Cambodia Forced to Put Off ASEAN Meeting as Foreign Ministers Pull Out

By The Irrawaddy 13 January 2022

Cambodia has gotten off to a rough start as the current holder of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s rotating chair, having been forced to postpone “indefinitely” a regional foreign ministerial meeting it had planned to host next week. It was to be the first high-level summit held under its chairmanship this year.

The two-day ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat (AMM Retreat) was scheduled to be held in Siem Reap on Jan. 18. However, a spokesperson for the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said on Wednesday the event was postponed due to “the difficulty for many ASEAN foreign ministers to travel to join the meeting,” according to state-run media outlet AKP.

The spokesperson made no mention of rescheduling the meeting, and did not specify who had experienced “difficulty” joining the meeting. ASEAN is a Southeast Asian regional bloc comprising 10 countries including Myanmar.

The postponement came a few days after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s much-criticized visit to military-ruled Myanmar last week. He became the first foreign leader to meet the country’s coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, who has killed more than 1,400 people for opposing his takeover last February.

Myanmar has been a thorn in the regional bloc’s side since the military coup. Last year, in an unprecedented move, ASEAN excluded the junta leader from several summits for his failure to honor peace agreements he made with the group, causing divisions among members over how to deal with Myanmar.

Hun Sen’s unilateral visit to Myanmar last week, and his vow to bring the country back into the ASEAN fold, have caused unease among member states. His meeting with Min Aung Hlaing has borne little fruit so far. For all the coup leader’s promises to implement a ceasefire in the country, the junta has remained on the offensive, launching a slew of airstrikes in ethnic armed group-controlled areas in Karen State in the country’s south, and in civilian resistance strongholds upcountry. The most notable achievement of Hun Sen’s trip was to become the first visiting foreign leader to face widespread denunciation from the people of the country, who fear that his visit as ASEAN chair will confer legitimacy on the regime.

Observers found it strange that “many ASEAN foreign ministers” suddenly and simultaneously had “difficulty” attending the AMM Retreat. Some interpreted the “difficulty” as embarrassment on the part of “many ASEAN foreign ministers” at the prospect of sitting at the same table with the Myanmar regime-appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin. Cambodia had not officially announced plans to invite him, but many believed he was likely to attend given Hun Sen’s claim that he would bring Myanmar back into the ASEAN fold. If Wunna Maung Lwin’s expected presence was the cause of the “difficulty” that forced the meeting’s postponement, it could be seen as a collective attempt by ASEAN to demonstrate its displeasure at the chairman’s engagement with the coup leader, who has been killing his own people.

On Thursday, UN Special Envoy for Myanmar Noeleen Hayzer said she was willing to work with Cambodia on resolving the conflict in Myanmar during her meeting with Hun Sen via a videoconference. She said she was pleased with the immediate action taken by the prime minister, given the urgency of the issue.

Hayzer was appointed as special envoy in October after her predecessor Christine Schraner Burgener’s tenure expired without any significant progress having been made. The new envoy has a record of warm relations with Myanmar’s previous military regime and its proxy government. Her commitment on Thursday to work with Cambodia to find a solution to Myanmar’s crisis sounds interesting and deserves a wait-and-see approach. Hopefully, the duo’s future efforts on behalf of the country won’t have other ASEAN leaders scrambling to find some “difficulty” preventing them from attending the bloc’s summits.

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