Asean talks in Cambodia focusing on Myanmar

Asean talks in Cambodia focusing on Myanmar

Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn at the Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Thursday. (Photo: Reuters)
Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn at the Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Thursday. (Photo: Reuters)

PHNOM PENH: Southeast Asian nations were holding talks in Cambodia on Thursday, amid divisions in the bloc over how to restore stability in Myanmar after the military coup there a year ago.

The junta's representative was barred from attending the meeting.

Cambodia is the current chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which last year unexpectedly blocked Myanmar's military government from taking part in key meetings over a failure to honour a peace plan agreed with the bloc.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had sought to re-engage the junta, but amid friction over the approach, Asean excluded Myanmar's military-appointed foreign minister from this week's meeting, which was postponed from January.

"No doubt we might have different views occasionally on some issues but what family doesn't have them?" Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn told reporters in Phnom Penh.

Besides the junta's foreign minister being barred, some Asean ministers did not travel and were due to attend virtually after a surge in coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia.

Prak Sokhonn expressed regret that not all the ministers had been able to attend. Vietnam's foreign minister, Bui Thanh Son, tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in Phnom Penh and would join the meeting online, Cambodian foreign ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said.

Cambodia's prime minister on Wednesday defended his decision to visit Myanmar for talks last month and said that, without a breakthrough, peace in the conflict-hit nation may not be achieved even in five to 10 years.

Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia have urged Cambodia not to invite Myanmar's generals until they deliver on a commitment made last year to end hostilities and allow ASEAN to facilitate a peace process. Ahead of the talks, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said it was "disappointing" the lack of progress implementing the peace plan, according to a statement from his ministry.

- Constructive engagement -

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military overthrew an elected government led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb 1 last year. More than 1,500 civilians have been killed in the junta's crackdown on its opponents, according to figures cited by a Thailand-based activist group. The junta has disputed the death toll and blamed the violence on "terrorists".

In a report this week, non-profit organisation Fortify Rights accused Myanmar's military of atrocities in Kayah State, which has been the scene of fierce fighting, and called on Asean to back an arms embargo against the junta. Asean has not formally recognised the military government, which has been targeted by sanctions imposed by the United States, Britain, and the European Union, among others.

Myanmar's foreign ministry said in a statement this week it regretted Asean's decision to bar its representative, which it said contradicted the bloc's principle of equal representation. It said, however, it "will continue to extend constructive engagement" with all Asean members.

The tough line on Myanmar taken by some Asean members represents a departure from years of sticking to a group policy of not interfering in each other's internal affairs, which critics said made it toothless when it came to issues such as human rights. The other members of Asean are Thailand, Laos and Brunei.

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