Cambodia’s efforts to keep ASEAN as 10 members and not exclude Myanmar appear to be gaining ground as Myanmar’s military junta has sent a representative for the first time since the coup to attend the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat (AMM Retreat) chaired by Laos.
The AMM Retreat under the Chairmanship of Saleumxay Kommasith, Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Laos, was convened on Monday, to kick off Laos’ Chairmanship of ASEAN 2024, under the theme “ASEAN: Enhancing Connectivity and Resilience” in Luang Prabang.
Being prohibited from sending its foreign minister or any political representative to high-level ASEAN meetings since the term of previous ASEAN chairs Brunei, Cambodia and Indonesia, Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry this time sent its civil servant Permanent Secretary to ASEAN Marlar Than Htike to attend the Retreat in the Laotian city.
Marlar Than Htike is the junta’s first representative to attend a high-level meeting of the regional bloc after a military coup led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing ousted the country’s civilian government led by then State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in 2021.
This led to ASEAN banning those connected with the junta from attending the bloc’s high-level meetings until steps are taken to resolve the conflict. However, the junta was allowed to send a “non-political representative” but it did not do so until this time.
Following the closed-door Retreat, Saleumxay told reporters that the developments were seen as an encouraging sign that the engagement with Myanmar could be effective. However, he cautioned that a resolution to the Myanmar crisis remained a distant prospect.
“We feel a little bit optimistic that the engagement may work, although we have to admit that the issues that are happening in Myanmar will not be resolved overnight,” he said, according to a report in Singapore’s The Straits Times.
Laos’ Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (R) shakes hands with Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Sok Chenda Sophea (L) during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ (AMM) Retreat in Luang Prabang yesterday. AFP
Earlier this month, Alounkeo Kittikhoun, ASEAN Special Envoy to the ASEAN Chair, also met with Sen Gen Aung Hlaing, in the capital Naypyidaw and Myanmar’s state-run newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar reported the two discussed “efforts of the government to ensure peace and stability of the State and national reconciliation”.
Cambodia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sok Chenda Sophea also attended yesterday’s Retreat.
So Naro, Minister Delegate attached to the Prime Minister in charge of ASEAN affairs, told Khmer Times yesterday that since the Kingdom chaired ASEAN in 2022, Cambodia has tried its best to resolve Myanmar’s crisis.
“Cambodia is very keen to see Myanmar return to attend the ASEAN high-level meetings and we have made a significant contribution, especially during Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN,” he said.
“We have worked to bring about a compromise between all parties to the conflict in Myanmar, to ensure that the war ends and the political situation returns to normalcy so that the country can fulfil its role and mission as an ASEAN member state,” he added.
When Cambodia was ASEAN Chair, former Prime Minister Hun Sen became the only leader from the bloc to visit Myanmar since the coup and held talks with Sen Gen Aung Hlaing on the “peace process.” He has said that he “tries to keep ASEAN to be 10, not 9.”
His visit was followed by the visit of then ASEAN Chair’s Special Envoy Prak Sokhonn to the country twice – in March and June 2022 – seeking for peaceful resolution and the release of all political prisoners.
In line with the bloc’s stand, Cambodia as ASEAN Chair did not invite Sen Gen Aung Hlaing to the ASEAN Summit as well as the junta’s Foreign Minister to ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting because there was no “visible progress” by the junta to implement peace initiatives.
Naro noted, “Cambodia wants to see Myanmar return, but in reality, it is not Cambodia’s decision alone. The Myanmar junta has not implemented the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus (5PC), which its leaders had also agreed to. It’s a sad point,” he said.
A press statement by the Chair of the AMM Retreat said yesterday the Retreat discussed the developments in Myanmar and reaffirmed its united position that the 5PC remains the main reference to address the political crisis in that country, “with the sole objective of restoring peace, stability, and a Myanmar-owned and led comprehensive political resolution.”
It welcomed the ASEAN Leaders’ Reviews and Decisions on the implementation of the 5PC adopted at the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits in 2022 and the 43rd ASEAN Summit in 2023.
“We reaffirmed ASEAN’s commitment to assisting Myanmar in finding a peaceful, comprehensive, and durable solution to the ongoing crisis, as Myanmar remains an integral part of ASEAN. We reaffirmed ASEAN unity and reiterated that any effort should be supported, in line with the 5PC and coordination with the Chair of ASEAN,” it added.
They also welcomed the appointment of Alounkeo, former Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office, as the Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar to “continue our efforts to promote progress in the implementation of the 5PC in its entirety.”
“We appreciated his efforts thus far in reaching out to parties concerned and are confident in his resolve to help the people of Myanmar find a Myanmar-owned and led solution towards a peaceful, stable and unified Myanmar contributing to peace and prosperity of the region,” it added.
They expressed satisfaction with the advancements made in the implementation of Phase 2 of the ASEAN humanitarian assistance to Myanmar by the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Management (AHA Centre). Specifically, they commended the distribution of humanitarian aid in January 2024 to support displaced and vulnerable populations in Nyaung Shwe and Hsihseng Township, Southern Shan State.
“We urged for immediate cessation of violence by all parties in Myanmar to create a safe and conducive environment for ensuring the timely, unhindered, and safe delivery of humanitarian assistance to all those in need in Myanmar without discrimination. We urged all parties to exercise utmost restraint, uphold international humanitarian law and take all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of all civilians,” it said.
The Foreign Ministers also appreciated the collaborative effort between Thailand and Myanmar to enhance humanitarian assistance along the border, facilitated by the Red Cross Societies of both nations. This initiative aims to ensure the effective, credible, and transparent delivery of essential necessities to individuals in need, emphasizing a commitment to nondiscrimination.
“We look forward to engaging AHA Centre in joining the monitoring of the distribution of humanitarian assistance, as this initiative can contribute to ASEAN’s collective efforts in implementing the 5PC,” the statement added.