Until recently, ASEAN meetings are often considered as mundane affairs with predicted outcomes.
However, the recent decision by ASEAN foreign ministers to exclude Myanmar’s junta from the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits and Related Summits from Tuesday has probably changed the perception on the 10-member grouping for good – at least to some extent.
And that’s not all. Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, during a recent regional dialogue concerning Myanmar, suggested something extraordinary regarding an ASEAN principle that no members will want to voice out openly.
Saifuddin wanted all stakeholders in the grouping do some soul-searching on the possibility of moving away from the principle of non-interference – towards an innovated “constructive engagement” or “non-indifference”.
The decision of the grouping and the bold statement from the Malaysian foreign minister could well indicate it is no longer business as usual for the regional block. Any changes or alterations in the grouping’s fundamentals is timely as the international community is keeping a close watch on how the 10-member organisation is going to deal with one of its members that has gone rogue and the many challenges faced by its members.
Hence, the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits and Related Summits – to be held virtually from 26-28 Oct without Myanmar – will be closely watched by international observers, especially whether the grouping could continue making game-changing decisions or stick with the status quo.
Dr. Rahul Mishra, associate at the University of Malaya’s Centre for ASEAN Regionalism, noted the decision to exclude the junta is significant considering that the grouping has been rather hesitant to put pressure on the junta and push it to take action to restore democracy.
“Success on the Myanmar front will prove ASEAN’s relevance and effectiveness in dealing with intra-regional issues,” he said.
Mishra hopes that with the exclusion of the junta, ASEAN leaders will make full use of the summits to convey a direct and pointed message to the junta in an expeditious restoration of democracy in Myanmar.
“Perhaps, ASEAN’s dialogue partners too could also put more diplomatic pressure on the Myanmar junta,” he said.
Myanmar’s junta was snubbed due to the lack of progress in the Five-Point Consensus achieved by ASEAN last April to, among others, help resolve the civil unrest faced by the country after the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi was ousted by the army on Feb 1. The junta decried the decision.
Foreign ministers from ASEAN also decided that only a non-political representative from the country will be invited. They also turned down the request by Myanmar’s shadow government, the National Unity Government (NUJ), to join the summits.
However, Myanmar is not the only problem that the leaders from the 54-year grouping have to grapple with. Also high on their agenda is the COVID-19 pandemic and post pandemic recovery cooperation, and the situation in the contested areas of the South China Sea.
The newly announced trilateral security pact involving Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS) that covers the South China Sea will also draw the attention of ASEAN leaders.
The junta’s exclusion from the summits also raises question on how ASEAN is going to address the plight of the Rohingyas who have fled Myanmar.
The summits will also see the inaugural appearance of Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob after taking over the country’s top leadership position on Aug 21.
Brunei is the chair of the summits with the theme “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper”. This marks the second year the annual summits will be held via video conferencing due to COVID-19 pandemic.
ASEAN leaders to the summits will also be participating in meetings with leaders of Dialogue Partners of ASEAN – China, Japan, South Korea, India, the United States, Australia and Russia.
ASEAN comprise 10 members – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Formed in 1967, ASEAN has to date established dialogue partnerships with Australia, Canada, China, European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. –BERNAMA