The seat for Myanmar remains empty before the 26th ASEAN-China Summit at the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta on September 6. (AFP)

Southeast Asian air force chiefs to snub Myanmar meeting


Several Southeast Asian air force commanders will shun an upcoming meeting chaired by Myanmar’s military rulers, officials told Agence France-Presse, deepening the junta’s regional isolation as it struggles to crush resistance.

The annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations Air Chiefs Conference gathers top air force leaders from the 10-nation bloc to discuss cooperation in defence, combating extremism and disaster relief.

Current chair Myanmar is set to host the meeting next week but at least three ASEAN countries told AFP they will not send their top officials.

The junta has been accused of war crimes over air strikes carried out by its jets – mostly Chinese and Russian-built – in support of ground troops battling opponents of its 2021 coup.

Its air force chief U Htun Aung, who will chair the conference, has been sanctioned by the United States and Britain.

The air force chiefs of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia will not attend the meeting, officials told AFP.

Malaysia’s air force chief will not attend, a spokesperson said, while the Philippine commander will send a video message to his counterpart rather than go in person.

Indonesia’s air force chief “will not be attending and won’t be sending anyone to represent him either”, air force spokesperson Mr Agung Sasongkojati told AFP without giving a reason.

At a summit this week, ASEAN accused the junta of targeting civilians in the grinding conflict sparked by its coup, and of ignoring a peace plan agreed with the bloc to end violence.

Indonesian foreign minister Ms Retno Marsudi said there had been “no significant progress” in the five-point plan agreed with the junta more than two years ago.

The junta slammed that assessment as “one-sided”.

ASEAN has barred junta officials from high-level meetings over their refusal to engage with the plan and their opponents.

Cambodian air force commander Mr Soeng Samnang declined to comment on whether he would attend, and the defence ministry could not be reached for comment.

The air forces of Singapore, Brunei and Vietnam did not respond to requests for comment.

But Thailand’s air force chief will make the trip to neighbouring Myanmar, a defence ministry official told AFP.

While ASEAN has halted high-level meetings with Myanmar’s generals, Thailand has held its own bilateral talks with the junta and deposed democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in recent months, further dividing the bloc.

Activist group Justice for Myanmar said in a statement that ASEAN holding the air force meeting would “undermine its own commitments to resolve the crisis in Myanmar”.

War crime claims

Amnesty International said last year the junta was likely using air strikes as “collective punishment” against civilians supporting anti-coup fighters, and in March the United Nations said the military had carried out more than 300 air strikes in the past year.

Also in March, the junta held a parade to mark Armed Forces Day, with flyovers by Russian-made Yak and Sukoi Su-30 jets.

The military bombed a gathering in northern Sagaing Region in April that media and locals said killed about 170 people, sparking renewed global condemnation of the isolated junta.

Human Rights Watch said it had evidence the military had used a thermobaric “vacuum bomb” in the attack, saying it likely amounted to a war crime.

Air strikes on a concert held by a major ethnic rebel group in northern Kachin State killed around 50 people last October.

The junta has said reports civilians were among the dead were “rumours”.

AFP has contacted a Myanmar junta spokesman for comment.

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Myanmar enters 2021 with more friends than foes
The early delivery of vaccines is one of the many boons of the country’s geopolitics, but to really take advantage, Myanmar must bury the legacy of its isolationist past.
Will the Kayin BGF go quietly?
The Kayin State Border Guard Force has come under intense pressure from the Tatmadaw over its extensive, controversial business interests and there’s concern the ultimatum could trigger fresh hostilities in one of the country’s most war-torn areas.

Support our independent journalism and get exclusive behind-the-scenes content and analysis

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters.

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar