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Asean faces ‘Catch-22’ by inviting Myanmar coup leader to talks

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the mastermind of the coup in Myanmar. Photo: EPA

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is facing a “Catch-22” dilemma ahead of Saturday’s high-level talks on Myanmar’s post-coup crisis, observers say, as the bloc comes in for criticism for inviting the putsch’s architect Min Aung Hlaing to the meeting. 

The reproval followed comments on Sunday by a member of the country’s parallel National Unity Government (NUG) – which is seeking international recognition as the rightful government of Myanmar – that Asean had not reached out to them. 

On social media, anti-coup protesters used the hashtag “AseanrejectSAC” to push the bloc to reconsider army chief Min Aung Hlaing’s invitation – with some commentators saying having him sit on the table alongside the bloc’s other leaders lent legitimacy to his February 1 coup. 

Maung Zarni, a London-based Myanmar human rights activist, said Asean’s handling of the matter thus far suggested it would fare poorly as an arbiter of peace between the ousted National League for Democracy and the junta.

“It is not just simply morally reprehensible, but it is utterly stupid to say that they want a negotiated settlement and then there is no negotiating partner,” said Maung Zarni, co-founder of the Forces of Renewal Southeast Asia group. “Who is Min Aung Hlaing going to negotiate with? Asean is not a party to the conflict.”

The Asean secretariat on Tuesday confirmed Saturday’s special meeting would take place in the 10-nation body’s headquarters in Jakarta under strict health and security protocols due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Remarks by Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha however threw doubt on the prospect of all 10 leaders being physically present at the meeting.

The ex-army chief – seen by observers as close to Min Aung Hlaing – said Deputy Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai would represent him in Jakarta.

“Some other countries will also send their foreign ministers,” he said.

Thai PBS reported that only fully inoculated leaders and delegates would be allowed to attend the meeting. 

Following the reports, the NUG’s Moe Zaw Oo, told Voice of America’s Burmese service that it had not been consulted over the planned summit. 

“If Asean wants to help solve the Myanmar situation, they are not going to achieve anything without consulting and negotiating with the NUG, which is supported by the people and has full legitimacy,” Moe Zaw Oo, appointed deputy foreign minister last week, was quoted as saying. 

Analysts said they understood Asean’s dilemma ahead of the meeting. 

On one hand, the bloc crucially needs to engage Min Aung Hlaing to stop the military’s violence against anti-coup protesters as the death toll continues to rise. 

Saturday’s talks – in planning for weeks – are seen as primarily aimed at seeking de-escalation, with Reuters reporting that Asean is also hoping to pitch a humanitarian aid mission during the meeting. 

If members of the NUG, who previously referred to themselves as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, were invited, it was possible that Min Aung Hlaing would “refuse to come and accuse Asean of interfering in Myanmar’s internal affairs,” said Hunter Marston, a Canberra-based Southeast Asia scholar who has followed the post-coup crisis closely. 

At the same time, the bloc is under pressure not to engage Min Aung Hlaing to an extent that his leadership – and that of the military-appointed State Administration Council – is regarded as a fait accompli. 

Opponents of the junta who now make up the NUG say any Asean attempt at negotiating peace cannot take place without one of their representatives at the table. 

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a former special assistant to the Asean secretary general and a long time observer of the bloc’s affairs, said the criticism it was coming under put it in a “Catch-22 situation”. 

“Asean’s priority is to stop the bloodshed at once and make sure that the dialogue with the military regime will continue,” the Bangkok-based analyst said. 

Anti-coup protesters turn out in support of Myanmar’s new National Unity Government

“Min Aung Hlaing’s attendance provides the opportunity for the Asean leaders to create mutual trust and personal rapport,” he said. 

Kavi agreed that engagement with the anti-junta representatives was important and predicted that Asean’s talks with the parallel government would “intensify in coming weeks”. 

“After the summit, something tangible would come out that demonstrates the Asean way in engaging such a huge crisis. Individual Asean members have more or less initiated contacts informally,” he said. “This will pave the way for the future dialogue among all Myanmar’s stakeholders.” 

Marston, a PhD candidate with the Australian National University, offered a similar observation. 

He said while Asean “absolutely” should have invited a representative of the anti-junta camp to Saturday’s talks from a moral and legal standpoint, the bloc’s hopes to advance “a political argument” against the military required leaders to have face time with Min Aung Hlaing. 

“It would have been problematic to invite representatives of both the military junta and the rightfully elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi,” Marston said. 

“Sadly [Asean] chose to invite the senior general. In so doing, it must use this opportunity to press for a halt to violence and commitment to dialogue.” 

While there is little expectation that Asean will reverse course and invite NUG representatives to Saturday’s meeting, the observers offered recommendations for engaging the parallel government. 

Maung Zarni said Asean could take a leaf out of the United Nations Security Council’s Arria-Formula informal meetings, which allow civil society and non-governmental representatives to share their views – without formal records – even if their respective governments disallow their airing. 

Zin Mar Aung, the NUG’s foreign minister, addressed the Security Council under this setting, alongside Kyaw Moe Tun – Myanmar’s envoy at the UN who has refused to pledge allegiance to the junta.

“We cannot have the largest interstate organisation, the UN, recognising the anti-coup ambassador speaking for the Burmese public… and [Asean], a small 10-member interstate organisation, recognising in effect the coup leader,” the activist said. 

Marston meanwhile suggested Saturday’s meeting could be followed up by meetings between “several Asean foreign ministers” and representatives of the NUG to broker peace talks. The analyst also mentioned the possibility of the appointment of a “senior statesman” such as Singapore’s former prime minister Goh Chok Tong “to play the part of special envoy to facilitate negotiations”. 

That suggestion has gathered steam after it was suggested by Tommy Koh, a Singaporean senior ex-diplomat. 

Addressing the UN Security Council on Monday, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated Beijing’s position that the international community should allow Asean to lead efforts to de-escalate Myanmar’s crisis.

“Supporting Asean’s constructive participation in Myanmar’s domestic reconciliation process in an Asean way and de-escalating tension in Myanmar serves the interests of the people of Myanmar and the international community,” he said.

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Asean’s role was “crucial” and called for “a robust international response grounded on a unified regional effort.”