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Biden joins Southeast Asian leaders to rebuke Myanmar junta excluded from summit

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By Reuters

By Ain Bandial

BANDARSERIBEGAWAN -U.S. President Joe Biden joined Southeast Asian leaders in rebuking Myanmar’s junta on Tuesday as a regional summit opened without a representative from the country, following its top general’s exclusion for ignoring peace proposals.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had said it would accept a non-political figure from Myanmar at the virtual meeting, but the junta on Monday rejected that, saying it would only agree to its leader or a minister attending.

In an unprecedented snub to the leader of a member state, ASEAN had decided to sideline https://reut.rs/3n0roOZ junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who led a Feb. 1 coup that spiralled into violence and nationwide chaos, for his failure to cease hostilities, allow humanitarian access and start dialogue, as agreed with ASEAN.

The decision was a huge insult to Myanmar’s military and a rare, bold step by a regional grouping known for its code of consensus, non-interference and engagement.

“Today, ASEAN did not expel Myanmar from ASEAN‘s framework. Myanmar abandoned its right,” said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who will be the group’s chairman next year.

“Now we are in the situation of ASEAN minus one. It is not because of ASEAN, but because of Myanmar.”

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said ASEAN had a slot ready for Myanmar, but it chose not to join.

At the virtual summit, Biden voiced “grave concerns” over the violence in Myanmar and called on its military to release people who have been unjustly detained, the White House said.

Myanmar’s junta hit back on Tuesday evening with a statement criticising ASEAN‘s “denial” of its rightful representative.

“Myanmar’s absence at the ASEAN Summits due to denial for the Head of State or Head of Government or his Ministerial level representation, does not intend to show its protest against ASEAN or to boycott ASEAN,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, in his remarks to leaders, lamented Myanmar’s “unwelcome attitude” towards ASEAN‘s diplomatic efforts, Retno said.

ASEAN‘s decision to invite a Myanmar representative on a non-political level was a heavy one, but it had to be done,” she said.

“It’s important for us to honour the principles of non-interference. But on the other hand, we’re obligated to uphold other principles … like democracy, good governance, respect for human rights, and a constitutional government,” she said, quoting the president.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of ASEAN chair Brunei said Myanmar should be given space to return to normalcy in line with ASEAN‘s principle of non-interference.

The region’s leaders urged “the mediation of the situation in Myanmar to uphold ASEAN‘s credibility”, he said in a statement.

It was Brunei, with majority backing, that had decided to exclude the junta leader.

Myanmar’s military, which ruled the country for 49 of the past 60 years, has objected strongly https://reut.rs/2Zeppik, to ASEAN‘s uncharacteristically strict response, accusing it of departing from its norms and of allowing itself to be influenced by other countries, including the United States.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired general considered the ASEAN leader closest to Myanmar’s coup-makers, urged the country to implement a five-point roadmap it agreed with ASEAN.

He said the issue was crucial for the bloc’s reputation and a test of its resolve.

CREDIBILITY AT STAKE

ASEAN‘s constructive role in addressing this situation is of paramount importance and our action on this matter shall have a bearing on ASEAN‘s credibility in the eyes of the international community,” said Prayuth, who first came to power in a 2014 coup before his party won elections five years later.

ASEAN made the call days after its special envoy, Erywan Yusof, said the junta denied him sufficient access https://reut.rs/3vdCjIW, including to ousted elected leader https://reut.rs/30uv6sB Aung San Suu Kyi, who is charged with multiple crimes.

Suu Kyi, 76, appeared in court on Tuesday and denied one of the charges https://reut.rs/3BgdJbu, incitement to cause public alarm, media reported.

Prayuth said he was hopeful the junta would trust ASEAN‘s intentions and that Erywan could visit Myanmar soon and make an “important first step in the process of confidence-building”.

Myanmar security forces have killed more than 1,000 people and detained thousands, many tortured and beaten, according to UN envoys.

Myanmar has rejected that as biased and exaggerated by unreliable sources https://reut.rs/3pIgjFn and blames “terrorists” https://reut.rs/2ZgZJBG loyal to a shadow National Unity Government (NUG), an alliance of anti-coup groups, militias and ethnic minority rebels.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met NUG representatives https://bit.ly/3mgIrgF on Monday.

Biden attended https://www.reuters.com/world/president-biden-attend-asean-us-summit-tuesday-2021-10-25 a joint session, the first time in four years Washington has engaged at the top level with ASEAN, seen as key to countering an increasingly assertive China.

Biden said ASEAN nations can expect him to personally show up in the region in future.

“Our partnership is essential to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, which has been the foundation of our shared security and prosperity for many decades,” he said.