The summit of Southeast Asian leaders began on Tuesday without a Myanmar representative, after the country’s junta leader was barred from attending for failing to follow a regional peace treaty and the ruling military refused to send junior representatives.
Neither Brunei, the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), nor the bloc’s secretary-general mentioned the absence in their opening remarks at the virtual meeting.
ASEAN on Oct. 15 decided to exclude junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted a civilian government on Feb. 1, over his failure to implement a peace process he agreed with ASEAN in April towards ending the country’s bloody crisis.
The move was a rare bold step by a regional grouping known for its non-interference and engagement.
Brunei had said the bloc would invite a non-political representative from Myanmar, but there was no confirmation of this by the opening of the summit.
Myanmar’s junta late on Monday said it would only agree to its head of state or ministerial representative attending the summit, indicating its seat would be empty.
U.S. President Joe Biden will attend a joint session by video link.
Since overthrowing Suu Kyi’s government, detaining her and most of her allies and ending a decade of tentative democracy, Myanmar’s military has killed more than 1,000 people and arrested thousands, monitoring group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says.
The junta disputes that count as inflated and says soldiers have been killed in fighting nationwide with armed opposition groups.
On the agenda for Tuesday’s opening day were three separate meetings between the ASEAN leaders and representatives of the United States, China and South Korea.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
In deciding to sideline the Myanmar junta boss, ASEAN cited his failure to make steps to end hostilities, initiate dialogue, allow humanitarian support and grant a special envoy full access in the country.
Myanmar insists the conflict is being stoked by “terrorists” allied with a shadow unity government and says ASEAN is not taking that into account.
Michael Vatikiotis, Asia Director of the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, said Myanmar’s junta “probably cares about being frozen out of the summit”, although it has a history of enduring international isolation.
“The question now is whether regional leaders will agree to engage with the parallel National Unity Government more formally, as the U.S. and EU has started to do,” he said.
The National Unity Government is an alliance of pro-democracy groups and ethnic minority armies formed after the coup.