Flags of member countries attending the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Bangkok in November 2019. Photo: AFP / Romeo Gacad

Myanmar skipped the recently concluded 38th and 39th ASEAN leaders’ summits virtually hosted by this year’s rotating chair Brunei. The move was likely in protest after Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who assumed the role of prime minister in August, was disinvited in favor of a non-political representative. It was an unprecedented decision for a regional organization known for its non-intrusion in members’ internal affairs. 

Hailed as a triumph in denying legitimacy to the Myanmar junta, the non-attendance also took the heat off both the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Naypyidaw. However, while the development may have boosted the ASEAN bloc’s credibility, it may also undercut its ability to sway the Myanmar regime. If the junta digs in, it might either push the country to further isolation or into the embrace of other powers, such as China, India or Russia. 

In the run-up to the annual leaders’ summit, ASEAN held an emergency session on October 15 to decide whether to welcome the embattled junta chief. Several ASEAN members expressed strong reservations against the idea, arguing that it might erode the bloc’s stature and send a wrong message to Naypyidaw.

Some members also received expressions of interest from the rival National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel underground organization composed of civilian leaders and lawmakers deposed by the February coup, to represent the country in the summitry. 

Dismayed over the regime’s failure to live up to an agreed framework to resolve the political crisis but not wanting to choose which side to invite, as it would impinge on a member’s domestic affairs, ASEAN opted for a non-political representative.

That signaled the regional body’s frustration over the lack of meaningful progress on the part of Naypyidaw to implement the Five Point Consensus reached in a special meeting in April in Jakarta. Restrictions on access to other domestic political actors imposed by the junta were a sticking point, diminishing hopes of fostering constructive dialogue among all relevant parties.

Wanting neither to disfranchise Myanmar nor to legitimize the current regime and condone its failure to abide by the regional consensus, inviting a non-political representative was seen as a compromise. It left the door open for Myanmar to participate in the summits. However, it constituted a bitter pill for the junta to swallow. Hence the snub. 

But in hindsight, the no-show saved both ASEAN and Naypyidaw from further fuss. Neither a junta-appointed representative – even a civilian bureaucrat – nor a delegate from the outlawed opposition was acceptable to either side of the domestic divide and might not have been seen as “non-political” at home or abroad.

Myanmar’s non-attendance spared the bloc from being put on the spot, especially had the junta dispatched a senior-level official, a move that could have resulted in loud objections from the NUG and its international supporters. For the regime, the snub can be projected as a protest against attempts to undermine its authority, displaying determination to push back even against time-honored neighbors and partners. 

Naypyidaw cited external pressure as a factor behind the bloc’s decision to disinvite Min Aung Hlaing. But even if this cannot be dismissed, the regime’s inability to show earnest actions to move forward with the Five Point Consensus after half a year could have tipped the balance and made the bloc more susceptible to such overtures.

Snubbing a sitting leader, notwithstanding the circumstances of how he got into it, is a big leap of faith for a bloc that treats non-interference in members’ internal affairs as inviolable. 

Thus Myanmar’s post-coup conundrum shows the bloc’s threshold in tolerating an erring family member. It suggests that further lack of interest in complying with the agreed peace roadmap will no longer be excused. This is ASEAN’s way of conveying to the international community that it is taking steps to keep its regional house in order, despite criticisms of vacillation and diluted response. 

The summit debacle adds further woes to an increasingly isolated Naypyidaw. ASEAN has suffered much backlash over being too soft against Myanmar and wants to demonstrate that it will no longer expend more patience unless it sees concrete actions being taken to meet the consensus points. An uncooperative Myanmar risks alienating close neighbors that have long provided crucial lifelines enabling it to weather international sanctions.

The ASEAN Chairman’s Statement released after the summit outlines the bloc’s stance. Myanmar “remains a member of the ASEAN family” and it will be accorded “both time and political space to deal with its many and complex challenges.” However, “Myanmar’s national preoccupation should not affect [the] ASEAN community-building process and decision-making.”

The regional body stands ready to support Myanmar’s desire to return to normalcy, but puts the onus on Naypyidaw to take the initiative. The regime can double down and resist what it sees as an affront to its sovereignty. If this means de-emphasizing ASEAN in its foreign policy, it opens country to a web of uncertainties as it deals with great-power neighbors with competing interests. 

Lucio B Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He writes on Asian security and connectivity issues.