Civil society leaders say they are “disappointed” by the government’s decision to cancel a planned meeting between civil society representatives and ASEAN leaders on May 11 because of a dispute over who would be allowed to attend.

However, they have praised host Myanmar – for years the bête noire of regional civil society – for its leadership and efforts to try to ensure the participation of independent civil society representatives in the ASEAN Summit meetings.

Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia have been accused of rejecting independently chosen representatives for the meeting and replacing them with state-approved candidates.

In response to the dispute, the Regional Steering Committee of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum 2014 announced it was withdrawing from the event on May 10. In a statement, it accused the three countries of having “undermined the good faith of the host Myanmar authorities in trying to organise the interface meeting”. Its national representatives were chosen at the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) convened in Yangon in March.

Following the withdrawal, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced later the same day that it was cancelling the interface meeting because of the “untoward reaction” of civil society leaders. It defended the rights of member countries to choose their own civil society representatives for the interface, describing it as “ASEAN practice”.

The ministry’s decision to cancel the 30-minute meeting with regional leaders appeared to take the Regional Steering Committee – and civil society representatives – by surprise.

“Five of [the representatives] were on the way to Nay Pyi Taw to attend [the interface] and then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs cancelled it,” said committee spokesperson U Aung Myo Min.

He said that despite withdrawing from the interface the committee had agreed civil society leaders could still attend as national representatives as long as seats for those representing Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia were left vacant.

“It’s a misunderstanding. We tried presenting our policy, which is the result of the last ACSC/APF, and also we tried to negotiate as much as we could but finally [we withdrew].

“We repeatedly presented our principles [to Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and they said they would respect it but they couldn’t guarantee that other states would.

“[The representatives] are disappointed – it’s a shame and we tried our best. The ACSC/APF 2014 was still a great success.”

U Aung Myo Min also praised Myanmar’s attempts to host inclusive interface meetings for ASEAN civil society, youth and parliamentarians.

The Regional Steering Committee said it met twice with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in April to discuss the interface meeting and left those talks “encouraged and positive”.

“Myanmar put three interface meetings on the agenda … They took initiative on that but because of the decision-making process of ASEAN, which is a consultative process, they couldn’t” force other countries to accept independent representatives, U Aung Myo Min said.

However, the Regional Steering Committee’s version of events is dispute by at least one of the three countries in question. In a statement to The Myanmar Times, the Singapore embassy in Yangon said it was “untrue” that it had replaced independently selected civil society representatives.

“We were not given the names of ‘independently selected’ representatives, which makes it impossible to replace them,” press officer William Chik said.

“In line with ASEAN’s practices and procedures, Singapore nominated youth and civil society representatives to attend the ASEAN meetings in Singapore.”

The embassy failed to respond to requests for further clarification, but U Aung Myo Min described its statement as “strange”.

“We sent our list of representatives to the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs as they are the focal point with the other governments,” he said.

Singapore has regularly been at the centre of conflicts over the civil society interface since the event’s launch in 2005, when 10 civil society representatives approved by each nation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs met regional heads of state in Malaysia.

In 2006 and 2007 meetings the interfaces were limited to a meeting between the heads of state and the chair of the ASEAN People’s Assembly. The first inclusive interface came in March 2009, when Thailand held a meeting between 10 ASEAN leaders and 10 independently chosen civil society representatives, but Cambodia, Myanmar and Singapore rejected their proposed representatives. At the second summit later that year, those three countries again rejected independently chosen representatives, prompting walk-outs from other civil society leaders.

No interface meetings have been held since Cambodia in March 2012, when civil society leaders boycotted an event organised by the host nation.