PHNOM PENH: Southeast Asian leaders on Friday issued a “warning” to Myanmar to make measurable progress on a peace plan or risk being barred from more Asean meetings besides its annual summit.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations said that after “little progress” on the five-point peace consensus agreed jointly last year, leaders concluded a need for “concrete, practical and measurable indicators with a specific timeline”.
It added that Asean would review Myanmar’s representation at all levels of meetings, having barred its military leaders from its summit and foreign ministers’ meetings since last year. Myanmar’s chair sat empty at Friday’s summit in the Cambodian capital.
In a 15-point statement thrashed out over two days of difficult talks among Asean foreign ministers — with the exception of Myanmar’s — the bloc also agreed to “engage all stakeholders soon”.
This will likely involve meeting representatives of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel body dominated by former lawmakers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted party.
The move drew a swift and angry response from Nay Pyi Taw.
“Myanmar strongly objects to and condemns the attempts by Aseam member states to engage with those unlawful and terrorist organisations through any means and forms,” the foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who last week said the military regime was solely to blame for the failing peace process, said Friday’s statement sent “a strong message or even a warning to the junta”.
Political, social and economic chaos have gripped Myanmar since the military overthrew the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi last year and unleashed a deadly crackdown on dissent that unravelled years of tentative reform towards democracy.
Asean, which has a long-standing tradition of non-interference in members’ sovereign affairs, has ruled out Western-style sanctions against Myanmar or expelling it from the 10-member group, even as it condemns increasingly violent actions by the junta such as the executions of democracy activists and an air strike that killed at least 50 people.
Indonesia President Joko Widodo has proposed barring Myanmar’s junta from attending events beyond the big summits but the final statement issued by the bloc said such steps would not be taken yet. All of the official statements can be downloaded from the summit website.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha saw Asean’s role in the Myanmar situation as important and crucial. “All parties need to work together to deliver humanitarian assistance to those in need in Myanmar,” a government statement quoted him as saying.
Some activists said Asean’s decision on Friday did not go far enough.
“The fact that Asean still hasn’t suspended the junta’s participation throughout the entire Asean system represents a continued lack of leadership on this issue and tacit permission for the junta to continue its crimes,” said Patrick Phongsathorn of Fortify Rights.
After holding their own closed-door talks on Friday, Asean leaders also discussed other tensions in the region, including the Korean peninsula and Taiwan, with global leaders including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in separate meetings.
US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are scheduled to hold discussions with the group on Saturday. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will also attend some meetings.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen addressed Friday’s opening ceremony with a call for vigilance and wisdom during times of economic and geopolitical turmoil.
“We are now at the most uncertain juncture; the lives of millions in our region depend on our wisdom and foresight,” he said.
Separately at the summit, Asean agreed in principle to admit East Timor as the group’s 11th member. Asia’s youngest democracy started the process of accession in 2002, but only formally applied for membership in 2011. In other developments:
Assertive China: China’s ties with Southeast Asia have strengthened despite the pandemic and the complex international landscape, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said, in a reminder to regional and world leaders of Beijing’s growing economic clout.
Li was setting the stage for China and US to present their competing interests at the summit this weekend.
President Biden, the first American leader to attend the meeting since 2017, is likely to push Washington’s vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region designed to counter Beijing’s growing military and technological assertiveness.
The Asean summit is also being billed as a preview of Biden’s meeting with his counterpart Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 meeting in Indonesia next week.
Help from Seoul: South Korea will contribute to building a prosperous Indo-Pacific by helping to enhance the region’s supply chains and bolster economic security, President Yoon Suk Yeol told Asean leaders.
“The Indo-Pacific is home to 65% of the world’s population and over 60% of its GDP. Half of the global seaborne cargo travels through the region,” he noted.
South China Sea: Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos pushed for an early conclusion for putting together a code of conduct for the South China Sea that has dragged on for decades.
“I welcome the progress on textual negotiations on the COC this past year and hopefully an approved code of conduct in the very near future,” Marcos said in remarks made during the Asean leaders’ meeting with Premier Li of China.
Scam crackdown: China and Cambodia pledged to deepen law enforcement cooperation, working together to crack down on human trafficking, online gambling, telecom scams and related crimes, according to a communique published after Li’s meetings with Cambodian officials.