Interview

Myanmar Junta Chief’s Exclusion From ASEAN Summit a Huge Blow to Regime

By The Irrawaddy 22 October 2021

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers held an emergency meeting on Myanmar on October 15. The ministers decided to exclude coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing from an upcoming ASEAN summit to be held October 26-28, despite objections from Myanmar’s military regime.

Daw Moe Thuzar, Myanmar Studies Program joint coordinator at the Yusof Ishak Institute, recently talked to The Irrawaddy about the possible consequences of ASEAN’s decision not to invite the junta chief to the October summit.

The ASEAN foreign ministers decided to exclude the coup leader from the upcoming ASEAN Summit and invite a non-political representative from Myanmar instead. What is your opinion of that decision?  

We can assume that it is a rare move. This is the first time in ASEAN’s history that the bloc has imposed restrictions on a member country regarding its representation at politically important summits. It is important to note that ASEAN has made this decision as it responds to the Myanmar crisis.

Such summits are normally attended by heads of state and heads of government, such as prime ministers and presidents. When heads of state can’t attend a summit, they nominate appropriate people to represent them. ASEAN has never said who can and who can’t attend its summits. As it said it would invite a non-political representative, we can assume that ASEAN does not want anyone from the military regime to attend.

Daw Moe Thuzar.

Is it a big blow to the junta?

We can interpret that ASEAN does not want the coup leader to attend the summit as the leader of Myanmar. From that perspective, it is a huge blow to the military regime because since the coup it has been trying to establish the legitimacy of its governing body, the State Administration Council.

The parallel National Unity Government (NUG) issued a statement on October 17 welcoming ASEAN’s decision. The NUG proposed that ASEAN choose someone who represents the Myanmar people to attend the meeting. Will ASEAN do that?

Since the NUG was formed in April, it has been in contact with ASEAN seeking recognition of the NUG. ASEAN’s decision-making is based on consensus. High-ranking officials and ministers working under the military regime are attending ASEAN’s working-level committees.  Even if ASEAN is considering the NUG’s proposal, the military regime’s representatives to ASEAN would object. ASEAN is aware of that.

But that doesn’t mean that ASEAN isn’t considering the NUG’s proposal. When Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was invited to Jakarta in April to discuss ASEAN’s five-point consensus on Myanmar [immediate cessation of violence; dialogue among all parties concerned; appoint a special envoy to facilitate mediation in the dialogue process; provide humanitarian assistance to Myanmar; special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned], ASEAN foreign ministers discussed the NUG’s letter prior to the meeting of ASEAN leaders. So, we could say that ASEAN is considering the NUG’s requests, but not formally as yet. The statement issued by ASEAN’s current chair, Brunei, also mentions the NUG in the paragraphs related to discussion of Myanmar’s representation at the summit. That is worth noting.

Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said on October 18 that ASEAN is ignoring the armed struggle against the regime by the NUG and its allies.  He also said that the ASEAN special envoy had made demands that were impossible to meet. What is your view on his response?

Optimistically, it is good if his regime cooperates on the five-point consensus. The situation has worsened because of weak cooperation. In the five-point consensus, ASEAN called on both sides to end violence. Everyone knows the root cause [the coup] that led to the violence.

The junta released political prisoners and detainees on October 18 and 19. Do you think it did that to try and persuade ASEAN to change its decision?

As the two events happened so closely, some might think that there is a connection between them. But my view is that it was the fourth time that the regime has released detainees. The first time was on Union Day, the second time during the Thingyan Water Festival. Those releases took place before the April ASEAN Summit. So it is fair to say that the first two releases of detainees had nothing to do with ASEAN’s proposals and demands. Detainees were released for the third time in June after the April ASEAN Summit and now again.

But we don’t know if the junta told the ASEAN special envoy its plan to release political prisoners when they discussed the envoy’s visit to Myanmar. If the Myanmar side did inform the envoy about it, he should have reported that to the ASEAN leaders. But ASEAN’s statement didn’t mention that.

Who do you think will attend the summit as Myanmar’s representative?

It could be a civil servant whose rank is not minister or deputy minister. My guess is that it could be a permanent secretary or a director-general. As the decision is for a nonpolitical figure, there is also the Myanmar permanent representative to ASEAN, who is similar in rank to a director-general or permanent secretary. We shall have to wait and see. The Myanmar permanent representative to ASEAN is at the Myanmar permanent mission based in Jakarta. The summit is going to be held online, as I understand it, so the Myanmar representative to the summit could connect either from Naypyitaw or from Jakarta.

How will the relationship between the military regime and ASEAN develop in the long term?

There have been many ups and downs in the ASEAN-Myanmar relationship since the country became a member of the bloc in 1997. There are always ups and downs when issues arise between member countries or in the entire ASEAN community. We can’t predict a black and white scenario about the relationship. It will depend on the progress made in implementing the five-point consensus. The military regime has one thing to consider—does it want to earn approbation for its actions or be blamed continuously for them?

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The version of the article above was edited on October 25, 2021 to clarify the translation from Burmese in a few places.


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