The Biden administration and ASEAN leaders have agreed to place a vacant chair to represent Myanmar’s ousted civilian government during the two-day US-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) special summit, which President Joe Biden holds as a national in Washington. Hosting the Security Council. The spokesperson confirmed to the VOA.
Another senior administration official said Myanmar would be “a subject of intense deliberation” throughout the meetings and that the empty chair reflects “dissatisfaction with what has happened and our hope for a better path”.
Administration officials have expressed dismay that the junta continues to violate its human rights, despite ASEAN’s adoption of a “five-point consensus” peace plan last year.
The United States is supporting various proposals, including ASEAN, to open informal channels with Myanmar’s so-called National Unity Government in Exile (NUG). The plan initially proposed by Malaysia was quickly condemned by the ruling junta.
“We look at Burma with deep concern given the increasing violence there,” Deputy Assistant Foreign Secretary Jang Pak told the VOA on Wednesday. We continue to work with our ASEAN friends to find a way for Burma to return to democracy. Therefore, we welcome any proposal, and we continue to work with all stakeholders.”
Poling, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the five-point consensus has largely failed because ASEAN has so far only worked with Myanmar’s junta.
“As forces affiliated with the NUG and ethnic armed organizations are winning battles and controlling much of the country, it is becoming more and more absurd not to engage with them,” Poling told the VOA.
US State Department officials meeting with NUG representatives during the summit.
Beyond Myanmar, the summit reflects the dilemma Biden is facing as he seeks to balance US interests in countering Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific with his administration’s focus on human rights and democracy.
Later on Thursday at a White House dinner for ASEAN leaders, Biden is expected to play the role of gracious host to the group’s rotating chairman, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose nearly four decades of rule have been marred by corruption, repression and violence. has been marked. , He was spared from breaking bread with members of the Myanmar military, which toppled the civilian government last year; The junta did not send anyone to the summit after the US and ASEAN demanded that it only send non-political representatives.
Other ASEAN leaders face their own challenges when it comes to promoting democracy in the US.
Brunei’s ruler Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has been in power since 1967. Thailand’s Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha won the election in 2019 after seizing power through a military coup in 2014. Laos and Vietnam are repressive one-party authoritarian states.
Even in democratic Indonesia, there are rumors that President Joko Widodo is quietly ignoring attempts to change the constitution to allow himself a third term. Meanwhile, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is not attending; He will soon be replaced by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of one of Asia’s most infamous dictators.
Activists are pointing out that by inviting these leaders, the Biden administration is sending a message that the US will tolerate human rights violations in the name of forming a coalition to counter China.
“One of the enduring images of this US-ASEAN summit is President Biden standing next to the human rights abusers of Asia,” Sarah Jagger, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told VOA. “Now, he can reduce it a little bit by calling out those human rights abuses in Cambodia and other places – Vietnam. But so far, we haven’t seen such a clear message from this White House.”
Human Rights Watch says having these leaders in the White House is contrary to the administration’s goal of a “positive agenda for democratic renewal” that was set during the summit of Democracy hosted by Biden last year.
“The goals of the summit cannot be achieved without directly addressing the region’s deteriorating human rights environment and democratic backsliding – not only the 2021 coup in Myanmar but the decline of democratic institutions in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines, and the fact that Vietnam, Laos, Brunei and Cambodia are not democracies at all,” the rights group said in a letter to Biden ahead of the summit.
Other observers say the summit provides a useful platform for Biden to engage with leaders who have questionable human rights records.
“It is impractical for President Biden to host Prime Minister Hun Sen at the White House or in a bilateral meeting,” said Brian Harding, an expert in Southeast Asia at the United States Institute for Peace. “But at least they can talk about things they might be able to agree on in this multilateral setting.”
Ahead of the summit, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week introduced a Senate resolution calling for ASEAN to prioritize democracy, human rights and good governance “in light of the democratic backsliding taking place in Southeast Asia.”
However, some observers say the US should be wary of pushing ASEAN too hard, considering Biden’s own election victory over Donald Trump and last year’s challenges to an attempted rebellion by supporters of the former president.
“The sanctity about democratic backsliding when the Capitol is barely a year away from the rebellion will bring tears to many people’s eyes,” CSIS’s Poling said.
$150 million initiative
The administration announced a more than $150 million initiative during the summit on Thursday that it said will “deepen US-ASEAN relations, strengthen ASEAN centrality and expand our common capacity to achieve our shared objectives.” will do.”
On Thursday, ASEAN leaders met for a working lunch with a bipartisan group of US lawmakers. He was to meet with US business leaders and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and US Trade Representative Catherine Tai at an event sponsored by the US-ASEAN Business Council before a White House dinner hosted by Biden.
The summit continues Friday at the White House and the State Department, where Biden will be joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.