News Stopping Myanmar mayhem tops ASEAN agenda

Stopping Myanmar mayhem tops ASEAN agenda

ASEAN’s foreign ministers are meeting in Cambodia to discuss sometimes divisive regional issues. Photo: AP
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Top South-East Asian diplomats meeting in Cambodia’s capital are intensifying efforts to stop the escalating violence in Myanmar and to address other pressing – and often divisive – regional issues.

It is the first in-person meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers since the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, which has weakened economies and complicated diplomacy.

It comes at a time of increased tensions between the US and China, as well as global increases in food and energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“ASEAN has to deal with challenges of different types and levels but never before, never like this year, have we been confronted at the same time with so many perils for the region and the world at large,” Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn told the delegates.

Cambodia holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, which also includes the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei, as well as Myanmar.

Myanmar’s military ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021, and the country was asked not to send any political representative to the ASEAN meetings in response to the violence that has ensued.

In protest at that decision, Myanmar’s military government said it would send no delegate at all, complicating efforts to push the country to comply with an ASEAN five-point plan for peace, which it has largely been ignoring.

“You’re trying to solve the problem in Myanmar without talking to them,” conceded Cambodia’s spokesman Kung Phoak, a foreign ministry official who also serves as the group’s special envoy to Myanmar.

“We are trying to talk to them, trying to explain to them, trying to express our frustration,” he said.

“But at the same time we also want to hear from them – what they think, how they can do more – so that we can make sure that the implementation of the five-point consensus is moving forward as fast as possible.”

Ms Suu Kyi’s removal triggered widespread peaceful protests that were violently suppressed.

They have evolved into an armed resistance and the country has slipped into what some UN experts characterise as a civil war.

Among other things, the five-point consensus calls for dialogue between all concerned parties and an immediate end to violence.

The military-led government has shown little interest in following the plan, however, and last week announced it had resumed judicial executions, hanging four political prisoners.

That prompted a global outcry, including from ASEAN countries, with Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah condemning the act as a “crime against humanity”.

New sanctions are being considered and Mr Saifuddin said ahead of the meetings the group should think about scrapping or revising its five-point consensus.

He said ASEAN’s special envoy also needs to meet the National Unity Government, a shadow civilian administration established outside Myanmar, to help develop a new political framework.

More than 2100 people have been killed by the military government since it took power and nearly 15,000 have been arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a non-governmental organisation that tracks killings and arrests.

The foreign ministers of China and Russia, both of which have supported Myanmar’s military regime, will be attending the ASEAN meetings and could be pressed by the group for assistance in implementing the plan.

China, however, has strongly stuck by a principal of non-intervention while Russia is Myanmar’s top arms supplier.

During a stop in Myanmar en route to Phnom Penh, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov showed no sign of any change to Moscow’s stance, saying the two countries “have a very solid foundation for building up co-operation in a wide range of areas”.

“We appreciate the traditionally friendly nature of our partnership, which is not affected by any opportunistic processes,” Lavrov said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has criticised ASEAN for not doing enough to stop the violence in Myanmar, will also be in attendance in Phnom Penh.

All three major powers are expected to take part in Friday’s East Asia Summit and will also attend the ASEAN Regional Forum, a platform for security talks where North Korea is also a member.