By Ain Bandial
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden joined Southeast Asian leaders in rebuking Myanmar's junta on Tuesday, as a regional summit opened without a representative from the country following its top general's exclusion for ignoring peace proposals.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had said it would accept a non-political figure from Myanmar at the virtual meeting, but the junta rejected that, saying it would only agree to its leader or a minister attending.
In an unprecedented snub to the leader of a member state, ASEAN had decided to sideline junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who led a Feb. 1 coup that spiralled into violence and chaos, for his failure to cease hostilities, allow humanitarian access and start dialogue, as agreed with ASEAN.
The decision was a huge rebuke to Myanmar's military and a rare, bold step by a regional bloc known for its code of consensus, non-interference and engagement.
"Today, ASEAN did not expel Myanmar from ASEAN's framework. Myanmar abandoned its right," said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who will be the group's chairman next year.
"Now we are in the situation of ASEAN minus one. It is not because of ASEAN, but because of Myanmar."
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said ASEAN had a slot ready for Myanmar, but it chose not to join.
At the virtual summit, Biden voiced "grave concerns" over the violence in Myanmar and called on its military to release people who have been unjustly detained, the White House said.
Myanmar said its absence was "due to denial for the Head of State or Head of Government or his Ministerial level representation." A foreign ministry statement said it "does not intend to show its protest against ASEAN or to boycott ASEAN."
Addressing leaders, Indonesian President Joko Widodo lamented Myanmar's "unwelcome attitude" towards ASEAN's diplomatic efforts, Retno said.
"It's important for us to honour the principles of non-interference. But on the other hand, we're obligated to uphold other principles ... like democracy, good governance, respect for human rights, and a constitutional government," she said, quoting the president.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of ASEAN chair Brunei said Myanmar should be given space to return to normalcy in line with ASEAN's principle of non-interference.
The region's leaders urged "the mediation of the situation in Myanmar to uphold ASEAN's credibility", he said in a statement.
It was Brunei, with majority backing, that had decided to exclude the junta leader.
Myanmar's military, which has ruled the country for 49 of the past 60 years, has accusing ASEAN of departing from its norms and of allowing itself to be influenced by other countries, including the United States.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired general considered the ASEAN leader closest to Myanmar's coup-makers, urged the country to implement a five-point roadmap it agreed with ASEAN.
CREDIBILITY AT STAKE
"ASEAN's constructive role in addressing this situation is of paramount importance and our action on this matter shall have a bearing on ASEAN's credibility in the eyes of the international community," said Prayuth, who first came to power in a 2014 coup before his party won elections five years later.
ASEAN acted days after its special envoy, Erywan Yusof, said the junta denied him sufficient access https://reut.rs/3vdCjIW, including to ousted elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is charged with multiple crimes.
Suu Kyi, 76, appeared in court on Tuesday and denied one of the charges, incitement to cause public alarm, media reported.
Prayuth said he was hopeful the junta would trust ASEAN's intentions and that Erywan could visit Myanmar soon and make an "important first step in the process of confidence-building".
U.N. envoys say that since the coup, Myanmar security forces have killed more than 1,000 people and detained thousands, many tortured and beaten.
Myanmar has rejected this as biased and exaggerated by unreliable sources and blames "terrorists" loyal to a shadow National Unity Government (NUG), an alliance of anti-coup groups, militias and ethnic minority rebels.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met NUG representatives on Monday.
Sullivan told a White House briefing on Tuesday he had praised their "courage and commitment" and discussed humanitarian aid and "diplomacy with the key countries in the region and those with influence on the military junta, and how the United States could send strong messages to those countries."
Biden attended a joint session with ASEAN, the first time in four years Washington has engaged at the top level with a bloc it sees as key to countering an increasingly assertive China.
Biden said ASEAN nations can expect him to personally show up in the region in future.
"Our partnership is essential to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, which has been the foundation of our shared security and prosperity for many decades," he said.
(Reporting Ain Bandial in Bandar Seri Begawan; Additional reporting by Tom Allard in Sydney, Stanley Widianto in Jakarta; A. Ananthalakshmi in Kuala Lumpur, Panu Wongcha-um in Bangkok and David Brunnstrom and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Nick Macfie, Giles Elgood and Andrea Ricci)