South-east Asian countries will invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to a regional summit this month, delivering an unprecedented snub to the military leader who led a coup against an elected civilian government in February.
The decision taken by foreign ministers from the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), at an emergency meeting on Friday night, marks a rare bold step for the consensus-driven bloc, which has traditionally favoured a policy of engagement and non-interference.
Singapore’s foreign ministry said on Saturday that the move to exclude junta chief Min Aung Hlaing was a “difficult but necessary decision to uphold Asean’s credibility”.
The statement went on to cite the lack of progress made on a roadmap to restore peace in Myanmar that the junta had agreed with Asean in April.
More than 1,000 civilians have been killed by Myanmar security forces and thousands arrested, according to the UN, amid a crackdown on strikes and protests that has derailed the country’s tentative democracy and prompted international condemnation.
The junta says those estimates of the death toll are exaggerated.
Asean’s current chair, Brunei, said a non-political figure from Myanmar would be invited to the summit on 26-28 October, after no consensus was reached for a political representative to attend.
“As there had been insufficient progress … as well as concerns over Myanmar*s commitment, in particular 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 a statement.
It did not mention Min Aung Hlaing or name who would be invited in his stead.
Brunei said some member states had received requests from Myanmar’s national unity government, formed by opponents of the junta, to attend the summit.
Asean has faced increasing international pressure to take a tougher stand against Myanmar, having been criticised in the past for its ineffectiveness in dealing with leaders accused of rights abuses, subverting democracy and intimidating political opponents.
A US State Department official told reporters on Friday that it was “perfectly appropriate and in fact completely justified” for Asean to downgrade Myanmar’s participation at the coming summit.
Singapore in its statement urged Myanmar to cooperate with Asean’s envoy, Brunei’s second minister of foreign affairs, Erywan Yusof.
Erywan has delayed a long-planned visit to the country in recent weeks and has asked to meet all parties in Myanmar, including deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained in the coup.
The junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said this week that Erywan would be welcome in Myanmar, but would not be allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi because she is charged with crimes.