White House considering ‘empty chair’ for Myanmar at summit in Washington

FILE – Protesters walk through a market with posters of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi at Kamayut township in Yangon, Myanmar Thursday, April 8, 2021. Suu Kyi went on trial Monday, May 2, 2022, in a new corruption case against her, alleging she took $550,000 in bribes from a construction magnate. Suu Kyi has been detained since the army ousted her elected government in February 2021 and has not been seen or allowed to speak in public since then. (AP Photo)

The Biden administration is considering keeping an empty chair to represent the government of Myanmar that was overthrown in a military coup during an extraordinary summit to be held this week with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

A senior administration official said the White House will announce on Thursday how it will handle Myanmar’s participation in the summit, set to take place on May 12 and 13, where leaders of at least nine of the 10 ASEAN member states are expected to descend on Washington.

“I think one of the discussions has been to have an empty chair to reflect our dissatisfaction with what’s taken place and our hope for a better path forward,” the official said in a call Wednesday with reporters previewing the summit.

“I think we’ll have more to say about that and clearly Burma will be a subject of intense deliberation in all of our meetings,” the official added, using another name for Myanmar.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party came to power in 2015, remains in prison on convictions widely seen as political. Hundreds of protesters and anti-military activists have reportedly been killed since the coup.

ASEAN did not condemn the February 2021 military coup outright or join the U.S. in sanctioning the country for the military’s violent crackdown and overthrow of the government. ASEAN adopted in April 2021 a “5-point consensus” that called for the cessation of violence in Myanmar and efforts at promoting dialogue between the military and ousted political leaders. 

The senior administration official said that the U.S. is looking for an indication that ASEAN is taking steps to address the crisis in Myanmar, adding that efforts by the association “have stalled.”

“We’ve had substantial consultations with countries in the region and interested parties who are deeply focused and frankly, frustrated by what we’ve seen take place inside the country,” the official said.

President Biden will have “a quick private time with each of the leaders,” the official said, and a meeting with ASEAN as an institution. The summit marks the first time in the 45-year history of the organization that it is being hosted for a meeting in Washington. The official said the U.S. is “bending over backwards to be the best possible host.”

The summit was organized as a show of reassurance that the White House is focused on the region, even as it dedicates enormous resources to helping Ukraine fight back against Russia’s invasion.

“There’s a deep recognition that fundamental long-term challenges are playing out in the Indo-Pacific and the United States is committed and determined to [show] our engagement in the region is broad based and sustained,” the administration official said.

The official said to expect that the president and U.S. officials will hold a “fulsome discussion” on Ukraine. “I think ASEAN leaders are very interested to hear the American approach,” the official said.

In addition to the president’s meetings with ASEAN leaders, they will also meet with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for a lunch with bipartisan lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and hold meetings with Vice President Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department. 

ASEAN officials will also meet with Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and Trade Representative Katherine Tai, along with U.S. business leaders.

The ASEAN summit comes ahead of Biden’s travel to South Korea at the end of May, where he’ll meet with the recently elected president. He will then travel to Japan where he will participate in the fourth leaders-level summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, which comprises the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. 

Tags ASEAN Aung San Suu Kyi Joe Biden Joe Biden Myanmar

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