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Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing delivers his speech at the IX Moscow conference on international security in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 23, 2021.
Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing delivers his speech at the IX Moscow conference on international security in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 23, 2021. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via AP)

Southeast Asian countries have agreed to exclude the Myanmar's junta leader from a big ticket summit later this month, a rare and decisive move to hold the regime accountable for worsening civil strife in the country and refusing to engage with its political opponents.

Myanmar, controlled by a military junta led by Min Aung Hlaing since a February coup, made insufficient progress on an agreement struck with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that included stopping violence, the bloc said on Saturday.

ASEAN said it couldn't reach a consensus to allow for a political representative from Myanmar to attend a summit on Oct. 26-28 in Brunei, as a shadow government comprised of ousted lawmakers aligned to Myanmar's detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi also reached out, asking to be invited.

"Therefore, in the view of competing claims" to attend the summit and to "allow Myanmar the space to restore its internal affairs," a decision was made to invite a non-political representative, ASEAN said in statement after a Friday emergency meeting of foreign ministers was held to discuss the country.

"The situation in Myanmar was having an impact on regional security as well as the unity, credibility and centrality of ASEAN, as a rules-based organization," the bloc added.

Myanmar is "extremely disappointed and strongly objected the outcomes of the meeting," the country's foreign ministry said hours later. It warned that the decision would affect the unity of the bloc at this "juncture of emerging strategic competition in the region."

This is the most decisive that ASEAN has been on Myanmar given its policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states and its focus on decision-making by consensus. Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called the decision to invite a non-political Myanmar representative "a difficult and necessary one" to uphold ASEAN's credibility.

It wasn't immediately clear who would be named as the non-political representative, which could get complicated if the junta and the shadow government put forward their own recommendations.

As it is, it took months for ASEAN to appoint a special envoy to Myanmar — which was part of the "five-point consensus" agreed with the country during a special summit in April.

The envoy, Brunei's second foreign minister Erywan Yusof, delayed what would have been his first visit to Myanmar since his appointment in August as the junta stopped him from meeting with Suu Kyi. Myanmar has said it still wants to cooperate with the diplomat.

Several Southeast Asian countries were getting frustrated with the lack of progress from Myanmar. Underpinning this is a fear of instability and refugees spilling over from Myanmar as economies in the region look to reopen after a deadly wave of virus cases.

It also stems from the bloc's reluctance to recognize a military leader who declared himself prime minister in August and has extended emergency rule for another two years before elections can be held. Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said on Twitter after the Friday meeting that Myanmar "should not be represented at the political level" at the summit until democracy is restored through an "inclusive process."

Her Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah earlier said there should be "no compromise" on letting the general take part in the virtual summit that could see world leaders like U.S. President Joe Biden and China's leader Xi Jinping attend.

A delegation of U.S. State Department officials will travel to Southeast Asia from Sunday to Oct. 22 to discuss several issues, including the "urgent responsibility" to pressure Myanmar's military regime to cease violence and release political prisoners.

The U.S. and its Western allies have leveled several sanctions against members of Myanmar's military junta as well as state-owned enterprises following the February coup, a step that ASEAN is unlikely to follow through with. Some of these Western governments released a statement urging Myanmar's military to let the ASEAN special envoy visit the country regularly.

Myanmar, which joined the bloc in 1997 under a military government, has stressed that it is committed to cooperating on the agreement with ASEAN, especially in distributing humanitarian aid.

But since overthrowing the civilian-led administration, the junta has killed more than 1,170 protesters throughout the country with nearly 9,000 others arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Suu Kyi remains in prison and has gone on trial for a string of charges including breaking COVID-19 restrictions during last year's elections, as well as incitement and possessing unlicensed walkie-talkies. Her supporters said these allegations are groundless and serve as a justification for the military to launch a coup.

Ousted lawmakers loyal to Suu Kyi have formed the National Unity Government, which declared war on the junta last month that marks an escalation in the military's conflict with various political groups.

Myanmar said its representative explained during the emergency meeting on Friday that the government had coordinated with the special envoy Erywan on his first trip to the country, "while considering the rule of law and internal stability." It was important for Erywan to "build trust and confidence" with the country.

"Linking the matter of Myanmar's representation at the ASEAN summit with the visit of the special envoy would be counterproductive as it is merely putting pressure on Myanmar," the foreign ministry said.

Bloomberg's Anisah Shukry contributed to this report.

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