Analyst: ASEAN Must Not Allow Burmese Junta Officials to Attend Meetings

ASEAN’s commitment to retain its integrity in the face of Cambodia’s dalliance with the Burmese junta will be tested at an upcoming in-person meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers, analysts said Monday.

If member-states want to prevent the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from self-destructing, they must reject any attempts by 2022 ASEAN chair and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow the Burmese regime’s foreign minister to attend that meeting, one observer said.

“If Cambodia insists on inviting the junta to ASEAN meetings, we should say ‘no.’ If need be, we should just boycott the meetings. … In my view, [Foreign Minister] Retno should not attend,” Rizal Sukma, a former Indonesian ambassador to Britain, told BenarNews, referring to Retno Marsudi.

“If Cambodia wants to destroy ASEAN, and other ASEAN countries are okay with it, so be it,” added Sukma, a senior researcher at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The comments by Sukma and other analysts followed Hun Sen’s visit to Naypyidaw on Friday and Saturday, during which he met with the military coup leader Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. It was the first by a foreign leader since the military coup last February.

The Cambodian PM views ASEAN as “an old boys’ club where dictators can still be dictators,” said Hunter S. Marston, a doctoral student at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.

“Unfortunately, ASEAN has no consensus on how to approach Myanmar, so we’re about to see whether more democratic-leaning states within the bloc will stand up to Hun Sen [and] hold the Myanmar junta accountable,” he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

Hun Sen is set to host his first major ASEAN meeting as chairman of the regional bloc on Jan. 18-19 at a foreign ministers’ “retreat” in Siem Reap.

As of Monday, BenarNews confirmed through the Malaysian foreign minister’s press secretary that the country’s top diplomat would be attending next week’s meeting virtually.

In Jakarta, a spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry said ASEAN member-countries would be briefed at the meeting about the outcomes of Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar, but he declined to say if Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi would participate.

Officials from both countries declined to comment on Hun Sen’s trip to Naypyidaw or the possibility that the Burmese junta’s foreign minister would be attending next week’s meeting in Siem Reap. Elsewhere, officials at the foreign ministries of ASEAN member-states Thailand and the Philippines did not immediately respond to BenarNews requests for comment.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Cambodia’s foreign ministry told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that it would soon be known if the junta's foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, was invited to Siem Reap as well.

“We will issue a press statement soon in the coming days,” Koy Koung said.

Myanmar’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, was optimistic when asked about the outcome of Hun Sen’s visit.

The visit “will help our representation [in ASEAN],” he told RFA, claiming that the junta had fulfilled one point of ASEAN’s five-point roadmap to democracy agreed to last April – ending violence.

He was referring to a joint statement issued at the end of Hun Sen’s two-day trip to Myanmar that said the junta had extended a ceasefire with all Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) until the end of 2022.

The statement made no mention of pro-democracy activists.

On Monday, the Cambodian PM defended his visit, claiming to have achieved three major outcomes of the five-point consensus: a ceasefire, humanitarian aid to all parties, and sending an ASEAN special envoy to have a dialogue with all stakeholders.

‘Save the integrity of ASEAN’

Analysts and human right activists, however, are upset about Hun Sen’s visit because he did not meet with pro-democracy leaders and instead heard about the crisis only from the side of the junta, which toppled the elected government in a coup last February.

Some dismissed the joint statement issued by Cambodia and Myanmar as a pack of lies. They said that any gains ASEAN had made by shutting out Min Aung Hlaing from the bloc’s main summit last year for non-implementation of the five-point roadmap were undermined by Hun Sen’s visit.

The joint statement “is a misguided and dangerous attempt to deceptively portray a breakthrough, when in fact his unilateral actions have dramatically weakened ASEAN’s collective leverage to solve the Myanmar crisis,” Charles Santiago, chair of the group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), said in a statement Sunday.

“Hun Sen’s rogue diplomacy is a threat to ASEAN,” APHR said.

Men Nath, Sweden-based representative of Cambodia Watchdog Council, told RFA that the result of Hun Sen’s trip to Myanmar was “zero.”

“It is a complete opposite from the ASEAN mechanism for resolving the Burmese issue,” he said Monday.

“What [Hun Sen] has done by referring to the ASEAN mechanism has merely caused a divide in ASEAN.”

Heads of other ASEAN member-states need to get “immediately involved … to save the integrity of ASEAN as a regional forum,” Malaysian analyst MD Mahbubul Haque, a lecturer in International Studies at the University Sultan Zainal Abidin, told BenarNews.

“The Indonesian, Malaysian, or Singaporean PM or president should closely work on the Myanmar crisis. You can’t rely on Thailand or Philippines,” Haque said.

“Do not let [Hun Sen do it] alone.”

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