White House - The Biden administration and ASEAN leaders have agreed to put out an empty chair to represent Myanmar's overthrown civilian government during the two-day U.S.-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Special Summit that President Joe Biden is hosting in Washington, a National Security Council spokesperson confirmed to VOA.
Myanmar will be "a subject of intense deliberation" throughout the meetings and the empty chair reflects "dissatisfaction with what's taken place and our hope for a better path forward," another senior administration official said.
Administration officials have expressed frustrations that despite ASEAN's adoption of a "Five Point Consensus" peace plan last year, the junta continues its human rights violations.
The United States is supporting various proposals, including for ASEAN to open informal channels with Myanmar's so-called National Unity Government (NUG) in exile. The plan, proposed initially by Malaysia, was quickly condemned by the ruling junta.
"We continue to look at Burma with deep concern given the escalating violence there," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jung Pak told VOA on Wednesday. "We have continued to work with our ASEAN friends to figure out a path for Burma to return to democracy. So, we welcome any proposals, and we continue to work with all stakeholders."
The Five-Point Consensus has failed largely because ASEAN has so far engaged only with Myanmar's junta, said Gregory B. Poling, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"NUG affiliated forces and ethnic armed organizations are winning the fight and control much of the country, so not engaging with them is getting more absurd by the day," Poling told VOA.
U.S. State Department officials are meeting with NUG representatives during the summit.
Beyond Myanmar, the summit reflects the dilemma Biden is facing as he seeks to balance America's interests in countering Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific with his administration's focus on human rights and democracy.
At a White House dinner for ASEAN leaders later Thursday, Biden is expected to play the role of gracious host to the rotating chair of the group, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose almost four-decade rule has been marked by corruption, repression and violence. He is spared from breaking bread with members of the Myanmar military that toppled the civilian government last year; the junta did not send anyone to the summit following U.S. and ASEAN demands that it send only nonpolitical representatives.
Other ASEAN leaders also bring their own sets of challenges when it comes to U.S. promotion of democracy.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the ruling monarch of Brunei, has been in power since 1967. Thailand Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha won elections in 2019 after seizing power through a military coup in 2014. Laos and Vietnam are repressive one-party authoritarian states.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo attends the US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Special Summit, in Washington, May 12, 2022.
Even in democratic Indonesia, there are rumors that President Joko Widodo is quietly condoning efforts to change the constitution to allow himself a third term. Meanwhile, lame-duck Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is not attending; he will soon be replaced by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of one of Asia's most notorious dictators.
Activists are pointing out that by inviting these leaders the Biden administration is sending a message that the U.S. will tolerate human rights violations in the name of forging alliances to counter China.
"One of the lasting images of this U.S.-ASEAN summit is going to be President Biden standing next to human rights abusers from Asia," Sarah Jaeger, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told VOA. "Now, he can mitigate that a little bit by calling out those human rights abuses in Cambodia and other places - Vietnam. But so far, we haven't seen that kind of very clear message from this White House."
Human Rights Watch says having these leaders at the White House stands in contrast with the administration's goal of an "affirmative agenda for democratic renewal" set forth during the Summit for Democracy that Biden hosted virtually last year.
"The summit's goals will not be achievable without directly addressing the region's worsening human rights environment and democratic backsliding - not just the 2021 coup in Myanmar but also the deterioration of democratic institutions in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines, and the fact that Vietnam, Laos, Brunei and Cambodia are not democratic at all," the rights group said in a letter to Biden ahead of the summit.
Other observers point that the summit provides a useful platform for Biden to engage with leaders who have questionable human rights records.
President Joe Biden and leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations arrive for a group photo on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, May 12, 2022.
"It is unviable for President Biden to host Prime Minister Hun Sen at the White House or a bilateral meeting," said Brian Harding, an expert on Southeast Asia at the United States Institute for Peace. "But at least they can engage talking about things that they might be able to agree on in this multilateral setting."
Ahead of the summit, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced a Senate resolution last week calling on ASEAN to prioritize democracy, human rights and good governance "in light of concerning democratic backsliding occurring in Southeast Asia."
However, some observers say the U.S. should be careful of pushing ASEAN too hard considering last year's challenges to Biden's own electoral victory over Donald Trump and the attempted insurrection by the former president's supporters.
"Sanctimony about democratic backsliding when the U.S. is barely a year out from the Capitol insurrection will make many roll their eyes," Poling of CSIS said.
$150 million initiatives
The administration announced over $150 million in initiatives during the summit on Thursday that they said would "deepen U.S.-ASEAN relations, strengthen ASEAN centrality and expand our common capacity to achieve our shared objectives."
On Thursday, ASEAN leaders met with a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers for a working lunch. They were to meet with American business leaders and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai at an event sponsored by the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council before a White House dinner hosted by Biden.
The summit continues Friday at the White House and State Department, where Biden will be joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.