Cambodia postpones first ASEAN meeting amid differences among member states

A government spokesman cites 'difficulties' for top diplomats to attend in-person retreat next week.
2022.01.12
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Cambodia postpones first ASEAN meeting amid differences among member states Demonstrators protest in Yangon against the visit to Myanmar by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Jan. 7, 2022.
Screen grab of third-party video via Reuters

Cambodia on Wednesday postponed the first ASEAN meeting under its 2022 chairmanship, the government said, amid reports of differences among the bloc’s members over Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar last week where he did not meet democracy leaders.

An in-person foreign ministers’ retreat, scheduled for next week in Siem Reap, was postponed indefinitely because some top diplomats from member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had said they would find it difficult to travel, said Khieu Kanharith, the host country’s information minister.

“The ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat (AMM Retreat) initially scheduled on Jan 18-19, 2022 in Siem Reap province has been postponed,” he said in a statement on Facebook, without announcing a fresh date for the meeting.

The reason for the postponement is that “many ASEAN foreign have difficulties traveling to attend the meeting,” he added.

The postponement effectively delays the official endorsement of Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn as ASEAN’s new special envoy for Myanmar.

Radio Free Asia (RFA), with which BenarNews is affiliated, tried to contact Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan and Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Koung but did not immediately hear back from them on Wednesday.

Divisions within ASEAN over Hun Sen’s trip to Naypyidaw and a potential invitation to the Myanmar junta’s foreign minister to attend the ASEAN diplomats’ retreat might be why some diplomats chose not to attend next week’s meeting, analysts said.

ASEAN states who cited travel difficulties were likely being polite instead of saying outright that they didn’t want to go to Siem Reap, according to Sophal Ear, a Cambodia expert at Arizona State University in the U.S.

“This is not officially a boycott, but [some members-states’ foreign ministers] came-up with some excuses as to why they cannot join the meeting.  … The chickens are coming home to roost, it’s karma for Cambodia’s ‘Cowboy Diplomacy,’” Ear, an associate dean and professor at the university’s Thunderbird School of Management in Phoenix, told RFA.

“When you do things others don’t want you to do, they don’t come to your party and have excuses … Be ready for a long list of reasons for why someone cannot show up,” he added.

Another Southeast Asia analyst, Hunter Marston, said Cambodia’s chairmanship had got off to a “rocky start.”

“Seems internal divisions over the chair’s invitation to the Myanmar military-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin have created an impasse,” Marston, a doctoral student at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University, said on Twitter.

‘A non-political representative’

Hun Sen, the leader of Cambodia, which this year took over the revolving annual chairmanship of ASEAN, had said before going to Myanmar last week that he wanted the Burmese junta to be represented at the bloc’s meetings.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo had categorically said that if Burmese coup leader Min Aung Hlaing did not implement an earlier agreed upon five-point road map to democracy, then Myanmar should only be represented by a non-political individual at ASEAN meetings.

A Malaysian foreign ministry spokesman, meanwhile, told BenarNews on Monday that Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah would attend the Siem Reap meeting only virtually.

Critics said that Cambodia had undermined the regional bloc through Hun Sun’s meeting with the Burmese junta leader Min Aung Hlaing after he was disinvited from the ASEAN summit in late 2021 for reneging on his promises to implement the bloc’s five-point consensus. Back then, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore had backed shutting out the coup leader from the regional bloc’s top summit.

By visiting Myanmar and meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, Hun Sen legitimized Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, pro-democracy activists in Myanmar said.

The military leader who toppled the elected Burmese government last February had promised, among other things, to end violence and give an ASEAN special envoy access to all parties in the Myanmar political crisis. He did none of those things.

Min Aung Hlaing refused to allow an ASEAN special envoy access to democracy leaders last year.

Meanwhile, more than 1,400 mostly pro-democracy protesters have been killed by security forces since the Feb. 1, 2021 coup. And a day after Hun Sen left Myanmar, National League for Democracy Leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to four more years in prison over what many said were frivolous charges.

Hun Sen would have divided the regional bloc because of what some describe as his cowboy diplomacy with Myanmar, causing more authoritarian member-states to be at odds with liberal democratic ones, analysts had said.

‘China appreciates Myanmar’s readiness’

In other developments, Japan on Tuesday “welcomed Cambodia’s active engagement as ASEAN Chair on the situation in Myanmar, and both ministers shared the view to coordinate closely,” the Japanese foreign ministry said in a statement.

Additionally, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said that ASEAN member-state Thailand’s top diplomat had sent a “congratulatory message” saying “he strongly supported the outcomes of the Cambodia-Myanmar joint press release,” local media reported.

On Monday, China, Myanmar’s close ally, spoke in favor of Hun Sen and Cambodia, as well as Myanmar.

“China appreciates Myanmar’s readiness to create favorable conditions for ASEAN’s special envoy to fulfill his duty, and works toward effective alignment between Myanmar’s five-point roadmap and ASEAN’s five-point consensus,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, told reporters.

The two roadmaps have nothing in common.

“China will fully support Cambodia, the rotating chair of ASEAN, in playing an active role and making [an] important contribution to properly managing the differences among parties of Myanmar.” 

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, with additional reporting by RFA's Khmer Service.

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