The Myanmar national flag (center) is seen with flags of member countries attending the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Bangkok in November 2019. Myanmar's junta chief was excluded from an ASEAN summit in October 2021, a rare rebuke as concerns rise over the military government's commitment to defusing a bloody crisis. Photo: AFP / Romeo Gacad

SINGAPORE – After being excluded from last month’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in an unprecedented rebuke of Myanmar’s recalcitrant military regime, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing was similarly conspicuously absent from two virtual ASEAN meetings with the European Union (EU) and China this week.

In what analysts viewed as the most severe sanction against any ASEAN member has ever been dealt by the regional bloc, ASEAN leaders barred the commander-in-chief, increasingly regarded as an international pariah, from attending an October 26-28 summit and called for a “non-political” Myanmar figure to participate instead. The junta refused.

Frustrated by Naypyidaw’s failure to honor pledges to allow an ASEAN special envoy access to deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected lawmakers overthrown in February’s coup, the decision to bar the junta chief was seen as a last-ditch effort to salvage credibility lost to the months-long impasse.

Now, with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen taking the reins of ASEAN’s annually rotating chairmanship in 2022, debate is swirling over whether Phnom Penh has the mettle to display leadership by dealing sternly with Myanmar or instead defer to China, its closest political ally and economic benefactor, in its handling of the crisis.

Beijing reportedly lobbied Southeast Asian nations to allow Min Aung Hlaing to attend the recent ASEAN-China summit, which was hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 22. Citing diplomatic sources, Reuters reported that the junta leader’s participation was adamantly opposed by Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore.

China then opted to accept ASEAN’s position that Myanmar be represented by a non-political figure and suggested that Myo Thant Pe, Myanmar’s ambassador to Beijing, join the meeting, to which the bloc agreed. But according to Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, Myanmar’s envoy pulled out of the meeting at the eleventh hour.

Saifuddin told reporters that that ASEAN had “wanted to maintain the position of Myanmar in the grouping” and was at a loss to explain why no representation was ultimately made by the military junta. Analysts saw the fact that Beijing pushed for the ruling general’s inclusion as significant, with the move also setting off alarm bells among rights-minded observers.

“China’s apparent attempt to prevail on the nations of Southeast Asia to legitimize a junta accused of atrocities, including genocide, presents a significant challenge and opportunity to ASEAN,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian lawmaker and chairperson of advocacy group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

Myanmar protesters in front of the Chinese embassy in Yangon after the February 1, 2021 coup. Image: Facebook

In a statement, Santiago called on ASEAN to stand firm on its decision to exclude junta representatives from regional meetings and instead initiate open dialogue with the National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel civilian administration formed in April by deposed elected lawmakers, ethnic minority organizations and opponents of the coup.  

The APHR chair said the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) on November 25-26 provided the “perfect opportunity” for the NUG’s representatives to be included. A non-political representative from Myanmar was once again a no-show at the ASEM virtual summit, which Cambodia hosted. Representatives of the NUG were also not present.

The NUG had sought but was denied an invitation to April’s meeting in Jakarta, where ASEAN leaders met with Min Aung Hlaing in an attempt to broker a solution to the crisis. Myanmar’s army chief agreed to a five-point consensus during talks in the Indonesian capital but almost immediately prevaricated on implementing its commitments.

With the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, now refusing to send junior non-political representation to regional summits in apparent protest of what it views as a breach of ASEAN’s vaunted code of consensus and non-interference, analysts say the bloc should heed growing calls to formally engage the NUG’s shadow government.

Regarding itself as Myanmar’s legitimate interim authority, the NUG has continued to lobby for greater recognition from the international community. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan held talks with representatives of the NUG last month, following earlier outreach by officials from the State Department and National Security Council.

Moe Thuzar, co-coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, noted that the ASEAN chair’s statement following the bloc’s foreign minsters’ meeting in October “made specific mention of the NUG for the first time in a public ASEAN document.”

“Whether this may translate into more ASEAN members reaching out to the NUG remains to be seen,” she said. “Some have communicated with the NUG unilaterally and discreetly, but these communications may not be on a regular basis. The NUG has signaled its interest to continue its efforts to engage ASEAN by appointing an ambassador to ASEAN.”

In October, the NUG appointed Bo Hla Tint as its ambassador to ASEAN. Thuzar told Asia Times that engagement with the bloc and a presence at ASEAN meetings continues to be important to the NUG, and that both the NUG and ASEAN stand to benefit from learning more about each other’s policy approaches.

“For example, the NUG needs to have an ASEAN policy that goes beyond seeking recognition, and ASEAN would also have the opportunity to discuss its principles and position regarding the grouping’s response to the Myanmar crisis. Similarly, questions surrounding the escalation of violence could be directly addressed and answered,” she said.

The junta’s State Administration Council (SAC) has struggled to govern since seizing power ten months ago, facing armed resistance from militias and ethnic minority rebels that are part of People’s Defense Forces (PDF) allied with the NUG, which the military regards as “terrorists” aligned with an unlawful and treasonous parallel authority.

Protesters wearing signs in support of the People’s Defence Force (PDF) during a demonstration against the military coup in Dawei. Photo: Handout / Dawei Watch

Launched in response to repression by the Tatmadaw, which undertook an internationally condemned crackdown in the months following the coup that has left more than 1,000 civilians dead, armed conflict has since flared in several parts of the country as PDF militias carry out bombings and targeted assassinations of junta figures.

“On the ground, there is a battlefield stalemate, which means the Tatmadaw has an overwhelming force of arms, but it cannot really defeat and wipe out what is now an armed guerilla resistance movement around the country,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an esteemed Thai political scientist and professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

Cambodia has warned that the situation threatens to deteriorate into a multi-front civil war, with Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who diplomatic sources say could be appointed as ASEAN’s new special envoy for Myanmar, vowing that Phnom Penh will continue to push Myanmar’s military rulers to open dialogue with its NUG opponents as the bloc’s chair.

Naypyidaw has thus far refused to open discussions with deposed civilian leaders, many of whom remain in state custody. Earlier this month the junta reiterated its refusal to allow ASEAN’s special envoy access to detained elected leader Suu Kyi, maintaining that it was against domestic law to allow someone charged with crimes access to a foreigner.

With some ASEAN members wary of overstepping the bloc’s constraints of non-interference, it is unclear whether ASEAN will open formal discussions with the NUG under Cambodia’s chairmanship. Instead, individual countries like Malaysia and Indonesia could continue to act as liaisons to anti-coup forces, say analysts.

“Top-level outreach [with the NUG] is an act of interference that is way beyond humanitarian assistance that is generally accepted, and so ASEAN will very likely try to avoid [doing so],” said Paruedee Nguitragool, an assistant professor in international relations at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University.

“Considering the Tatmadaw’s growing relations with Russia, China’s cautious moves and influence over Cambodia, and Cambodia’s democracy and human rights records, the chance of the NUG becoming more important to ASEAN next year is not so bright,” she said, adding that much will depend on the junta’s willingness to cooperate with ASEAN. 

Initially hesitant to speak out against the junta, Phnom Penh has said it will set up an ad hoc task force to work with Myanmar’s “conflicting parties quietly or through back-door diplomacy.” Signaling it will continue to pressure Naypyidaw, Hun Sen used unexpectedly firm language to address the situation at last month’s ASEAN summit.

“Now we are in the situation of ASEAN-minus-one,” said Cambodia’s premier, remarking on the junta’s unprecedented refusal to send representation to an ASEAN gathering. “That is not because of ASEAN but because of Myanmar itself. ASEAN did not expel Myanmar from ASEAN’s framework. Myanmar abandoned its right.”

Observers are of two minds as to whether Hun Sen, a strongman who has been in power for almost 37 years, will be an effective mediator of the crisis as ASEAN’s chair. Some analysts think Cambodia will largely maintain the approach of Brunei, which chaired the grouping this year amid persistent criticism of its ineffectual handling of the situation.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is still in Washington’s crosshairs. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Critics faulted Brunei for making too many concessions to Myanmar’s military rulers and its bureaucratic approach to decision-making that delayed the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy. Erywan Yusof, Brunei’s second foreign minister, was given the role more than three months after ASEAN leaders met in Jakarta.

“Brunei’s performance was barely par for the chairmanship. It managed to have a meeting and come up with a five-point consensus. But after that, Brunei was not able to put any kind of significant pressure on the SAC to come to the table,” said academic Thitinan. “Min Aung Hlaing basically took ASEAN for a ride, and Brunei really did not have an answer for it.”

Cambodia, on the other hand, is reputed for repeatedly blocking ASEAN statements that are critical of Beijing. During Phnom Penh’s last tenure as ASEAN’s chair in 2012, the bloc failed to issue a joint statement for the first time because Cambodia refused to accept language criticizing China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

A harsh clampdown on Hun Sen’s political opponents, alleged human rights violations and reports of widespread corruption have led Washington and Brussels to ratchet up punitive measures against Cambodia in recent months, which analysts say has pushed Phnom Penh ever closer to Beijing, a major source of the country’s foreign direct investment.

In what is likely to be his last tenure as ASEAN’s chair, Hun Sen “might look at Myanmar as an opportunity to regain some credibility without China’s opposition,” said Thitinan. Beijing, he suggests, may allow Cambodia’s premier to take a fairly hard line on the Tatmadaw because “when it comes to Myanmar, China itself is not so happy.”

Certain analysts regard China as being pro-junta in practice, but note that Beijing has become increasingly frustrated with the turmoil that has persisted since the coup and the military’s inability to protect Chinese-owned investments. Chinese factories in Yangon were torched by protesters in March due to Beijing’s perceived support for the Tatmadaw.

“Beijing is displeased with what’s happened in Myanmar because it threw a spanner in the works of China’s geostrategic plans for Southeast Asia,” said Thitinan. China would have preferred to work with the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) government with whom it had agreed to a number of critical infrastructure projects, he added.

“China would be very concerned about the South China Sea, about US-China relations, about Taiwan, about ASEAN’s role in the US-China competition and rivalry. But on Myanmar, I think China might let Cambodia have a pretty free hand. I think Hun Sen will have some latitude,” said the Chulalongkorn University professor.

Chiang Mai University’s Paruedee said it is difficult to predict whether Cambodia’s tenure as chair will be successful. “This depends on many factors such as Chinese intervention and the Cambodian government’s diplomatic capacity and ability to build trust and consensus. All major powers must also support ASEAN as the key mediator in the Myanmar conflict.”

 

Myanmar protesters carry signs calling on ASEAN not to endorse the junta’s new election plan. Picture: APHR

Hunter Marston, a Canberra-based Southeast Asian politics scholar, said that Cambodia’s talk of an “ad hoc task force” and “back-door diplomacy” would actually be welcomed by Myanmar’s junta, which recently accused ASEAN of violating its charter and caving to Western pressure by barring military representatives from recent summits.

Such a change of tact by Phnom Penh is “unlikely to force the junta to pursue dialogue with the elected government or resistance forces,” said Marston, adding that the Tatmadaw would likely benefit from Cambodia’s plans to appoint a new special envoy, “believing it can simply wait out the appointment to force concessions from ASEAN members.”

Marston said that while ASEAN may have to engage with junta representatives in order to provide on-the-ground humanitarian assistance, the grouping should “put in place a consistent policy of barring the junta from ASEAN meetings as it agreed when it said it would only permit a ‘non-political representative’ to participate.”

Paruedee told Asia Times that ASEAN could continue to exclude junta leaders from future meetings if the latter remains “frustratingly uncooperative” and the situation in the country continues to deteriorate. “It is also true that such symbolic disengagement has impacts on ASEAN’s leverage,” she added.

ASEAN’s precedent-setting rebuke of Myanmar’s military and its boycott of recent virtual gatherings have raised questions over the future of Naypyidaw’s relations with the bloc. Despite increasingly being seen as a liability to ASEAN, analysts still largely rule out the possibility of Myanmar being expelled or withdrawing from the grouping.

Observers say that participation in the organization bestows economic benefits and international legitimacy to Myanmar’s military rulers at a minimal cost. “Myanmar needs ASEAN more than ASEAN needs Myanmar, so I do not envision the junta withdrawing from ASEAN membership,” Marston told Asia Times.

“But then again we’ve seen Myanmar military dictators do similarly drastic things in the past,” pointing to General Ne Win’s withdrawal from the Non-Aligned Movement in 1979. “Myanmar needs individual ASEAN members to continue shielding it from international isolation, just as it uses Russia to hedge against overdependence on China,” he added.

“Considering the increasing ties and interdependence between Myanmar and other ASEAN members over the past decades, it is difficult to imagine Myanmar leaving the group for good,” said Paruedee, who remarked that it remains to be seen whether ASEAN’s existing practices and methods of diplomacy “are sufficient to bring about positive changes.”

Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces and head of Myanmar’s coup regime Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attends the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security in Moscow, Russia on June 23, 2021. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Sefa Karacan

Some experts have argued that Myanmar’s suspension from ASEAN should be a consideration and that Southeast Asian governments could be better off continuing their engagement with the Tatmadaw outside rather than within the constraints of ASEAN’s framework of non-interference and decision-making by consensus.

Thitinan, for one, has a dim outlook on the situation, describing a stalemate on two levels. “There’s a stalemate within the country, where the military has power but no complete control. And then at the ASEAN level, it’s a stalemate because ASEAN is not going to kick out Myanmar, and Myanmar is not going to resign or quit.”

Naypyidaw’s military rulers are “hunkering down for a long fight,” warned the Thai academic. While some have praised the bloc’s decision to bar Myanmar’s top general from the summit, Thitinan said the situation had forced ASEAN’s hand and that the move was ultimately made as “a concession from a position of weakness.”

“I don’t see that as an ASEAN victory at all.”