Cambodia Blacklists Myanmar From an ASEAN Meeting

The 10-nation bloc is taking baby steps to deny the coup leaders the legitimacy they crave.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (center) speaks during a press conference at the conclusion of the 40th and 41st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits in Phnom Penh.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (center) speaks during a press conference at the conclusion of the 40th and 41st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits in Phnom Penh.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (center) speaks during a press conference at the conclusion of the 40th and 41st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits in Phnom Penh on Nov. 13. TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA—Myanmar’s military-appointed defense minister has been disinvited from Southeast Asia’s top meeting of defense chiefs by host nation Cambodia, a senior U.S. defense official said, as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) appears to be increasingly aligned around efforts to diplomatically isolate the military regime that took power in a coup last year.

The move, which helps U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin avoid the awkwardness of bumping into Gen. Mya Tun Oo, a senior junta official, at the ASEAN meeting, comes just days after top Indonesian officials called out the junta for worsening the crisis in the war-torn country. It’s also a subtle shift for Cambodia, which has historically shielded countries like China and Myanmar from criticism at ASEAN summits.

“Until we see Myanmar actually follow through on the commitments that it has made to other countries in the region to bring about a peaceful resolution to the violence that is ongoing there, they will not be showing up at a ministerial level at these kinds of meetings,” said the senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the U.S. Defense Department. “That is a step that ASEAN countries have taken to … take a principled stance on the fact that what’s going on in Myanmar is not acceptable, and it can’t be business as usual.”

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA—Myanmar’s military-appointed defense minister has been disinvited from Southeast Asia’s top meeting of defense chiefs by host nation Cambodia, a senior U.S. defense official said, as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) appears to be increasingly aligned around efforts to diplomatically isolate the military regime that took power in a coup last year.

The move, which helps U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin avoid the awkwardness of bumping into Gen. Mya Tun Oo, a senior junta official, at the ASEAN meeting, comes just days after top Indonesian officials called out the junta for worsening the crisis in the war-torn country. It’s also a subtle shift for Cambodia, which has historically shielded countries like China and Myanmar from criticism at ASEAN summits.

“Until we see Myanmar actually follow through on the commitments that it has made to other countries in the region to bring about a peaceful resolution to the violence that is ongoing there, they will not be showing up at a ministerial level at these kinds of meetings,” said the senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the U.S. Defense Department. “That is a step that ASEAN countries have taken to … take a principled stance on the fact that what’s going on in Myanmar is not acceptable, and it can’t be business as usual.”

A second U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about sensitive diplomatic talks, said that the Biden administration has been pushing to downgrade the military junta’s level of diplomatic representation at ASEAN forums and across the board.

Cambodia’s decision to push back on Myanmar’s invite comes after Indonesian President Joko Widodo first called for the junta to be barred from major ASEAN events. It is also a reversal for the Cambodian government, which has long leaned toward China and had argued for the inclusion of the junta in defense meetings earlier this year. ASEAN drew criticism at its summit meeting in Cambodia earlier this month for not taking concrete steps to exclude all junta ministers from the bloc’s meetings, despite the worsening situation on the ground in Myanmar. 

“This is a bit of naming and shaming, which denies the junta some degree of legitimacy,” said Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “So there is some pressure, but probably not enough to really effect any change in behavior.” 

ASEAN previously banned the junta’s top diplomat, Wunna Maung Lwin, from two meetings earlier this year and disinvited junta leader Min Aung Hlaing from its 2021 and 2022 gatherings. The United States has mostly leaned on ASEAN, which usually takes consensus-based decisions, to lead peace talks on Myanmar. The bloc has pushed for a so-called five-point consensus that calls for a cessation of violence and peace talks. 

Even as the United States seems hopeful that ASEAN is showing the cold shoulder to the junta, some experts believe that the regional bloc is trying to show that it is not feckless in high-stakes diplomacy. “The non-invite seems more geared toward showing that ASEAN is trying to do more and is not completely unable to act with regard to Myanmar,” Chong said. 

That desire has increased as violence perpetrated by Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, has flared up in recent months as the junta has intensified crackdowns on its own people. In September, military helicopters fired on a school in the pro-resistance Sagaing region—killing 11 children—a month after the military burned tens of thousands of houses across the country. The junta also appears to be doubling down on executions of political opponents, including those from ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. Security forces have now killed well over 2,000 people since the Tatmadaw took power last year.

Myanmar’s National Unity Government, a coterie of elected leaders and lawmakers formed in the wake of the February 2021 coup and recognized by the European Parliament as the nation’s legitimate government, was quick to seize on a possible glimmer in ASEAN’s gridlock. “Further proof that the military junta lacks legitimacy within ASEAN,” Zin Mar Aung, the exiled government’s foreign minister, said in a statement on Twitter. 

But it’s not clear that Cambodia’s cold shoulder extended as far as some would hope. Aaron Connelly, the head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ research on Southeast Asian politics and foreign policy, said that the Cambodians may have offered Myanmar’s junta a lower level of representation at the meeting knowing that the military regime was likely to ghost on the invite. The junta is still, on paper, invited to ASEAN ministerial meetings, but it has to sit in the corner.

“It’s a very kind of ASEAN way of doing business,” Connelly said. “You preserve the principle at the expense of the practice.” Among Myanmar watchers, the disinvited Tatmadaw general, Mya Tun Oo, was seen by some as the most likely candidate to push the country’s embattled military toward reform. “The hopes are probably empty, but that’s a kind of dynamic that’s out there,” Connelly added. 

At the two-day summit in Siem Reap, Austin, the U.S. defense chief, is set to meet with defense ministers from every member of the ASEAN bloc except for Myanmar. That comes just a week after U.S. President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and national security advisor Jake Sullivan attended the G-20 meeting in Indonesia and as Vice President Kamala Harris criss-crosses the region. It is also expected to be a forum for high-stakes diplomacy, as the Pentagon works out the details of a meeting between Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, on the sidelines of the ASEAN ministerial, which would be their second in-person meeting in six months. 

But even though Indonesia, which is set to take the reins of the ASEAN bloc from Cambodia, lacks overall consensus within the bloc to blacklist Myanmar’s military regime indefinitely, former officials believe the move will help to deny it the legitimacy that it craves on the international stage. 

“Anything that deprives the junta of legitimacy helps,” said Scot Marciel, who served as U.S. ambassador to Myanmar until 2020. “I don’t think it will change the junta’s behavior short term, but it adds to the pressure.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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