But an invitation extended to Gen. Min Aung Hlaing — the junta chief who led the coup — has sparked outrage among Burmese activists and human rights groups who feel his presence, whether online or in person, would lend legitimacy to the junta’s rule.
“ASEAN needs to be careful if it is seen to be legitimating the junta even if it’s not its intention,” said Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist from Singapore. “If ASEAN is seen to be siding with the junta, that would probably create more disquiet and unhappiness among all the other groups in Myanmar.”
Leading Myanmar activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi said Min Aung Hlaing’s attendance at the summit would “signal not just to people in Myanmar but also in other countries in Southeast Asia that the ASEAN institution is immoral.” She urged ASEAN not to give the junta what it wants: “recognition and a seat with you.”
Others have called for the National Unity Government, formed last week by ousted lawmakers and opponents of the coup and which considers itself to be the legitimate government of Myanmar, to be invited to the special summit.
“ASEAN cannot adequately discuss the situation in Myanmar without hearing from and speaking to the National Unity Government. If ASEAN’s purpose really is to strengthen democracy, as stated by its Charter, they must give them a seat at the table,” said Charles Santiago, chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and a Malaysian member of parliament.
Inviting the junta but not the National Unity Government is hugely controversial. Many human rights defenders and activists believe ASEAN should disengage with Myanmar’s military entirely and only work with representatives of the National Unity Government.
On Thursday, the National Unity Government sent a letter to INTERPOL calling for the arrest junta leader Min Aung Hlaing ahead of his reported planned trip to the summit.
ASEAN is walking a tightrope
Meanwhile, the shutdown of WiFi and mobile data has severely restricted the flow of information, with the intention of stopping protesters from communicating and organizing.
The military said it has responded to the protests in a “limited manner” and said the deaths were “not the result of gunfire by security forces,” blaming “fake news” for inflating the death toll.
ASEAN is therefore walking a tightrope. Engaging with the military could “drive a wedge” between the Myanmar people and the bloc, Chong said. But ending the bloodshed is a priority for any meaningful path forward, and analysts say that would have to involve the military, known as the Tatmadaw.
“I think there’s no way around the crisis without having the Tatmadaw at the table, because they are part of the problem, and therefore they have to be part of the solution,” said Elina Noor, director of Political-Security Affairs at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Engagement, she said, would ultimately be better than isolating the junta as Myanmar has a long history of being an isolated pariah state during decades of military rule.
“They have been through this before and they will withstand, if need be, if they’re isolated again,” Noor said.
There are further implications at play. ASEAN’s credibility could be damaged if it is unsuccessful in bringing about some form of halt on the violence, or is seen as ineffective in handling the looming humanitarian crisis. The bloc has previously acted as a bridge between Southeast Asia and the rest of the international community but its value as an international partner could be in jeopardy if the crisis escalates throughout the region or if it is seen as being too cozy with the junta.
“ASEAN’s ability to somehow manage the crisis in Myanmar is actually quite important,” said Chong. I can imagine how European leaders and especially American leaders (would) want to distance themselves, because they probably don’t want to be seen coddling violent dictators.”
Does ASEAN have any power?
If ASEAN were a country, it would be the fifth-largest economy in the world, and it has striven to boost trade between partner nations and allow for the free movement of skilled workers.
However, ASEAN has been plagued by an inability to take action on major issues it faces, such as how to deal with China’s claims and expansion in the South China Sea and its dam-building along the Mekong River that runs through Southeast Asia.
On Myanmar, the group has only managed to issue a weak statement calling on “all parties” in the country to “refrain from instigating further violence.”
“It’s important to realize that no one party has enough of a leverage on its own, whether it’s the United States, China, India, or others to pressure the junta by themselves,” said Noor.
Diplomatically, the junta may be more willing to cooperate with ASEAN than other nations or regional blocs, due to its unobtrusive political agenda.
“Because this is handled within the ASEAN family, there’s a bit of trust that we can solve this within our own region within our own group, and not involve external parties,” said Evan Laksmana, political scientist and senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta.
A tough task
So what would be the best outcome from Saturday?
Laksmana said Indonesia has put forward a humanitarian pause — a cessation of hostilities to allow humanitarian aid and assistance to the country.
Going further, a priority for ASEAN states would include a commitment to facilitate an end to the violence, deliver aid to the country, and start a Myanmar-led dialogue process, he said.
Some analysts have suggested appointing an ASEAN envoy to Myanmar or a task force to go in country, while others have called for punishing Myanmar by suspending its membership from ASEAN.
But getting the nine ASEAN states (minus Myanmar) to agree to even minimal action — such as agreeing on a framework to address the crisis — will be a tough task.
The extremely diverse bloc is known for a non-intervention policy and its gears grind at a glacial pace — it has taken three months for the members to even hold a meeting on Myanmar.
The pandemic has made everything more challenging.
“I don’t think there’s much political will in ASEAN to take on anything that’s more ambitious at this point. Part of it is also particularly unfortunate that all this was happening in the middle of the pandemic. So a lot of the governments are quite distracted,” said Chong.
Still, there are signs some states are determined to put forward a strong front.
Ultimately, there is debate as to how much Myanmar’s junta would even listen to ASEAN, though Min Aung Hlaing’s presence at the summit suggests he is keen for regional recognition of his rule. ASEAN then, is embarking on a high stakes gamble where it could risk its already shaky reputation by allowing a ruthless dictator to stonewall attempts to resolve the crisis in Myanmar, while giving him the attention and legitimacy he craves.