BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (REUTERS) - A summit of South-east Asian leaders got under way on Tuesday (Oct 26) without a Myanmar representative, after its junta leader was excluded for failure to follow a regional peace deal and the ruling military refused to send junior representation.
Neither Brunei, the Asean chair, nor the bloc's secretary-general made a mention of the no-show in opening remarks at the virtual meeting.
Asean on Oct 15 decided to exclude junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted a civilian government on Feb 1, over his failure to implement a peace process he agreed with Asean in April towards ending the country's bloody crisis.
The move was a rare bold step by a regional grouping known for its non-interference and engagement.
Brunei had said the bloc would invite a non-political representative from Myanmar, but there was no confirmation of this by the opening of the summit.
Myanmar's junta late on Monday said it would only agree to its head of state or ministerial representative attending the summit, indicating its seat would be empty.
United States President Joe Biden will attend a joint session by video link.
Since overthrowing elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi's government, detaining her and most of her allies and ending a decade of tentative democracy, Myanmar's military has killed more than 1,000 people and arrested thousands, monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says.
The junta disputes that count as inflated and says soldiers have been killed in fighting with armed opposition groups nationwide.
On the agenda for Tuesday's opening day were three separate meetings between the Asean leaders and representatives of the US, China and South Korea.
The Asean bloc comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
In deciding to sideline the Myanmar junta boss, Asean cited his failure to make steps to end hostilities, initiate dialogue, allow humanitarian support and grant a special envoy full access in the country.
Myanmar insists the conflict is being stoked by "terrorists" allied with a shadow unity government and says Asean is not taking that into account.
Mr Michael Vatikiotis, Asia director of the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, said Myanmar's junta "probably cares about being frozen out of the summit", although it has a history of enduring international isolation.
"The question now is whether regional leaders will agree to engage with the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) more formally, as the United States and EU have started to do," he said.
The NUG is an alliance of pro-democracy groups and ethnic minority armies formed after the coup.
US met Myanmar shadow govt
Meanwhile, the White House said late on Monday that US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan earlier in the day met representatives of the NUG.
In the virtual meeting, Mr Sullivan reiterated continued US support for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar and discussed ongoing efforts to restore the country's path to democracy with NUG representatives Duwa Lashi La and Zin Mar Aung, the White House said in a statement.
Mr Sullivan expressed concern over the military's violence and said "the US will continue to promote accountability for the coup".
He expressed particular concern over the recent arrest of pro-democracy activist Ko Jimmy and noted that the US will continue to advocate for his release, according to the statement.
Mr Sullivan and the NUG officials also discussed the Covid-19 pandemic in Myanmar and ongoing US efforts to provide humanitarian assistance directly to the people of Myanmar, the statement added.