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Biden nails down a date for ASEAN summit but not a full invite list

President Joe Biden, keen to showcase American interest in Southeast Asia, has secured a date to celebrate 45 years of U.S. ties with the far-away region, but not all of ASEAN’s leaders are coming to the party.

Myanmar’s junta chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, won’t be welcome because of the military coup he launched a year ago.

And Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who leaves office in June, is also expected to be a no-show. He has not visited Washington during his six years in office that have been characterized by turbulent relations with the United States.

The May 12-13 summit between the U.S. and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is an opportunity for Biden to forge a closer bilateral partnership with ASEAN and counter China’s influence in the region. The White House is keen to advance its vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

The summit will mark U.S.-ASEAN relations, which began in 1977. It will be only the second such summit with Southeast Asian leaders hosted by an American president in the United States. Barack Obama welcomed ASEAN leaders to Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in February 2016.

While next month’s meeting will therefore carry heavy symbolic value, it will make for some unusual diplomatic bedfellows for Biden.

Cambodia’s foreign ministry says that Prime Minister Hun Sen – whose government has faced U.S. sanctions for its suppression of democracy – will be there. Cambodia is the current rotating chair of the 10-nation bloc.

“Of course, Samdech Techo Prime Minister Hun Sen, as the ASEAN rotating chair, will co-chair this summit with the president of the United States,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesman Chum Sounry told Radio Free Asia (RFA), the parent company of BenarNews.

He was using the honorific adopted by Hun Sen, who has ruled for 37 years. It translates roughly as “glorious, supreme prime minister and powerful commander.”

But officials indicated that Min Aung Hlaing – who recently awarded himself two of Myanmar’s highest honors for services to his country despite the current, violent chaos there – won’t be invited to Washington.

“The consensus among ASEAN is (that) Myanmar should be represented by a non-political representative,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah of Indonesia, which is the bloc’s coordinator for U.S.-ASEAN ties. He told BenarNews on Tuesday that Indonesian President Joko Widodo plans to attend. 

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah confirmed that Prime Minister Ismail Sabri will also join the summit. He further noted: “I don’t think Myanmar should be represented. I am not so sure if Washington invited Myanmar.”

However in Bangkok, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the prime minister and ex-junta chief, was “considering the journey” to Washington.

ASEAN has been grappling with a 14-month-old crisis in Myanmar, where the Burmese junta’s forces have bombed and burned swathes of the country to quell resistance to the military’s overthrow of an elected government in February 2021.

In late March, the junta blocked ASEAN envoy Prak Sokhonn, who is Cambodia’s foreign minister, from meeting with deposed Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, setting back efforts to forge a political resolution – and backtracking on a commitment the junta chief made to ASEAN to allow access to all stakeholders in the country. ASEAN itself has excluded Min Aung Hlaing from its own summits.

The Myanmar military council’s spokesman said on Tuesday that Myanmar has not been invited so far to the Washington summit, and they would only attend anyway if they had equal representation.

“If, as in the past, we could only attend with someone who does not hold political office, we absolutely would not attend any meeting. Our position is to engage only at equal rank,” the spokesman, Maj Gen Zaw Min Tun, told RFA.

Myanmar has been subject to U.S. asset seizures and sanctions since the coup – including restrictions levied against Min Aung Hlaing himself.

No such restrictions are faced by Duterte. The Philippines is a U.S. treaty ally, meaning the two nations are committed to each other’s defense if they come under attack. The U.S. is bound to Thailand by a similar treaty.

But Duterte, who has sought closer relations with China despite recurring disputes in the South China Sea, has sworn repeatedly that “he will never go to the U.S.” At one time he even called America “lousy.” 

BenarNews asked an aide to Duterte whether that position has changed in view of the upcoming summit, and was told it had not. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to media about it.

There’s another reason for the Philippine leader to skip the Washington summit: The two-day meeting falls just three days after May 9 elections in the Philippines. It is customary for any Filipino leader to avoid foreign travel during an election season, particularly when the election is for the position they will be vacating.

Jason Gutierrez in Manila, Tria Dianti in Jakarta, Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok, Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur, and RFA’s Cambodian and Myanmar Services contributed to this report by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service.