Australia pulls out of ASEAN counter-terrorism meeting co-chaired by Myanmar military and Russia

Australia will not take part in an upcoming meeting on counter-terrorism to be co-chaired by the militaries of Myanmar and Russia, Australian defence officials have confirmed.

The meeting, set to be held in Moscow on July 20-21, will bring together representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their partners as part of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) Experts’ Working Group on Counter-Terrorism.

Australia has ruled out both in-person and virtual participation. It will be the first time Australia has missed a meeting since the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Groups program was formed in 2011.

Defence officials in other countries slated to join the meeting, including India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and the United States, declined to comment on their participation when contacted by Myanmar Now.

Last month, New Zealand-based news outlet Newsroom quoted a defence official from that country as saying that while it condemned both the actions of Myanmar’s military junta and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it was up to ASEAN to decide who takes part in its gatherings.

“We respect ASEAN’s role as convenor of this process. We cannot unilaterally make decisions on how other members participate in these forums,” the official said.

Myanmar and Russia took over as joint chairs of the counter- terrorism working group at the beginning of 2021 for a three-year term, after a December 2020 handover ceremony held in Bangkok. 

As co-chairs, the Myanmar and Russian militaries are organising both field training and tabletop exercises for next year that will involve the participation of the armed forces of the ADMM-Plus countries.

The ADMM-Plus group includes the 10 member states of ASEAN, as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.

Australia’s decision to boycott this year’s meeting comes amid  concerns over how Myanmar’s junta used its position as co-chair to push its agenda during last year’s gathering.

Through a freedom of information request submitted to Australia’s Department of Defence by activist group Justice For Myanmar, the government also disclosed disagreements within the ADMM-Plus group over Myanmar’s role. 

In an email of talking points for a meeting of the working group held in Naypyitaw in December 2021, an official stated that “Russia… objected to the amendments to the June record calling on Myanmar to cease violence.”

At that meeting, which was conducted via videoconference, Myanmar’s military included a session on “Terrorist Attacks Threatening National Security in Myanmar,” in which it asserted that groups opposed to its rule, including the shadow National Unity Government and its armed wing, the People’s Defence Force, should be regarded as terrorist organisations.

According to a Defence Department cable on that meeting, Australian participants “expressed concern about Myanmar conflating opposition to the military coup with terrorism” and reiterated calls to end violence, in line with a five-point consensus reached by ASEAN in April of last year.

In May, an investigation into the ADMM and the counter-terrorism working group published by Justice for Myanmar concluded that ASEAN’s “practical assistance and support for the Myanmar military likely amounts to the aiding and abetting of the military’s genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Justice For Myanmar applauded Australia’s decision not to participate in next month’s meeting of the working group. 

“We welcome Australia’s principled position, which should send a strong message to other ADMM-Plus members,” the group’s spokesperson, Yadanar Maung, told Myanmar Now.

“The Myanmar military junta is a terrorist organisation, and has no place in a group on counter-terrorism. We call on ASEAN to revoke the junta’s co-chairmanship immediately, and exclude junta representatives from all future meetings. If ASEAN fails to act, ADMM-Plus countries must follow Australia’s lead and boycott,” she added.

The junta’s defence minister, General Mya Tun Oo, is currently in Cambodia participating in the 16th ADMM meeting and ADMM informal meetings with counterparts from China and Japan, amid civil society opposition and disagreement within the bloc over how to respond to the Myanmar crisis.

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