This weekend’s special summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will go ahead without the participation of Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the leader confirmed on Tuesday.
The leaders of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei have confirmed their attendance at the April 24 meeting in Jakarta, but according to the Bangkok Post, Prayut will instead be represented by Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. Uncertainty also surrounds the attendance of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, amid rumors of ill health.
The summit has been convened to discuss the political crisis in Myanmar, after weeks of efforts by certain ASEAN member states, particularly Indonesia, to advance a regional solution to the political crisis.
The Thai government did not give a reason for Prayut’s absence from the summit, but it is not hard to read it as a sign that the former general, who himself led a coup against Thailand’s elected government in 2014, is unwilling to take a strong stand against the actions of a military establishment with which the Royal Thai Army has close relations.
Whatever happens, the summit will mark an important milestone for ASEAN. It reflects the awareness that the deepening crisis in Myanmar risks impacting the region not only in terms of the increased refugee flows and the expansion of Myanmar’s conflict economy, but also in terms of ASEAN’s credibility and standing in the eyes of its international partners.
As Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the former Permanent Secretary of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted in the Bangkok Post this week, the summit marks “the first time that ASEAN will be meeting at the highest level to address principally a situation of concern in a fellow member state.”
Since the coup, the security forces have killed at least 738 people, including children, while another 3,300 have been detained for anti-coup activities.
As protests continued in Myanmar this week, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the U.N. Security Council that ASEAN’s role was “more crucial than ever,” and urged “regional actors to leverage their influence to prevent further deterioration and, ultimately, find a peaceful way out of this catastrophe.”
But a successful resolution will require considerable diplomatic finesse and a unity between ASEAN member states that has so far been lacking.
Ade Padmo Sarwono, Indonesia’s permanent representative to ASEAN, told The Australian that the meeting would likely focus on humanitarian responses to the crisis, and in deescalating violence in order to open up a path for negotiation.
“All ASEAN members are concerned about the humanitarian situation in Myanmar right now,” Sarwono said. “We need to have a situation where all parties are able to sit together. We need to stop the violence and provocation to make the situation conducive to dialogue.”
The Southeast Asian bloc is already taking fire over coup leader Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s presence at the summit, which was confirmed today, with anti-coup activists in Yangon protesting ASEAN’s decision as a de facto recognition of the coup government. This has come amid calls for ASEAN to invite to Jakarta representatives of the National Unity Government (NUG) that was announced on April 16.
“ASEAN’s inclusion of Min Aung Hlaing lends unwarranted legitimacy to the junta’s State Administrative Council over Myanmar’s democratically elected government,” the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch opined in a statement this week, calling on ASEAN member states instead to throw their support behind the NUG.
While there are good moral and practical reasons for ASEAN to speak with the NUG in some capacity, inviting the Tatmadaw’s political opponents to its special summit might alienate the junta entirely, closing off any possibility – however remote at this juncture – that the Myanmar military will concede to talks.
These calls illustrate ASEAN’s bind, in seeking to open negotiations between two sides, neither of which has much interest in compromise. Understandably, few in the pro-democracy camp appear willing to concede anything to the loathed Tatmadaw government, while the violent actions of Min Aung Hlaing and his cronies represent the polar opposite of compromise.
ASEAN thus faces the unenviable challenge of paving a road toward negotiation aimed at forestalling further violence, without appearing to weigh in on the relative legitimacy of Myanmar’s two competing governments. Doing all of this while avoiding anything that “could be construed as accepting the situation in Myanmar as a fait accompli,” which Thailand’s Sihasak Phuangketkeow described this week as the bloc’s essential task, will be more challenging still.