Southeast Asian leaders have begun their annual summit without a representative from Myanmar, after its top general was barred over the military’s failure to follow a regional peace deal.
Neither Brunei, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair, nor the bloc’s secretary-general made a mention of the no-show in opening remarks at Tuesday’s virtual meeting.
In an unprecedented move, ASEAN on October 15 agreed to exclude Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing, who toppled a civilian government on February 1, over his failure to implement a peace process he agreed with ASEAN in April towards ending the bloody political crisis triggered by the coup.
The move was a rare bold step by a regional grouping known for its non-interference and engagement.
ASEAN is made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Myanmar joined in 1997 under a previous military regime.
Two diplomats told The Associated Press news agency that Brunei invited Myanmar’s highest-ranking veteran diplomat, Chan Aye, as a “non-political” representative but she did not attend.
Myanmar’s military promised late on Monday to challenge ASEAN over its move to downgrade its participation in the three-day summit.
It said it has informed Brunei that it can only accept participation by Min Aung Hlaing or a ministerial-level representative.
In deciding to sideline the Myanmar military chief, ASEAN cited his failure to take steps to end hostilities, initiate dialogue, allow humanitarian support and grant a special envoy full access to the country.
The military also denied permission to ASEAN’s envoy to Myanmar, Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and other government leaders who have been detained since the February 1 takeover.
Since the coup, Myanmar’s military has also killed more than 1,000 people and arrested thousands, according to the monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The military disputes that count as inflated and says soldiers have been killed in fighting nationwide with opposition groups that have taken up arms.
It also insists the conflict is being stoked by “terrorists” allied with the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) and says ASEAN is not taking that into account.
The NUG has been pushing for recognition at ASEAN and internationally.
The US on Monday announced that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had held a virtual meeting with two representatives of the NUG on October 25.
Sullivan stressed “continued US support for the pro-democracy movement” in Myanmar and discussed ongoing efforts to restore democracy in the wake of the military’s power grab. He also expressed concern “over the military’s brutal violence” and said the US would “continue to promote accountability for the coup”
ASEAN is also due to hold talks with US President Joe Biden as well as other world leaders including China and Russia.
On the agenda for Tuesday’s opening day were three separate meetings between the ASEAN leaders and representatives of the US, China and South Korea.
Debbie Stothard, founder and coordinator of Alternative Asean Network on Burma, said “it certainly shocked the junta that ASEAN finally took a line here” by excluding Min Aung Hlaing.
She told Al Jazeera that the main concern for ASEAN was an “imminent offensive” in the country’s north, which United Nations experts warn is reminiscent of the military’s 2017 crackdown in Rakhine state that forced more than 700,000 ethnic Rohingya into Bangladesh.
“ASEAN is very perturbed because we cannot afford this to happen, especially during the COVID pandemic,” she said. “ASEAN now has to grapple with the fact that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s personal ambition and greed poses a greater threat to regional security, both for Myanmar and the region itself. And if ASEAN doesn’t act now, the situation could get out of control and we will be dealing with a disaster for the next 10 years.”
If ASEAN wants Myanmar’s military to listen seriously, the bloc has to partner with the UN Security Council and build a strategy to ensure the army draws back from this violence, she added.