Myanmar’s shadow government, analysts and human rights groups have lambasted the Thai government for holding a meeting on the post-coup crisis there that included the Burmese junta’s foreign minister.
The meeting in Bangkok on Thursday yet again exposed a sharp divide in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as member-states opposed to the Burmese junta – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore – were notably absent.
Regional analysts say the meeting hosted by Thailand was a deliberate attempt to deepen a schism within ASEAN between authoritarian governments and the regional bloc’s more democratic nation-states.
ASEAN as a bloc decided to exclude any representative from the Myanmar junta from its meetings after the military regime reneged on a five-point consensus that it had “agreed to” in April 2021 for setting the country on a pathway to peace.
Kyaw Zaw, the spokesperson for Myanmar’s civilian, shadow National Unity Government said the Burmese people “had clearly and definitively said and shown that they do not want the military” in politics.
“The Myanmar crisis will not be solved by meeting with the junta representatives but will increase the instability and violence in Myanmar,” Kyaw Zaw told the Burmese Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news service affiliated with BenarNews.
“Thailand should have known about it. The leaders of the Thai government should know and understand it as well. I would like to say if you want to help and solve our country’s crisis, our people’s will should be included, considered and accounted for [in] any such meeting.”
Thailand said it hosted the talks to discuss the crisis in military-run Myanmar, where the army overthrew an elected government on Feb. 1, 2021.
Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the meeting was “an effort to support ASEAN attempts” to help Myanmar on the path back to peace and normalcy.
“Because it has been over a year now that ASEAN has not had a chance to discuss or listen directly at the ministerial level from Myanmar,” the ministry spokeswoman, Kanchana Patarachoke, told a press conference Friday.
She said the meeting was “not a hindrance or obstacle to ASEAN’s attempts.”
On the contrary, Kanchana said, it was aimed at producing a resolution to the situation in Myanmar.
Top diplomats from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, as well as the deputy foreign minister of Vietnam attended the meeting hosted by Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai.
Conspicuous by their absence were the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, who, reports said, were invited but chose not to attend. These ASEAN member-states have criticized the Myanmar junta for not sticking to the five-point consensus.
The consensus called for an immediate end to violence; a dialogue among all concerned parties; mediation of the dialogue process by an ASEAN special envoy; provision of humanitarian aid through ASEAN channels; and a visit to Myanmar by the bloc’s special envoy to meet all concerned parties.
Since the coup, the Myanmar junta has carried out a widespread campaign of torture, arbitrary arrests and attacks that target civilians, the United Nations and rights groups have said.
Nearly 2,700 people have been killed and close to 17,000 have been arrested in Myanmar, according to the Thai Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
‘An attempt to undermine ASEAN’
Meanwhile, analysts said there was a stark message conveyed through the absence of officials from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Brunei at Thursday’s meeting in Bangkok.
“[The meeting] was basically an attempt to undermine ASEAN and an attempt to undermine the official ASEAN [stance],” Charles Santiago, chairman of a group of Southeast Asian lawmakers, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), told RFA.
“It tells you basically that [2021 ASEAN chair] Cambodia was insincere, and Thailand is insincere in wanting to realize the five-point consensus … if Thailand was serious about the consensus they should have invited the NUG and the fact that the NUG was not invited shows that Thailand is not sincere.”
Thailand’s meeting was an “ASEAN-minus meeting,” was how analyst Zachary Abuza put it.
“It very clearly reflects a schism in the organization. The Thais very much want to see the [Myanmar] junta consolidate power and they reached out to likeminded authoritarian states in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to support this meeting,” Abuza, a Southeast Asia analyst and a professor at the National War College in Washington, told RFA.
“Again it really goes against ASEAN principles because the organization agreed collectively not to invite senior leadership from the junta to participate in ASEAN events.”
Abuza added that Thailand was “very concerned that under Indonesia chairmanship in 2023, ASEAN would maintain a harder line against the Myanmar junta.
In fact, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha is a former junta leader himself. He is said to have close ties with the Myanmar military and “chose Myanmar as the first foreign country to visit following his seizure of power in a coup in May 2014,” according to a 2015 article in Global Asia, a quarterly publication of the East Asia Foundation.
On top of this, Thailand in 2018 awarded Myanmar coup leader Min Aung Hlaing the “King Grand Cross of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant,” a royal decoration.
Back then, the Myanmar army chief told the media that he was bestowed the honor because “the relationship between the two armed forces is quite good,” the Bangkok Post reported.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director, Human Rights Watch, minced no words in his criticism of Thailand.
“All this shameful meeting managed to accomplish is show the massive divide in ASEAN about Myanmar, give unwarranted limelight to … [the] junta’s propaganda, and whitewash [the] Burma junta’s atrocities against the Burmese people,” he said on Twitter.
Another analyst on Southeast Asia said ASEAN member Thailand had patently breached the bloc’s rules.
“Would senior officials from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam hold a similar public meeting with the other sides of Myanmar’s civil war?,” asked Greg Poling, director at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), attached to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, on Twitter.
“If not, this is legitimizing one side in clear violation of ASEAN’s principle of non-interference.”
Nontarat Phaicharoen for BenarNews in Bangkok contributed to this report by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service.