Guest Column

ASEAN’s Strategy in Myanmar

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 18 March 2022

Before Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn was endorsed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar, he and his superior, Prime Minister Hun Sen, embarked on their first attempt to engage with Myanmar.

Just seven days after Cambodia took the chair of ASEAN for 2022, a 16-member team arrived in the Myanmar capital Naypyitaw on January 7. It was headed by Hun Sen and also included his two sons, his anointed successor Lieutenant General Hun Manet and Hun Mani. Also in the delegation was Kao Kim Hourn, Minister Delegate Attached to the Prime Minister, who is tipped to be the next ASEAN Secretary General.

Prime Minister Hun Sen viewed the visit as an “ice-breaking” mission. Cambodia briefed senior ASEAN officials about the planned visit at a January 5 meeting. Foreign minister Prak Sokhonn told them that as the conflict in Myanmar enters a second year, it is important to re-engage with Naypyitaw to implement ASEAN’s five-point consensus and that requires building mutual trust and confidence. Prak Sokhonn described Hun Sen’s visit as an effort to plant a tree for peace and reconciliation. As such, time, patience and pragmatism are needed before anyone can harvest the fruit.

Now Prak Sokhonn is the ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar. His earlier plan of leaving for Naypyitaw on 16 and 17 March was delayed due to glitches on the side of the military regime’s governing body, the State Administration Council (SAC), which is engaged in intense fighting in Sagaing Region, an area that will be the main focus of humanitarian assistance in the near future. Now that the SAC has agreed to welcome the ASEAN special envoy team to Naypyitaw for a three-day mission on 20-23 March, both sides have agreed on their agendas to show their good faith.

Kao Kim Hourn stated that the special envoy’s trip would focus on ASEAN solidarity and bringing Myanmar back into the fold, so that ASEAN would become a 10-member bloc again. On March 11, Kao Kim Hourn told a webinar organized by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace that Prak Sokhonn has two key objectives: first to meet and consult with multiple stakeholders inside Myanmar and, second, to find ways to speed up the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the conflict-torn country.

The SAC has made it clear that the special envoy must not engage in any attempt to meet with the civilian parallel National Unity Government (NUG), which it has labelled a terrorist group. Naypyitaw has consistently reminded ASEAN of the “one-Myanmar policy” since last October, when ASEAN decided to invite only senior non-officials to attend ASEAN-related meetings. The SAC decided voluntarily to skip some of those meetings. An ASEAN diplomat based in Yangon expressed hopes that the regime leader Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing could attend future ASEAN meetings if “sufficient progress” has been made as outlined in the five-point consensus agreed by ASEAN last year.

At the moment, it is likely that Prak Sokhonn will be able to meet with some senior National League for Democracy (NLD) officials. However, ousted State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint are in detention. Without Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s consent, no senior NLD leaders will dare to represent the NLD. Over 800 NLD members including senior leaders and chief ministers have been arrested since the coup, and over 600 remain in detention.

There have been rumors circulating among Yangon-based diplomats that these NLD officials will include Vice President Henry Van Thio, Pyithu Hluttaw president, T Khun Myat, former President U Htin Kyaw and his wife Daw Su Su Lwin.

However, President Htin Kyaw and Daw Su Su Lwin are loyal to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the party and it will be surprising to see them compromise their political integrity.

In addition, political activists including Ko Ko Gyi will be meeting with Prak Sokhonn. But a planned meeting with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) who have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement has been cancelled. And Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner and student leader in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, is today seen as a turncoat and has little support from Myanmar citizens.

Prak Sokhonn was originally due to meet the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST), a group of ten EAOs, on Monday in Naypyitaw, but the meeting has been cancelled due to a tight schedule, said Colonel Khun Okkar, the patron of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization, a PPST member.

There are also EAOs representatives who would like to meet up with Prak Sokhonn without going through the SAC. In the future, when the time is right, Prak Sokhonn must also meet with representatives of the NUG. It will take some time before he will be able to achieve the so-called “inclusive” dialogue with all the stakeholders as stated in the five-point consensus.

ASEAN’s special envoy hopes that his upcoming visit will be able to gradually lay the groundwork to facilitate mediation of the dialogue between the parties directly concerned.

According to ASEAN diplomatic sources, Prak Sokhonn aims to convince the SAC to allow sustained and significant humanitarian aid to needy areas, especially in the north, northwest and southeast of the country. The sources admitted it would not be an easy task as humanitarian corridors must be agreed upon, including the logistical practicalities and the safety of concerned agencies. So far, though, the regime has bombed civilians, houses, religious buildings, refugee camps and schools and has blocked humanitarian assistance.

The diplomatic sources said that ASEAN’s envoy would suggest the setting up of coordinating groups on both sides to help ASEAN’s Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management. At this point, Prak Sokhonn will not raise the role of United Nations (UN)-related agencies, knowing the sensitivity of the issue. At the ASEAN ministerial retreat on 17 February, Thailand recommended that both ASEAN and the UN’s special envoys work together and synergize their programs, which was reflected in the joint statement.

Whether Prak Sokhonn’s first visit will achieve “sufficient progress” to move forward depends on the SAC’s political calculus. But given the toughness some ASEAN member states, like Malaysia, Singapore and Malaysia, display towards the Myanmar junta, it’s not an easy job for Cambodia.

According to Kao Kim Hourn, there will be more visits by the special envoy to Myanmar during Cambodia’s time as the ASEAN chair. “Give Cambodia a chance,” said Kao Kim Hourn.

Later on, the special envoy also has plans to engage with the special envoys from the UN, Japan and the European Union, which are key partners of ASEAN.

Prime Minister Hun Sen would like to leave a positive legacy from his time as ASEAN chair. Thanks to UN efforts in the 1990s, Hun Sen has been able to make economic progress for the people of Cambodia for nearly four decades. He has also pursued the path of permanent neutrality espoused by Cambodia’s late King Sihanouk.

But Cambodia is regarded as pro-China and will be closely watched by all the dialogue partners to see how Hun Sen navigates ASEAN’s relations with great powers at this pivotal juncture. But Cambodia co-sponsored and voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the aggression against Ukraine. This latest move may demonstrate a new diplomatic pragmatism on the part of Cambodia.

It remains to be seen if Hun Sen will succeed in his endeavors to bring Myanmar back into the ASEAN family, and also to strengthen the bloc’s importance amid the current disruptive international environment.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

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