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ASEAN Envoy’s Peace Attempts in Myanmar Fall Flat

Myanmar State Administration Council Chairman Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, right, shakes hands with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn during a meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 21, 2022.

Even though he claimed minor progress had been made, analysts say Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn achieved few tangible benefits in his visit to Myanmar this week as an Association of Southeast Asian Nations special envoy.

They point to his inability to meet all the parties in the country’s post-coup conflict and a failure to reach an agreement on the distribution of humanitarian aid — both key planks in the Five-Point Consensus on finding a solution to the crisis as agreed to by ASEAN, as having undermined the first visit by an ASEAN special envoy.

“You can consider this trip as a waste of time because nothing concrete was achieved,” said Charlies Santiago, chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

Cambodia has been criticized for legitimizing the regime of Myanmar’s Gen. Min Aung Hlaing after assuming the ASEAN chair for 2022 and pushing his strife-torn country to the top of the regional political agenda by initiating peace talks to try to bring Myanmar back into the trade bloc.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was the first leader to visit Myanmar after last year’s coup, which most ASEAN states condemned, along with the deaths of more than 1,500 people, resulting in the junta being barred from ASEAN’s annual summits.

FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, shakes hands with Myanmar State Administration Council Chairman, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, left, during after a meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Jan. 7, 2022.
FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, shakes hands with Myanmar State Administration Council Chairman, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, left, during after a meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Jan. 7, 2022.

Although Prak Sokhonn claimed minor progress after talks with Myanmar’s ruling junta, ASEAN diplomats, U.N. officials and some political activists, he was not allowed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned defacto leader of the ousted elected government.

According to The Associated Press, Prak Sokhonn said he was encouraged by the military government allowing him to meet with other parties to the conflict, and he was told consideration would be given to all requests to meet with Suu Kyi.

He described Min Aung Hlaing’s position as “like opening a window to let in the light” by paving a way for all parties to eventually achieve national reconciliation.

But he added that the parties involved wanted to keep fighting instead of negotiating, and that humanitarian aid was being stockpiled as it could not be distributed to those in need.

Santiago said a lack of progress on humanitarian aid, which the military wanted full control over, had undermined the trip, along with the inability to meet with Suu Kyi.

“If he considers talking to Min Aung Hlaing as progress, then I think we have to redefine the meaning of the word ‘progress,’” he said.

“We’re supposed to be convinced that there was a political dialogue and Min Hlaing told him that he will consider the application to meet Aung San Suu Kyi at another date."

“So, this is going to be difficult because you can’t be talking about a roadmap toward peace and reconciliation if you do not have civility in the process,” Santiago said.

Negotiations with Suu Kyi, and other senior figures in her National League for Democracy party, and the delivery of humanitarian aid are key factors in the ASEAN consensus.

It also called for constructive dialogue among all the parties, mediation by an envoy of the ASEAN chair and an immediate cessation of violence. Cease-fires, including a truce agreed to during Hun Sen’s visit, have been repeatedly violated.

However, Carl Shuster, visiting professor at Hawaii Pacific University said Prak Sokhonn’s visit and response were in keeping with ASEAN’s political culture, and the best hope for Myanmar is that Cambodia and ASEAN can maintain diplomatic pressure.

“They never insult each other, and their culture is there’s never bad news even if there is bad news. So, when he says there’s progress what he means is that they met with him,” Schuster said, referring to Prak Sokhonn’s meeting with Min Aung Hlaing.

Schuster also noted that Cambodia under Hun Sen was at best a limited democracy and the focus should be on the three interests shared ASEAN members – peace, stability and economic trade.

“ASEAN has to continue to engage with Myanmar and here’s the dilemma they face: Cambodia is not in a strong position to say your government is not democratic and therefore here are the consequences, but what they can do is: what you’re doing hurts peace and stability."

“What ASEAN is going to do is just keep pushing for dialogue and hope that the coup leaders will see that it is not in their interests to continue down that path,” Schuster said.

“They’re doing atrocities on their own people and the result is the resistance is growing,” he said.

Prak Sokhonn proposed a conference in April or May to discuss the fair distribution of assistance, and he rebutted criticism that his mission had enhanced the legitimacy of Myanmar’s military government. He said Cambodia sought only to help reestablish peace.

But Bradley Murg, distinguished senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said ASEAN’s options appeared to be “incredibly limited.”

“Optimism at this point in terms of Cambodia and ASEAN as a whole being able to achieve fundamental change in the status quo in Myanmar is misplaced,” he said.

“Prak Sokhonn’s visit illustrates the bind that Cambodia is in, in terms of its chairmanship of ASEAN as a whole, in that Myanmar really continues to demonstrate that it will play along with the process but not in any substance of way,” Murg added.