, the contending sides in the Myanmar turmoil should be represented at the summit, analysts said.
“Of course [Aung San] Suu Kyi’s camp needs to participate in the meeting,” Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an international political expert at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), told BenarNews.
“The presence of the military junta at the ASEAN summit will definitely complicate consensus. However, without the presence of the junta, ASEAN’s efforts to find a solution to the Myanmar conflict will not be successful.”
Dewi said ASEAN should press the junta to end violence and open up access to humanitarian assistance from the international community.
“An inclusive dialogue process must involve all major components of Myanmar society to restore political stability, security, and democracy in Myanmar,” she said.
Teuku Rezasyah, a lecturer in international relations at Padjajaran University in Bandung, said the presence of Myanmar’s military leader in the summit was of strategic importance.
“If ASEAN wants to push for an immediate end to violence, open access to humanitarian aid, then the most appropriate thing is to talk directly to the military. I think this is a very important opportunity,” Rezasyah told BenarNews.
But a solution that satisfies both sides is increasingly out of reach, former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa said.
“Day by day, we’re seeing that each side moves further with their own separate pathways,” he told a YouTube podcast last week, citing the junta’s electoral commission’s decision to declare the results of last year’s election “null and void.”
“In the early days [after the coup] we could still imagine a situation where walking back was possible without anyone losing face. But now the stakes are becoming higher and higher and room for reconciliation is narrower,” he said.
ASEAN, he said, needs to be innovative to persuade both sides to come to an agreement.
“All parties need to be made feel that they have a stake in the agreement,” he said, adding that military leaders who participated in the killing of civilians need to be legally held accountable.
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