Will ASEAN Invite Myanmar’s War Criminals to Its Summit?

By The Irrawaddy 7 October 2021

ASEAN is in deep trouble again. The ongoing chaos, violence and armed conflict in Myanmar, a member state, are creating headaches for the regional grouping. Not for the first time, Myanmar is making ASEAN look pathetic—a laughing stock in the eyes of the world.

The generals in Myanmar have never shown ASEAN any respect. As its predecessors did, the current junta is testing the bloc’s policy of non-interference and its “consensus-seeking” approach. The generals are adept at reading ASEAN and they can foresee its concessions. Once again, thanks to them, ASEAN finds itself scrambling to preserve its credibility.

The question of whether to invite Myanmar to its summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei, on Oct. 26-28 is being hotly discussed among ASEAN members. If Myanmar junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is invited to attend, ASEAN will be condemned for welcoming a war criminal into the fold.

Ultimately, ASEAN leaders may simply opt to hold their noses as this rotten fish is presented to the regional grouping. If that happens, and the general is allowed to show up at the summit, we can safely and definitively declare ASEAN morally bankrupt. His presence could not send a worse signal, not only to Myanmar’s oppressed citizens, but also to democratic forces around the region.

ASEAN members have discussed excluding Myanmar from the upcoming summit on grounds that the coup leader has “backtracked” on his commitments to restore peace and democracy, the bloc’s special envoy said, days after Malaysia advocated the move in public comments that a junta spokesman dismissed as “personal remarks.”

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing agreed to a five-point consensus during an in-person meeting with Southeast Asian leaders in Jakarta on April 24. The consensus calls for an end to the violence, allowing humanitarian access, a commitment to dialogue with all parties, and the appointment of an ASEAN emissary to broker the dialogue.

Bruneian Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, the ASEAN envoy, told reporters this week that the bloc was seriously considering not inviting Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to the summit. “I can say that we are now deeply in discussion on this matter,” Erywan said during a press conference in Bandar Seri Begawan.

He did say that other ASEAN members had raised the same idea, but analysts noted earlier this week that a strong public statement, such as Malaysia’s, would put pressure on ASEAN as a bloc.

On Monday, Malaysia’s top diplomat, Saifuddin Abdullah, tweeted that without progress, “It would be difficult to have the chairman of the SAC at the ASEAN summit”. The SAC, or State Administration Council, is the Myanmar junta’s ruling organ.

Malaysia also said it would open talks with Myanmar’s shadow government if the junta failed to cooperate with ASEAN’s conflict-resolution efforts—the first such declaration by a member of the regional bloc.

At the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting held virtually on Monday, several ministers voiced disappointment at the lack of progress made by the junta.

Some ASEAN members, however, are sticking to the bloc’s ineffective noninterference policy, demonstrating in their discussions a pitifully limited knowledge of Myanmar issues and a lack of understanding of the member country. As they do, Myanmar’s people see more violence and killings as their country falls further into a state of chaos. They must acknowledge the fact that the military junta and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing have committed shocking, heinous crimes since taking power in February.

According to the UN, more than 1,100 people have been killed since the Feb. 1 coup, many during crackdowns by security forces on peaceful pro-democracy strikes and protests, and thousands have been arrested.

As a result, many people are now taking up arms in revolt, to resist the regime and its overthrow of the elected government. The military’s power grab remains an attempted coup, as the junta has been unable to assume full control of the country.

In many ways this is a problem of ASEAN’s own making; Myanmar’s long history of military dictatorships and the gross human rights abuses committed by them have been among ASEAN’s thorniest issues for many years. Regimes past and present have managed to hide behind the ASEAN shield, testing the limits of its unity and abusing its policy of noninterference. The result is that ASEAN gets zero respect from Myanmar citizens, or from millions of their counterparts around the region.

The only humane course of action for ASEAN is to deny any and all legitimacy to the junta and to Min Aung Hlaing, a war criminal. If this is to happen, ASEAN will have to listen to millions of voices in Myanmar.

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