Asean should rethink non-interference policy amid Myanmar crisis: Malaysia Foreign Minister

People are seeing during a protest against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 17, 2021.
People are seeing during a protest against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 17, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Asean should rethink its decades-long policy of non-interference in the affairs of member states, amid a worsening human rights crisis in Myanmar, Malaysia's top diplomat said on Thursday (Oct 21).

The 10-member bloc last Friday made an unprecedented move to exclude the leader of Myanmar's junta from an upcoming regional summit over a lack of progress on a peace plan it agreed to with Asean in April.

A non-political figure from Myanmar will be invited instead.

The decision - which sources said was pushed by Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines - was a rare bold step for Asean, which has traditionally favoured consensus and engagement over criticism of member nations.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said Asean should do some "soul-searching" on its non-interference policy, given deteriorating conditions in Myanmar, where more than 1,000 civilians have been killed in a crackdown on strikes and demonstrations since a Feb 1 coup.

"I reminded the meeting (on Friday) that Asean is about 10 member states. As much as the issue in Myanmar is local and national, it has an impact on the region, and we should also recognise the concerns of the other nine member states," he told a virtual dialogue on human rights in Myanmar.

"And I also stated the fact that we cannot use the principle of non-interference as a shield to avoid issues being addressed," he said, in a rare critique by an Asean foreign minister of one of the most valued parts of the bloc's code.

Mr Saifuddin said non-interference had contributed to Asean's inability to make effective decisions quickly, and suggested a move towards a new policy of constructive engagement or non-indifference.

A junta spokesman has blamed Asean's decision on "foreign intervention", including by the United States and European Union.