In major rebuke, ASEAN downgrades Myanmar presence at summit

Min Aung Hlaing

FILE – In this March 27, 2021, file photo, Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing presides an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Southeast Asian foreign ministers have agreed to downgrade Myanmar’s participation in its Oct. 26-28, 2021 summit in their sharpest rebuke yet of its leaders following a Feb. 1 military takeover. (AP Photo, File)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Southeast Asian foreign ministers have agreed to downgrade Myanmar’s participation in an upcoming summit in their sharpest rebuke yet of its leaders following a Feb. 1 military takeover.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations will invite a non-political representative instead of Myanmar’s military leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the grouping’s chair Brunei said Saturday.

The decision was made at an emergency meeting late Friday after Myanmar refused to cooperate with the bloc’s crisis envoy, Erywan Yusof, who is Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister.

In a swift response, Myanmar’s foreign ministry said it was “extremely disappointed and strongly objected” to the group’s decision, which was made without a consensus.

“Linking the matter of Myanmar’s representation at the ASEAN summit with the visit of the special envoy would be counterproductive as it is merely putting pressure on Myanmar,” the statement said.

It also claimed that the military junta’s current government was in line with Myanmar’s constitution.

The 10-member bloc has been under intense international pressure to do more to force member state Myanmar to free scores of political figures, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as halt the violence that has left more than 1,100 civilians dead.

ASEAN’s envoy abruptly canceled a trip to Myanmar this week after he was told he would not be able to meet with Suu Kyi, and others as he wanted.

Myanmar contended Erywan could not meet with people facing legal proceedings such as Suu Kyi and deposed President Win Myint, Brunei said in a statement.

Suu Kyi and other top civilian leaders were detained in the army takeover. She faces various charges that her supporters and independent analysts say are an attempt to legitimize the military action.

The statement from Brunei said the ASEAN ministers were concerned about the impact of the Myanmar crisis on regional security and about the “unity, credibility and centrality of ASEAN as a rules-based organization.” The bloc’s envoy must have access to all concerned parties, it said.

Members of the political opposition’s National Unity Government, which views itself as a shadow government, have asked to attend the Oct. 26-28 summit, it said.

There was no consensus among the ASEAN foreign ministers about having a political representative from Myanmar at the summit, so the ministers decided to instead invite a non-political representative to give Myanmar “space to restore its internal affairs and return to normalcy,” it added.

Officials did not say who would be invited instead.

In handling Myanmar, ASEAN has been hamstrung by its bedrock policy of noninterference in the domestic affairs of member nations and its consensus decision-making. Some member countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines feel action is justified because major unrest in Myanmar could trigger regional instability.

Myanmar is widely seen as doing very little to honor its commitments, though it claims to have helped facilitate humanitarian assistance.

Letting Min Aung Hlaing attend the summit, which will take place by video, might be seen as recognition of the military takeover, which halted one of Asia’s most phenomenal democratic transitions after decades of military rule.

Among world leaders due to participate is President Joe Biden, who has condemned the takeover and authorized sanctions against Myanmar’s generals, their family members and associates.

The U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, the European Union and United Kingdom on Friday issued a joint statement of support for the ASEAN envoy. They urged Myanmar to work constructively with Erywan and let him meet with parties concerned.

“The military has so far been unwilling to productively engage with ASEAN to respond to the crisis in Burma,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.

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Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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