Conflict-riven Myanmar cedes upcoming ASEAN chair to Philippines

September 6, 2023 - 8:59 AM
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Philippines' President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, Laos' Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Manet, Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao pose during the opening ceremony of the ASEAN-Indo-Pacific Forum (AIPF) as a part of the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 5, 2023. (Bay Ismoyo/Pool via Reuters)

JAKARTA Myanmar has ceded its turn to chair the Southeast Asian regional bloc, an official confirmed on Tuesday, after the group agreed that an existing but widely criticized peace plan will continue to guide its response to the bloody conflict there.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has faced criticism for its failure to get Myanmar’s ruling military to make progress on a five-point peace consensus agreed to shortly after it seized power in a 2021 coup.

Despite skepticism over its effectiveness, ASEAN agreed on Tuesday that the peace plan would continue to guide its approach to Myanmar’s political crisis, according to an official document seen by Reuters.

The document also showed that the bloc “urged the Myanmar Armed Forces in particular and all related parties concerned in Myanmar to de-escalate violence and stop targeted attacks on civilians.”

Myanmar, which has been gripped by violence and political and economic chaos since the coup, was slated to chair the 10-member regional grouping in 2026.

But regional leaders agreed that the Philippines would assume the role in 2026 instead.

“The Philippines will take over the ASEAN chairmanship for 2026,” ASEAN secretary general Kao Kim Hourn told Reuters after the first day of the group’s annual summit in Jakarta, adding that the switch was first proposed by Myanmar.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said leaders had also agreed to an informal “troika” approach to ASEAN’s special envoy on Myanmar, which would see the chair supported by the former and future chairs for continuity.

“A troika was formed to ensure the continuity in terms of handling the issue because everyone understands this situation cannot change in one year,” Retno told reporters.

Myanmar’s military-appointed ministry of foreign affairs rejected the leaders’ decision on the peace plan “as the reviews are not objective and decisions are biased and one-sided.”

The ministry said Myanmar was not represented at the summit, and though it was consulted on the decision, “the views and voices of Myanmar are not taken into account.”

While the bloc prioritizes unity and non-interference in sovereign affairs, differences have emerged as Indonesia has sought to engage all stakeholders in the conflict while Thailand has tried to re-engage with the ostracised junta leaders.

‘No proxy’

Opening the summit on Tuesday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo warned against countries in the bloc getting dragged into big-power rivalry.

“ASEAN has agreed to not be a proxy to any powers. Don’t turn our ship into an arena for rivalry that is destructive,” he said.

The sharpening rivalry between China and the United States loomed over the meeting. Some ASEAN members have focused on developing close diplomatic, business and military ties with Beijing while others are more wary.

The summit comes days after China released a “10-dash line” map, illustrating its claim to an extensive portion of the South China Sea that will likely add urgency to negotiations on a long-delayed code of conduct in the strategic waterway.

ASEAN member states Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, which have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, have rejected China’s map.

ASEAN leaders later this week will hold an East Asia summit, a wider forum that includes China, India, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Adding to unease about ASEAN’s relevance, U.S. President Joe Biden is not attending the talks. Vice President Kamala Harris will attend instead. Chinese Premier Li Qiang will also attend.

– Additional reporting by Karen Lema in Manila, Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur and Wa Lone in Toronto; Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor, Robert Birsel, Christina Fincher and Mark Porter