A representative of Myanmar’s military regime attended the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on Wednesday, despite an appeal from hundreds of pro-democracy organizations in the war-ravaged country that the Southeast Asian regional bloc not engage with the junta.
Myanmar Gen. Mya Tun Oo became the most senior official to represent the self-styled State Administration Council (SAC) at a ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations since the military ousted the country’s democratically elected government in February 2021.
The 10 ASEAN member states have appeared divided on how to deal with the junta, with some fearing that engagement might signal acceptance or endorsement of the regime and its bloody crackdown on its opponents.
Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have all expressed to the 2022 ASEAN chair Cambodia that the junta should be excluded until there is an indication that hostilities in Myanmar will end.
“Even though there is participation from Myanmar involving a representative from the State Administrative Council in the meeting today, this does not mean that Malaysia has recognized the SAC as the legitimate Myanmar government,” a statement from Malaysia’s Defense Ministry said.
“Malaysia has always stressed that SAC should expedite the enforcement of the matters which were agreed on based on the 5 Point Consensus to find a solution to the political crisis in Myanmar,” it said, referring to the agreement reached between ASEAN’s leaders and Burmese military chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing on April 24, 2021.
The agreement sought an end to violence in Myanmar, the provision of humanitarian assistance, the appointment of an ASEAN envoy, and talks among the various groups in Myanmar to be mediated by the envoy.
Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Banh, meanwhile, said that Mya Tun Oo’s participation in the meeting showed that the regional bloc is unified on security issues.
"This is a participation to find solutions and this accusation, that accusation, we can't respond to all of them," he said during a news conference, responding to criticism over including Myanmar in the meeting.
Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto told his counterparts to put aside their differences to safeguard their mutual interests.
“We must not allow outside powers to divide ASEAN and drag us into their competition. The future of ASEAN and our people rests on our shoulders, and I believe we all share the same view that we want peace and not conflict, cooperation rather than competition," he said.
A coalition of 677 pro-democracy organizations in Myanmar last week co-authored an open letter to the ASEAN defense ministers, urging them not to invite a representative from the junta.
The organizations said Mya Tun Oo’s representation would be inconsistent with other ASEAN decisions to exclude representation from the junta, such as at the 2021 ASEAN Summit and the 2022 Foreign Minister’s Retreat.
“ADMM’s engagement with the junta, which has included military exercises, may likely amount to the aiding and abetting of the junta’s war crimes and crimes against humanity,” the letter said.
“In allowing the junta to participate in ADMM, ASEAN is further risking complicity in the junta’s atrocity crimes by providing support and legitimacy to the military and emboldening a military that is waging a nationwide campaign of terror.”
Cambodian state media reported that the ministers agreed in a joint declaration issued after the meeting to enhance cooperation between ASEAN defense forces for COVID-19 containment, boost support for ASEAN Women Peacekeepers, further collaborate between defense-oriented educational institutions, and share information to enhance maritime security.
Additional reporting by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.