ASEAN Envoy Sees Little Hope of Breakthrough in Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 24 March 2022

PHNOM PENH—Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said Wednesday the Myanmar issue was complicated and would take a long time to solve, as the “stakeholders were not ready to cooperate and still insist on fighting and eliminating one another.”

Sokhonn visited Myanmar as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) special envoy for the country on March 21-23. He met with the country’s regime leader Min Aung Hlaing and some of his cabinet members, among others, but not with the country’s ousted democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Asked during a press conference on his arrival back in Cambodia on Wednesday whether he had requested to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Sokhonn said he did not make such a direct request because that issue was the reason his predecessor as special envoy failed to visit Myanmar. However, he said Min Aung Hlaing had hinted that it may be possible for him to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the future.

Myanmar has been in political turmoil since the military coup in February last year. More than one year on, the country, which is an ASEAN member, is on the brink of being a failed state as the junta still cannot run the country properly in the face of growing civilian armed resistance against military rule. The regime has killed more than 1,600 people, mainly for anti-junta activism.

Sokhonn became ASEAN’s special envoy for Myanmar after Cambodia took the rotating ASEAN chair this year. His appointment came after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen visited Myanmar to meet the coup leader in January to broker talks. The visit was criticized for legitimizing the regime.

Sokhonn said he had received information that so far there is no sign of negotiations aimed at achieving reconciliation, while many factions in the conflict are not ready to talk, but are committed to fighting and continuing their struggle.

“I would like to clarify when I said, I ask for your utmost patience to stop the violence, Min Aung Hlaing expressed his concern that there is still violence among the ethnic armed force, the civil defense force, and the importation of weapons. This shows the complexity of Myanmar,” he said.

“We can’t solve it during one chairmanship or the current chairmanship,” he added.

Sokhonn said he urged Min Aung Hlaing to exercise the utmost restraint in using force, in order to reduce tensions as well as to release more political prisoners, including the Australian professor Sean Turnell. He said he regretted not having been able to meet former first lady Daw Su Su Lwin, as she was suffering from COVID-19. Daw Su Su Lwin has a close relationship with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

He said he asked the regime for its cooperation on organizing a consultation meeting on humanitarian aid for Myanmar that will take place in late April or early May, highlighting that the aid needs to be delivered safely and indiscriminately to those who need it the most, as well as on distributing COVID-19 vaccines wherever possible.

The special envoy said he understood the criticism that his visit to Myanmar would legitimize the junta.

“I want to highlight that our visit does not legitimize the other’s side,” he said, referring to the regime.

Thong Mengdavid, a research fellow at the Mekong Centre for Strategic Studies at the Asian Vision Institute, said Cambodia is currently trapped, as ASEAN had been taken hostage by the Myanmar crisis.

“The root causes of the Myanmar crisis are the illegal power grab by the junta and the disparity of the ethnic groups,” he said.

Mengdavid said Cambodia must retain the step-by-step conflict-solving model to gain trust from the junta while continuing to support the people of Myanmar through the “ASEAN Way” and humanitarian assistance.

“The process will take time not only during the Cambodian chairmanship, but … will persist as a ‘hot potato’ for Indonesia next year,” he added.

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