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ASEAN fails to achieve Myanmar breakthrough again

Min Aung Hlaing's Regime Boycotts Foreign Ministers' Meeting

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Laotian Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi pose for a group photo at the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Phnom Penh on Feb. 17.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations failed to achieve a breakthrough in issues related to the situation in Myanmar on Thursday after leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing's military regime refused to send a nonpolitical representative to discuss them.

"Foreign ministers discussed the recent developments in Myanmar, and continue to express concern over the situation in the country, including reports of fatalities and violence," said Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn at a news conference after the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Retreat. The meeting took place in a hybrid format, with some ministers at the venue in Phnom Penh and others online.

The meeting was originally scheduled for Jan. 18 and 19 in Siem Reap, Cambodia, but was postponed after an attempt by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to invite Myanmar's military-appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, met strong pushback from ASEAN members such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore that have been taking a hard-line approach against the Myanmar military.

Following this pushback, as well as the United Nations Security Council's repeated calls for an end to all forms of violence in Myanmar, Cambodia -- the host of ASEAN meetings in 2022 -- decided to invite a nonpolitical representative from Myanmar to the retreat.

According to a letter from Wunna Maung Lwin to Prak Sokhonn seen by Nikkei Asia, the military refused, claiming that "it will contradict the principles and practices of equal representation in ASEAN." The letter was dated Feb. 14.

On Jan. 7, Hun Sen visited Myanmar and met with Min Aung Hlaing. It was the first visit by a head of any government since the military seized power from an elected government on Feb. 1 last year. The Cambodian ruler and current ASEAN chair, who has been in power for roughly 37 years, intends to preserve the 10-nation bloc as a middleman. Yet his visit was deemed risky, as such an attempt would legitimize the military's power grab.

The recent boycott by the military sends Hun Sen's effort down the drain, casting doubt on his capability as host and middleman.

ASEAN has been pushing Myanmar to exercise a five-point consensus that was agreed upon among the bloc's leaders as well as the Myanmar military chief in April 2021. The points include an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue, the provision of humanitarian assistance and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.

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"We call on the Myanmar authorities to take concrete action to expedite full implementation of the five-point consensus [and] urge all parties to exercise utmost restraint and engage in a constructive dialogue to see a peaceful and inclusive solution in the interests of the people of Myanmar," said Prak Sokhonn.

During Brunei's ASEAN chairmanship in 2021, the country's second minister of foreign affairs, Erywan Yusof, was appointed as the bloc's special envoy. But the envoy's visit never materialized, as the military strongly opposed the bloc's demand to allow the envoy to see detained former leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"The lack of progress in the implementation of the five-point consensus since its adoption by ASEAN leaders and Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing on April 24, 2021, is disappointing," Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told Hun Sen over the phone on Wednesday. At the retreat, ASEAN foreign ministers officially appointed Prak Sokhonn as this year's ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar.

"The prime minister decided to take a different approach including engaging with Naypyitaw in order to break the ice and to understand what would be possible for Myanmar and for ASEAN in this path of trying to solve the Myanmar crisis," Prak Sokhonn said in the press conference.

He vowed to continue with that tack. "I will keep [ASEAN foreign ministers] informed about my intention, my program, and the method I will use in order to fulfill the mandate of the special envoy," he added.

Asked if he will speak with the National Unity Government comprising ousted lawmakers, he stressed that the priority was building ties with the military. "With regard to other entities, especially with the National Unity Government, we are of the view that all parties concerned include everybody," Prak Sokhonn stated. "But for the time being, we hope to keep alive trust and confidence with Naypyitaw." 

Differences in political and diplomatic situations in member countries pose challenges for ASEAN in solving the Myanmar issue. While firmly democratic countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia insist on continuing the hard-line approach against the military regime, others with autocratic origins and backgrounds choose to be dovish, as raising issues about Myanmar's military regime may backfire on their own regime.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also been an obstacle to closely discussing the Myanmar issue. Although the main reason behind the postponement of the January meeting was due to the invitation of Myanmar's military-appointed foreign minister, the omicron outbreak was another factor taken into consideration in delaying the event. Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son tested positive upon his arrival in Cambodia on Wednesday.

Some member countries have started taking the Myanmar issue as an opportunity to reconsider how the bloc should cooperate. According to the Jakarta Post, Indonesia decided to propose to its counterparts the creation of an eminent persons group to formulate a regional vision beyond 2025 in order to improve the bloc's ability to deal with challenges amid growing doubts over its capability of handling the Myanmar crisis.