BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (Borneo Bulletin/Asia News Network): The situation in Myanmar has captured global attention this year, said Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah during a virtual meeting of the 38th and 39th Asean Summit and Related Summits hosted by Brunei Darussalam as Chair of Asean for 2021 on Tuesday (Oct 26).
He reaffirmed that Myanmar is a part of the Asean family and, with respect to the principle of non-interference, it is important to give the country space to return to normalcy.
The Sultan also expressed hope that Myanmar will fully implement the Five-Point Consensus in a timely manner to help the country regain the confidence of regional and international communities.
Myanmar topped the agenda of Tuesday’s talks between regional leaders, with the country still in chaos following February’s military takeover and the subsequent deadly crackdown on dissent.
Myanmar’s junta boycotted the summit after its chief was barred from the event, deepening the regime’s isolation after it took power in a bloody coup in February.
Facing calls to defuse the crisis, Asean – including Myanmar – has drawn up a roadmap aimed at restoring peace but there have been doubts over the junta’s commitment to the plan. Its refusal to let Asean's special envoy, Minister of Foreign Affairs Erywan Mohd Yusof to meet ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi prompted the bloc to bar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from this week’s summit.
The coup snuffed out Myanmar’s short-lived experiment with democracy, with Nobel laureate Suu Kyi now facing a raft of charges in a junta court that could see her jailed for decades.
Min Aung Hlaing’s exclusion from the South-East Asian summit was an unprecedented snub from the organisation. The junta slammed the decision as a breach of the bloc’s policy of non-interference in member states’ affairs.
The 10-member group invited a senior official from the junta-appointed foreign ministry in his place. But the regime said on the eve of the meeting that sending a more junior figure would “affect our country’s sovereignty and image”.
The focal point for the virtual meetings is at the International Convention Centre (ICC) in Berakas, where a media centre has been set up to accommodate local media and a handful of foreign media personnel covering the three-day virtual summit.
At the vast ICC building, which in the past played host to the APEC and Asean summits, the national flags of all the bloc’s members are flown, along with the Asean flag and flags of dialogue partner countries.
The only thing missing is the crowd and tight and heavily armed security usually seen in Asean Summit venues where regional and world leaders converge.
Instead, dozens of local officials and registered media entering the ICC have to undergo Covid-19 antigen rapid test (ART) and scan the BruHealth application before entering the venue. Strict social distancing measures and mask mandates were also put in place.
According to an official from the Information Department, 132 media personnel from local and international media agencies have registered to cover the meetings, mainly virtually as the country’s borders remain shut except for essential travel since March last year.
At the opening of the summit, a big screen set up at the ICC for media personnel showed the leaders participating – but with just a blue display with the word ‘Myanmar’ on it where the country’s representative was supposed to be.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, among several Asean member states that have spoken out strongly against the coup, lamented that “progress has been slow” following the Myanmar coup.
“This has real consequences for the people of Myanmar and Asean’s credibility as a rules-based organisation,” he told the summit, according to a report from AFP.
While some have hailed the decision to bar the junta chief as significant, observers think it unlikely the bloc will go further, such as by suspending Myanmar.
And they see little chance of decisions at this week’s meetings that could prompt a change of course from the junta.
Tuesday also saw for the first time in four years a United States (US) president attending the Asean summits as Joe Biden seeks to rally support in the region.