Some ‘credibility’ restored to Asean

TO project legitimacy, Myanmar’s military regime has scrupulously broadcast images of its meetings with foreign leaders since it seized power on Feb 1.

So it is a slap in the face now that junta chief Min Aung Hlaing is excluded from the Asean leaders’ summits from Oct 26 to 28.

The unprecedented decision on Friday evening restores some credibility to Asean, which had been accused of recognising a brutal regime against the will of Myanmar’s majority. Yet it also raises more questions.

In a statement issued a day after the emergency foreign ministers’ meeting, Asean chairman Brunei noted concerns that the junta appeared to be dragging its feet in resolving Myanmar’s crisis based on an earlier “Five-Point Consensus” agreement.

“As there had been insufficient progress... as well as concerns over Myanmar’s commitment on establishing constructive dialogue among all concerned parties, some Asean member states recommended that Asean give space to Myanmar to restore its internal affairs and return to normalcy,” Brunei said in the statement on Saturday.

“The meeting accepted the decision to invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to the upcoming summits,” the statement said.

It was a face-saving way of disinviting Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. But it also flew in the face of reality in Myanmar, where there is little “non-political” space.

The junta has systematically attacked or persecuted its biggest political rivals, as well as civil servants, medical volunteers and monks opposing its rule.

On the other side, the rival National Unity Government has warned civil servants against showing up for work. Local armed groups resisting the junta are threatening even the electricity authorities trying to collect power bills. Over 1,000 people have been killed.

While fuller details have yet to emerge from Asean, analysts surmise that Brunei will most likely allow the junta to pick its “non-political” representative for the summit.As blur as the boundaries are now, “Asean is really trying to differentiate between state and government”, says ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Moe Thuzar.

“What Asean is making clear is that it does not want the head of the State Administration Council (SAC), Min Aung Hlaing, sitting in the Myanmar seat,” she said.

“(But) when we talk about Myanmar appointing a representative, that would mean the SAC is appointing this person. Even if a senior civil servant is chosen, he or she will still be going as an SAC representative.”

Even junta foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin could technically make the cut, some point out.

“It’s really up to the chair (Brunei) to decide,” said Mr Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“I can see a situation in which the chair decides that Wunna Maung Lwin, as a former diplomat now acting as foreign minister, is a civil servant and therefore non-political.

“I don’t think a lot of people will buy that. But if the real purpose of this approach is to downgrade Myanmar’s participation in the summit, to lower its level of representation, then that purpose will still be served.”

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called Friday’s decision “difficult but necessary”.

It would no doubt sit uncomfortably with some Asean members like Thailand, whose core political leaders came to power through a military coup in 2014 and have reinvented themselves as civilian politicians in a way that appeals to the Myanmar regime.

While consensus-driven Asean is often criticised for its policy of non-interference, member states did exert enough pressure on military-ruled Myanmar in 2005 for it to forgo its turn at the rotating chairmanship. But Myanmar stayed on to eventually helm Asean in 2014 under better circumstances.

Fast-forward to 2021, and some wonder if Asean’s decision to downgrade Myanmar’s participation at the upcoming summit may infuriate the junta enough to boycott it.

“Asean is still one of the rare fora where the SAC can still have some kind of assertion that they are somehow participating equally in multilateral forums,” says Moe Thuzar. — The Straits Times/ANN

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