KUALA LUMPUR – Southeast Asian leaders began their annual summit without Myanmar on Tuesday amid a diplomatic standoff over the exclusion of the leader of the military-ruled nation from the group's meetings.
Myanmar skipped the summit in protest after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations shut out its top general from its meetings .
ASEAN's refusal to allow Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to represent Myanmar at the summit was its harshest rebuke yet of the country's military rulers since they ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in February.
Brunei, who is this year’s chair of the 10-member bloc, invited Myanmar’s highest-ranking veteran diplomat, U Chan Aye, as a “non-political” representative, but he didn't attend the meeting, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters in Jakarta.
Marsudi said President Joko Widodo told the summit that ASEAN's unprecedented downgrade of Myanmar's participation “was a tough decision but it had to be done.”
Despite ASEAN's bedrock principles of non-interference in other members' affairs and decisions by consensus, Widodo said it is “also obliged to uphold other principles in the ASEAN charter such as democracy, good governance, respect for human rights and constitutional government,” Marsudi said.
Myanmar’s military takeover triggered widespread protests and a violent crackdown by authorities. Security forces are estimated to have killed almost 1,200 civilians, though the government has claimed a lower death toll.
Myanmar’s absence at the summit followed the refusal of its military leaders to allow an ASEAN special envoy, Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, to meet with Suu Kyi and other detained civilian leaders.
Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told the summit that the Myanmar crisis was a test of ASEAN's ability to resolve its own regional problems, Thai government spokesperson Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana said.
Prayut expressed hope that Myanmar will trust ASEAN and allow Erywan to meet with all parties concerned as an important first step in solving the crisis, Thanakorn added.
A statement issued by Brunei after the summit didn't mention Myanmar's absence but said the bloc's leaders called again for mediation in the Myanmar crisis to “uphold ASEAN's credibility."
Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry took a more conciliatory tone later Tuesday, saying its decision not to attend the summit was not intended to “show its protest against ASEAN or to boycott ASEAN.” It said it was just exercising its rights because it believed ASEAN’s decision to keep its leader away from the summit was against the bloc’s charter.
“Myanmar will continue to constructively cooperate with ASEAN,” it said. Myanmar has insisted it cooperated with Erywan but that he cannot meet with Suu Kyi and some others because they face criminal charges.
The three-day talks, which are being held by video due to coronavirus concerns, will be joined by other world leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden and the leaders of China and Russia. The meetings are expected to spotlight Myanmar’s worsening crisis as well as other regional security and economic issues.
While ASEAN took a major step in excluding Min Aung Hlaing from the summit, a group of lawmakers working to improve rights in the region, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, urged the bloc on Tuesday to engage with Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government. NUG views itself as a shadow government and had sought to attend the ASEAN summit.
“ASEAN must discontinue inviting any other junta representatives to all ASEAN official meetings until there is an end to violence, all political prisoners are freed, and the will of the people for fully fledged democracy has been heard," the group said in a statement.
On Monday, a senior U.S. official held a virtual meeting with two NUG representatives. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan “underscored U.S. continued support for the pro-democracy movement” and expressed concern over the military’s violence.
Sullivan said Washington will continue to seek the release of all those “unjustly detained,” including prominent pro-democracy activist Ko Jimmy, who was arrested in a raid on Saturday.
The United Nations on Monday appointed former U.N. Undersecretary-General Noeleen Heyzer of Singapore as its new special envoy for Myanmar. She will succeed Christine Schraner Burgener of Switzerland, whose term ends Sunday.
After their summit, ASEAN leaders held separate meetings with their Chinese, South Korean and U.S. counterparts later Tuesday. It was the first time since 2017 that a U.S. president has attended the annual ASEAN summit.
During the meeting, Biden announced a $100 million initiative to shore up ties with ASEAN amid China’s growth as a national security and economic adversary. Biden called the U.S. relationship with the bloc “essential.”
“I want you all to hear directly from me the importance the United States places on its relationship with ASEAN,” Biden said. “You can expect to see me showing up and reaching out to you.”
The new funding will include money for health spending, a new climate initiative, programs to assist with the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and education programs.
Gomez reported from Manila. Associated Press writers Grant Peck in Bangkok and Nini Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.