ASEAN Downgrades Myanmar Presence in Summit in Major Rebuke

In their most pointed dismissal of Myanmar’s military junta yet, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has agreed to exclude Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, from an upcoming summit.

A statement from the current chair of the group, Brunei, explained its decision to exclude the Senior General during an emergency meeting on Friday. Members states shared similar sentiments over the “insufficient progress” achieved in restoring peace to Myanmar. They also echoed mutual “concerns” over the State Administration Council’s (SAC, the official name for the military junta) commitment to establish constructive dialogue with fellow member states. For these reasons, the statement concluded that Min Aung Hlaing should be excluded from the meeting. Instead, a non-political figure from Myanmar would be invited to attend in his place.

The statement of exclusion was precipitated by the cancellation of an ASEAN special envoy visit to Myanmar earlier in the week. The country had approved Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof’s visit, but he canceled after being informed he would not be able to meet with ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, among other figures he had requested to convene with. Myanmar military spokesman Zaw Min Tun explained that Erywan could not meet with Suu Kyi due to the criminal charges against her. Suu Kyi faces charges ranging from the violation of import laws to incitation of public unrest and corruption. Both Suu Kyi’s supporters and independent analysts agree that the charges are fabricated and intended to justify the military’s violent seizure of power.

In response to Erywan’s visit cancellation, Myanmar’s foreign ministry released a statement defending Suu Kyi’s ongoing detainment, claiming that “Myanmar has been prioritizing peace and tranquility” and that “some requests which go beyond the permission of existing laws will be difficult to accommodate.”

Worsening violence and increasingly dire economic and humanitarian circumstances have reportedly left several ASEAN representatives frustrated with the lack of progress and perceived lack of cooperation from the junta. The regional union is largely bound by a typically uncompromisable policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other member states. Another central policy demands unanimous consent in decision-making. The decision to exclude Min Aung Hlaing from the upcoming meeting marks a clear break from protocol and further emphasizes the severity of the issue at hand. Experts cite concerns over the potential for the national conflict in Myanmar to spread to the rest of the region as a major factor behind the group’s decision to deviate from the aforementioned agreements.

Democratically elected leader and internationally renowned activist Aung San Suu Kyi, along with other prominent figures of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD), was forcibly removed from power in a military coup last February. The Tatmadaw (official name of Myanmar’s armed forces) accused Suu Kyi of stealing the country’s November 2020 election through voter fraud. Suu Kyi and fellow government officials have remained in detention ever since, despite the claims being widely understood as fictitious.

Millions have taken to the streets in protest of the incoming junta, vocal in their opposition to the military coup. In response, the SAC has engaged in a brutal crackdown against dissenters. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, the main human rights group tallying deaths and injuries following the coup, estimated at least 1,146 people had been killed by the junta as of September 29th. Furthermore, 8,573 have been arrested, 6,914 are in detention, and 1,989 others have had warrants issued for their arrest.

ASEAN member states have come under significant criticism from civilians on the ground in Myanmar and the larger international community. Member states have been accused of not upholding their commitments to mitigating and addressing the conflict in Myanmar. In April, the regional alliance introduced a “Five-point consensus” detailing a proposed course of action for addressing the conflict. The plan includes “an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.”

The consensus fails to condemn the ongoing violence, and demands for releasing political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, are notably absent. David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst who has been working on conflict, peace, and human rights issues in Myanmar for over 20 years assessed the consensus as not truly reflecting the emotions of people on the ground. He stated that “many Myanmar people perceive ASEAN as buying time for the military, and in effect engagement is recognizing the SAC as legitimate.”

Internal frustrations within ASEAN over the junta’s lack of response to their efforts are not unfounded. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, shared similar sentiments of discontent: “There is no sign of any efforts by the military authorities to stop these violations nor implement previous recommendations to tackle impunity and security sector reform.” However, this does not impair ASEAN’s ability to condemn the SAC’s brutality and illegitimate governance.

The decision to exclude Min Aung Hlaing from the upcoming summit has far-reaching implications. Excluding him is an unprecedented breach of typical ASEAN protocol. The momentum gained in the blatant dismissal of the SAC must be built upon rather than left to fade away. ASEAN’s founding principles of non-intervention in domestic affairs and consensus in decision-making are admirable and important in maintaining regional relationships and stability. However, the ongoing perpetuation of crimes against humanity, widespread civilian suffering, and impending economic collapse demand immediate intervention and unquestionable condemnation of the junta for its ongoing role in perpetrating violence. It’s imperative to maintain a hardline stance against the SAC, advocating for the inclusion of non-political actors or civilian representatives within ASEAN proceedings until Suu Kyi and other political prisoners are released.

In a recent statement, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for an “urgent” response to the violence in Myanmar, citing fears that as time progresses, it will become “increasingly difficult to counter” the junta’s grip on power. As such, ASEAN must revise its engagement tactics with the SAC and the larger international community should continue to express its continued support for civilians in Myanmar, levying targeted sanctions against the junta.