ASEAN Snubs the General in Myanmar in keeping him out of the Summit
Prof Rajaram Panda

ASEAN’s reputation as a successful regional entity is at stake because of the military coup in Myanmar on 1 February. No amount of counsel by other ASEAN members or the international community to persuade the junta to restore democracy has worked and the junta has been testing the patience of Myanmar’s well-wisher countries. Finally, the rest of the ASEAN states have stepped in to adopt tough positions after their efforts to facilitate negotiations between all stakeholders to help Myanmar solve the crisis failed. The decision to snub the State Administration Council by allowing only a ‘non-political’ representative from Myanmar to its summit later in October is unanimous and thus a blow to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s bid to gain recognition at the grouping’s high table. The ASEAN agreed to do so in its own five-point plan and it was endorsed by the international community, including the EU.

It is an indication of isolating Myanmar within the ASEAN grouping. It is to be seen how long ASEAN can maintain unity and risk its reputation as a successful regional entity. However, by keeping the General out of the Summit, ASEAN sets a new precedent as this is the first time ASEAN has publicly set conditions for a member state’s representation at key high-level political meetings. [1] After all, maintaining the organisation’s centrality is paramount.

The decision to keep the junta out was announced by ASEAN Chair Brunei the day after it was made by an emergency ASEAN Foreign Affairs’ Meeting on 15 October via video conference as it felt that a negotiated compromise on Myanmar’s attendance at the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits and related Summits scheduled for 26-28 October was not likely to happen. [2]

ASEAN was flexible in the beginning with the hope that the junta shall see reason. With such optimism, even when a parallel National Unity Government (NUG) emerged in April as a part of the resistance against the coup, the ASEAN invited the junta chief General Hlaing to a special Leaders’ Meeting on 24 April to discuss the grouping’s response to the Myanmar crisis and impress upon junta the importance of committing to an ASEAN-coordinated process towards resolving the crisis. The five-point consensus was discussed but the junta defied that and repression, detention and shooting of civilians continued.

Barry Deskar observes that excluding General Hlaing from the summits would mark the beginning of a ‘more effective approach’ to the problem as ASEAN’s persuasion and consultations amid the absence of legal recourses and effective rules did not work. [3] ASEAN finds itself struggling with multiple pressures posed by the junta. Whether the decision to exclude the junta was an unprecedented snub or necessary move to preserve the regional grouping’s credibility and international standing remains to be seen. The decision to keep the junta out of the summitry also has fissures within the ASEAN as the tradition of non-interference consensus-driven decision-making process remains contentious. For example, Thailand emphasises ASEAN policy of not interfering in members’ internal affairs and argued for the junta’s participation. Given such simmering differences of opinions among the ASEAN member states and despite the decision to keep the junta out of the forthcoming summit is to be seen if ASEAN can summon up enough collective will to apply the “speak softly and carry a big stick” adage in the future. [4]

The decision to invite a “non-political representative” from Myanmar to the summit meeting and shutting out the coup leader of the high-level meeting displeased the junta. The junta issued a statement alleging the decision was taken without all members’ agreement, as ASEAN decides on issues and actions based on consensus. [5] In a statement, the junta observed: “Myanmar is extremely disappointed and strongly objected [to] the outcomes of the emergency Foreign Ministers’ meeting as the discussions and decision on Myanmar’s representation issue was done without consensus and was against the objectives of ASEAN, the ASEAN charter and its principles”.

Finally the ASEAN chair Brunei issued a statement: “Following extensive discussions, there was no consensus reached for a political representative from Myanmar". It went further, “Therefore, in view of the competing claims to attend the [summit] ... the meeting accepted the decision to invite a non-political representative from Myanmar”. This was despite the junta-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin voicing “reservations” on the bloc disinviting Gen Hlaing to the summit. The junta-appointed Foreign Ministry declared its disapproval in stronger language. In a statement, it said “Myanmar is extremely disappointed and strongly objected [to] the outcomes of the emergency foreign ministers’ meeting as the discussions and decision on Myanmar’s representation issue was done without consensus and was against the objectives of ASEAN, the ASEAN charter and its principles”. The statement claimed that the decision to keep Gen Hlaing out of the summit “would greatly affect the unity and centrality of ASEAN”.

ASEAN states are concerned that anti-coup activists are being killed with impunity, in contravention of the consensus. Since the February coup, more than 1,180 anti-coup protestors have been killed and ASEAN’s efforts to stem this mayhem smacks of its growing irrelevance. It is to be seen if the decision to keep the junta out of the summit that portrays itself as the legitimate government shall help restore credibility of the ASEAN diplomacy. However, the issue of calling it an ASEAN summit remains debatable if one member is not politically represented. [6]

The ASEAN was worried that its centrality was at stake as the international community watched the developments in Myanmar helplessly, except that some sanctions were slapped on the military regime. When the ASEAN was seen to be ill-equipped to maintain regional peace and stability, thereby exposing its diplomatic vulnerability, some baby-steps needed to be taken by excluding the junta from the high table to send a subtle message that larger interests of the region are at stake. [7]

Unless the atrocities on the civilians by the military stops, the biting and targeted sanctions imposed by the US, UK and EU would drive Myanmar towards the status of being a failed state. The US has penalised the Generals and key state-owned enterprises, by blocking assets, and business. The EU and UK have imposed their own sanctions on individuals and economic entities. For the ASEAN, the Charter that subscribes to the principle of non-interference in the internal matters of member states is often divided on issues regarding internal issues of member states.

Two big regional stakeholders – India and China – have their own strategic considerations in Myanmar and are unwilling to take tough measures. For India, Myanmar is the gateway for furthering its Act East policy. China’s increasing presence in Myanmar with deep pockets compels India to keep its presence in that country. There seems to exist some geostrategic rivalry between India and China in their Myanmar policies. Moreover, India has a history of engaging with the military junta for decades. Another Asian country, Japan, too has close economic interests and withdrawing from Myanmar is not an option. The junta is aware of such vulnerabilities of these three influential Asian nations. Moreover, even though ASEAN’s centrality is much talked about and a decision not to invite the General to the forthcoming summit is taken, the truism is that the organisation’s authoritarian leaders such as in Thailand are hesitant to be vocal due to their own semi-authoritarian policies and therefore seem hesitant to agree within the ASEAN for a tougher collective stance against the Tatmadaw, as the military is called in Myanmar. As Myanmar’s history would indicate, the military is likely to stay in Myanmar for quite some time and the world shall have to live and deal with it.

References

[1] Moe Thuzar, “ASEAN Snubs the State Administration Council (For Now)”, 19 October 2021, https://fulcrum.sg/asean-snubs-the-state-administration-council-for-now/
[2] “16 October 2021, STATEMENT OF THE CHAIR OF THE ASEAN FOREIGN MINISTERS’ MEETING ”, http://www.mfa.gov.bn/Lists/Press%20Room/news.aspx?id=947&source=http://www.mfa.gov.bn/Pages/PressRoom.aspx?archive=1
[3] Barry Deskar, “Asean’s Myanmar snub – a necessary first step”, 19 October 2021, https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/aseans-myanmar-snub-a-necessary-first-step
[4] Thuzar, n.1.
[5] Shailaja Neelakanthan, “ASEAN to invite “Non-political” Rep instead of Coup Leader to summit”, 19 October 2021, http://southasiajournal.net/asean-to-invite-non-political-myanmar-rep-instead-of-coup-leader-to-summit/
[6] Ibid.
[7] Billy Buddell, “Hollow diplomacy: Backlash at ASEAN’s Response to the Myanmar Crisis”, 16 August 2021, https://globalriskinsights.com/2021/08/hollow-diplomacy-backlash-at-aseans-response-to-the-myanmar-crisis/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Myanmar-skips-ASEAN-summit-to-protest-general-s-16563776.php

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