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Behind the scenes of ASEAN summit, Suu Kyi plea quietly dropped

Bloc Struggles To Show Unity, Leaving Myanmar Junta Chief To Slip Through Cracks

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Protests were held near the ASEAN Secretariat building in Jakarta ahead of last week's summit on Myanmar.   © Reuters

Sporting a dark grey suit instead of his military olive drab, Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing looked unruffled at last week's meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders as he delivered a 30-minute presentation -- complete with slides and handouts -- to justify the military's seizure of power.

Before the summit, the senior general had switched his blue tie for one in red: one of the colors of Myanmar's flag, symbolizing courage and decisiveness.

At the Bali Room on the seventh floor of the south tower of the new ASEAN Secretariat building here, his civilian clothes meant that he was attending not as the commander-in-chief of Myanmar's military, but as the representative of his country.

Min Aung Hlaing went into the first ASEAN summit since the Feb. 1 coup against the backdrop of international pressure to release political prisoners including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The absence of this point from the chairman's statement released afterward reflects how the unity-focused bloc proved unable to stand up against one of its own.

Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia had worked with current ASEAN chair Brunei in the days before the meeting to draft a statement that included a call for Suu Kyi's release. The draft was shown to Myanmar's military.

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Myanmar's junta leader Min Aung Hlaing strides into the AAssociation of Southeast Asian Nations secretariat building in Jakarta for talks with ASEAN leaders on April 24. (Muchlis Jr/Indonesian Presidential Palace via Reuters)

This push continued at the summit, where the leaders of the three countries pressed for immediate release of detainees and the start of dialogue to resolve the crisis.

Yet Min Aung Hlaing appeared in no mood for compromise. In his presentation, he laid out the military's claims that election fraud had invalidated the landslide victory by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in November's general election -- the argument used by the junta to justify the coup.

The general likely did not expect to be pressed too hard at the summit. ASEAN encompasses a variety of political systems, and leaders of more autocratic countries had warned against setting a precedent of interfering in members' internal affairs, something the bloc has avoided.

The call for releasing political prisoners did not garner much support. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen made no mention of the matter in his remarks. The leaders of Thailand and the Philippines -- prominent members of the bloc -- skipped the gathering entirely, sending foreign ministers in their place. This made it harder to establish a consensus on tough demands.

Even Indonesia, seen as a leader within ASEAN, had argued for inviting the leader of Myanmar's junta to the summit despite the risk of being perceived as accepting the coup.

Since its founding in 1967, the bloc has been able to deal with such powers as the U.S. and China by presenting a united front. Any appearance of inaction on the Myanmar crisis would call into question its reason for existence.

Protests were held near the summit venue against the bloc's decision to invite Min Aung Hlaing to the summit. After having chosen to go ahead in the face of such criticism, ASEAN leaders faced the possibility of the talks breaking down over the detainee issue -- an outcome not worth the risk of holding the summit.

If the statement from Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who chaired the summit, included demands that were unacceptable to the junta, questions would have been raised about the bloc's effectiveness, and the meeting could have been seen as a failure of ASEAN diplomacy.

Attendees ultimately settled on the five points listed in the chairman's statement -- including an immediate end to the violence in Myanmar and the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to mediate -- while dropping the point about freeing political prisoners.

A letter from Myanmar's newly formed National Unity Government was read at the summit, but the difference in standing between the junta and the parallel civilian entity was stark.

Toward the end of the meeting, Hassanal Bolkiah asked if attendees had any other comments to share. Min Aung Hlaing took this opportunity to say the junta would give careful consideration to constructive suggestions from ASEAN leaders.

But he said this would happen only once stability was restored, hinting that the situation may not improve for some time.

 

Additional reporting by Bobby Nugroho in Jakarta