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Myanmar Crisis

What to expect at ASEAN's Myanmar crisis summit

Bloc's divisions prompt predictions of 'modest progress at best'

A nighttime protest in Yangon in March: More than 700 people have been reported killed since the Feb. 1 coup.     © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- After weeks of laying the groundwork, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will hold a special summit on Saturday to discuss the crisis in Myanmar. But a lack of unity within the bloc is already casting doubt on the outcome, with one analyst predicting "modest progress at best."

The in-person meeting will be held at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. Several top leaders are set to attend, including junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who "will definitely go" according to a spokesman. Vietnam will send new Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, the government said on Wednesday. Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will attend, his office said Thursday.

Yet there will be conspicuous absences, too: Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have both opted not to go.

The summit's primary objective is to make a meaningful step toward a peaceful resolution of the crisis, in which over 700 people have been killed in military crackdowns since the Feb. 1 coup.

"The leaders should convince Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to cease the use of force on unarmed protestors," said Sharon Seah, coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Center at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. The country "needs a break in the cycle of violence before any form of mediation can take place," she said.

Nikkei Asia earlier reported that ASEAN was considering a proposal to send a humanitarian aid mission to Myanmar -- a potential first step in a long-term plan to broker dialogue between the junta and other parties.

For the junta, Min Aung Hlaing's attendance suggests it wants international recognition as Myanmar's official government. Some critics have argued that ASEAN should not have invited him in the first place. Human Rights Watch's Asia director Brad Adams said on Wednesday that "ASEAN should be playing a constructive role in resolving Myanmar's crisis, not providing a podium to the general most responsible for creating it."

Anti-government protesters hold placards in support of Myanmar's new National Unity Government established by ousted legislators, in Yangon on April 17.   © Reuters

Instead, many say ASEAN should embrace the National Unity Government recently formed by pro-democracy politicians and outlawed by the junta. As a result, attitudes toward the NUG and other parties at the summit will be closely watched.

So will any meetings that happen on the sidelines.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, will be visiting the Indonesian capital this weekend in an apparent attempt to meet with the junta leader. A U.N. spokesperson explained on Wednesday that she is not attending the summit but will "have discussions with various parties who are also in Jakarta."

Burgener has been in Southeast Asia since early April but was refused entry into Myanmar. A key question is whether ASEAN will urge the junta to open its doors to her.

Some representatives at a U.N. Security Council meeting earlier this week expressed hopes for the ASEAN summit. But divisions within the bloc, and its longstanding policy of noninterference in members' internal affairs, threaten to dash them.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have been prominent voices calling for a resolution. Other countries such as Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have been reluctant to get involved.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth will skip the meeting and send Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai in his place. When Prayuth spoke with Indonesian President Joko Widodo by phone on Thursday, he expressed "concern and worries" about the situation in Myanmar but said he would stay home to focus on Thailand's rising coronavirus cases, according to a government statement.

Duterte also cited COVID-19 as his reason for appointing Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin as his envoy to the meeting, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said. "The president, through Secretary Locsin, will convey the Philippines' commitment to ASEAN's collective efforts in addressing threats and challenges to peace and stability in the region," the department said.

It added that Locsin would express "the Philippines' strong support" for an initiative led by Brunei and the ASEAN secretary-general to visit Myanmar and spearhead the response to the crisis.

Bill Hayton, associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Program at the U.K.'s Chatham House, told Nikkei Asia that some countries "seem to be preventing consensus emerging. They seem more concerned with preventing interference in Myanmar's affairs than in preventing the crisis from becoming worse."

Even if the other nine ASEAN states agree on proposals to the junta, there are two problems, according to Hayton. "Firstly, the Myanmar junta can simply refuse to do anything," he said. "Secondly, even if they agree, who will agree to talk to the military on the pro-democracy side?"

Other experts also offered relatively pessimistic views.

Seah of ISEAS said that "having a summit, versus not having one at all, is a small step forward." But she warned: "There are no guarantees that the summit will achieve any tangible outcomes so I would caution against harboring high hopes. It will be modest progress at best."

Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing is expected to attend the ASEAN summit.   © Reuters

Political analyst Bridget Welsh was more blunt. "ASEAN is being used as cover by Southeast Asian governments to show action, but in fact they are not taking decisions that give them leverage -- recognizing the NUG government bilaterally, pulling out businesses that engage with the military and threatening Myanmar's [membership] suspension," she told Nikkei Asia.

"For the moment," Welsh said, "indications are that it is moving toward a lowest common denominator -- and the lowest of them all is the Myanmar junta, which serves to gain the most by being asked to and recognized at the table."

Charles Santiago, chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, put the bloc's mission this weekend in simple terms.

"ASEAN's relevance will be displayed on Saturday," he said during an online seminar on Thursday. "This is about protecting the future of democracy in the region. If our leaders cannot stand with the people of Myanmar, it will be a very sad day."

Additional reporting by Masayuki Yuda.

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