Philippine, Thai Leaders Cite COVID-19 for Decisions to Skip ASEAN’s Myanmar Summit

BenarNews staff
Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur
Philippine, Thai Leaders Cite COVID-19 for Decisions to Skip ASEAN’s Myanmar Summit Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo speaks during the inauguration of the new ASEAN Secretariat Building in Jakarta, Aug. 8, 2019.

Updated at 7:51 p.m. ET  on 2021-04-22

The heads of the Philippine and Thai governments blamed surging COVID-19 infections at home for their decision not to attend a leader-level regional summit on the crisis in Myanmar, amid international expectations for the meeting to deliver “concrete outcomes,” officials said Thursday.

Meanwhile, amid talk about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) discussing the appointment of an envoy to Myanmar during its special one-day summit in Jakarta on Saturday, a member of the country’s parallel civilian government said Thursday that the bloc must ensure that this doesn’t lead to recognition of the Burmese junta, which toppled an elected government on Feb. 1.

Elsewhere, grassroots groups participating in an online “Southeast Asia People’s Summit on Myanmar” on Thursday, reiterated calls for ASEAN to reject the military regime and recognize the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) as the legitimate one.

In Bangkok, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha defended his decision to skip the summit and send a deputy prime minister in his place.

He said the turmoil in Myanmar “is challenging to peace and stability” in the region.

“[A]midst the COVID-19 pandemic in Thailand, I regret not being able to attend the summit by myself in Jakarta,” the Thai PM and former junta leader said.

“I hope that this summit will bring success and will improve the situation in Myanmar in a better way. Thailand is ready to apply the meeting’s resolution,” Prayuth added.

Separately, Thai foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said that “ASEAN countries were aware of international expectations to deliver concrete outcomes from the talks.”

“It is now up to ASEAN family members including Myanmar to safeguard ASEAN’s unity and credibility,” Tanee said at a press conference.

ASEAN has yet to condemn the Myanmar military coup, but many international organizations, including the United Nations, are looking to the bloc to help solve the crisis. It has led to the deaths of hundreds of anti-coup protesters at the hands of the armed and security forces.

Seven ASEAN leaders were on the list to attend the meeting with the head of Myanmar’s junta, according to a roster released by the ASEAN Secretariat. But Prayuth’s absence in particular will weaken the prospects of the bloc taking firm action against Naypyidaw, because the former Thai army chief is a key ASEAN leader who has influence with Myanmar’s military, according to analysts.

Human rights activists and regional observers concur that the Saturday summit will be a test – possibly a defining moment for ASEAN, which was founded in 1967.

“This is a challenging situation that either elevates ASEAN in the eyes of the international community or discredits it,” former East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta said at the people’s summit on Myanmar held online Thursday.

ASEAN envoy to Myanmar

Observers believe that during the summit, ASEAN leaders will discuss member-state Malaysia’s proposal for the bloc’s current chair Brunei, or its secretary-general, to visit Myanmar.

On Thursday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte supported the idea of such a visit, the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, in which it announced that Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. would represent the Philippine delegation at the summit.

But Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, minister of Women, Children and Youth in the National Unity Government, said ASEAN needed to approach this idea with caution.

“On ASEAN sending a special envoy, I think they really need to be careful because Myanmar people and other people around the world are looking closely at what is happening,” she said during a press conference organized by the group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

“[I]t should not happen that ASEAN recognizes the wrong institutions, so it should be careful to understand and recognize the people’s desire to bring back those they elected.”

Charles Santiago, the chairman of APHR, said the bloc must be wary of appointing an envoy to Myanmar.

“ASEAN is looking to appoint a special envoy [to Myanmar], but this is dangerous because the army can use that as a way to buy time, and that will not be helpful because the amount of violence and amount of killings is very high,” Santiago told BenarNews.

Meanwhile, grassroots organizations, which took part in the people’s summit were skeptical that the ASEAN summit would achieve much, because of the bloc’s “overzealous respect for state sovereignty.”

They were referring to ASEAN’s foundational principle of non-interference in member-states’ domestic affairs that has been criticized by many as an obstacle for preserving democracy and the rule of law in the region.

“With the different interest[s] and political will of ASEAN member states at the moment, we are concerned to what extent the ASEAN special summit can create an immediate and meaningful intervention to resolve the situation of Myanmar,” an open letter from the people’s summit said.

For instance, the Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development noted in a statement on Thursday, only one of ASEAN’s 10 leaders had so far called the military’s overthrow of the elected government in Myanmar a coup.

“[N]one of the interventions made by ASEAN and its member states during the course of February – March, except for the recent statement by Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on 19 March 2021, has addressed the current crisis in Myanmar as a coup,” the forum said in its analysis of  ASEAN countries’ responses to the crisis.

Participants at the people’s summit said that ASEAN must reject the Myanmar junta. This is one of seven demands that the People’s Summit has made of ASEAN ahead of the summit in Jakarta.

The bloc must “reject the presence of [the] illegitimate military junta as the representative of Myanmar in the summit [and] give the seat of Myanmar in the ASEAN summit to its legitimate representative, the National Unity Government,” they said.

ASEAN must coordinate with the United Nations Security Council and the United Nations Human Rights Council to send a joint delegation to Myanmar to monitor the situation, stop the violence and help negotiate a democratic and human rights-based solution, they demanded.

“We urge all ASEAN leaders to listen to, to strongly consider, and to heed to the aspirations and will of the peoples of Myanmar. The voices of Myanmar people who have risked their lives in defense for democracy and justice must be the anchor, the conscience, behind any modality and outcome of the ASEAN Special Summit on Myanmar,” their open letter said.

Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta, Jason Gutierrez in Manila, Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report. 


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