ASEAN envoy Prak Sokhonn’s one-sided engagement with the junta will never lead to a resolution of Myanmar’s political crisis, analysts and politicians said Thursday after his first official visit to the country concluded without meeting key opposition leaders.
Prak Sokhonn, who is also the foreign minister of rotating ASEAN chair Cambodia, traveled to Myanmar from March 21-23 with the expressed goal of facilitating an end to the unrest that has engulfed the country since the military seized power in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup. However, after meeting with junta chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders on Monday, the regime denied the envoy access to Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained head of the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD). Prak Sokhonn also did not meet with members of the shadow National Unity Government (NUG).
Political analyst Sai Kyi Zin Soe called the trip a “failed visit” that was unlikely to move the needle on the crisis.
“It shows [Cambodia] will not be able to resolve the issue even if they want to during their ASEAN leadership role,” he said. “They won’t be able to find an acceptable solution for all of us because they didn’t meet all the people they should have. So, I don’t see any positive outcome from this trip.”
Prak Sokhonn’s visit was highly anticipated by observers who say that leaders of the NLD, which won Myanmar’s November 2020 election by a landslide, must be given a seat at the table for any negotiations on the country’s political future.
Allowing the ASEAN envoy to meet with all stakeholders is a key stipulation of the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) agreed to by Min Aung Hlaing during an emergency gathering of the bloc in April last year. However, ASEAN operates under a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member nations and such agreements are non-binding.
On Tuesday, Prak Sokhonn met with the chairman of the lesser-known opposition People’s Party, Ko Ko Gyi, who urged him to pressure the junta on releasing the country’s political prisoners and ending acts of violence against civilians.
Ko Ko Gyi characterized the meeting as a kind of progress and called for further dialogue. However, the People’s Party does not enjoy nearly the same level of support as the NLD and is not expected to mount any real challenge in elections.
The envoy told reporters on Wednesday that he had personally asked Min Aung Hlaing for a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was arrested after the coup and faces several charges brought by the military. The junta chief refused the request, citing her ongoing trial.
Prak Sokhonn also acknowledged that the junta had failed to make any real progress on implementing the other points it agreed to in the 5PC, including ending the use of violence against civilians. He said ASEAN would refrain from inviting its representatives to bloc gatherings until it had done so — a policy that has been in place for months.
Criticism of ASEAN
Bo Hla Tint, NUG ambassador to ASEAN, criticized the bloc’s resolutions as toothless and called for stronger measures.
“The junta does not respect nor implement the ASEAN consensus,” said Bo Hla Tint, whose party reached out to Prak Sokhonn about a meeting ahead of his visit but received no answer. “It shows the junta that it is totally impossible for ASEAN to end the violence using such a weak approach to enforcing the current five-point agreement.”
The NUG, which many people in Myanmar see as their only representative body, has held informal talks with ASEAN member states Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines, but has had no contact with Cambodia, the bloc’s chair. The junta says the NUG has no authority and characterizes it as a terrorist organization.
ASEAN expert Daw Moe Thuzar said meeting with Myanmar’s many political stakeholders is crucial to understanding the crisis from all angles.
“Cambodia will only be able to understand the various aspects of the current political crisis and help solve the issue if it holds dialogue with organizations such as the CRPH [Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Committee of Representatives] and NUG, which represent the people of Myanmar and our democracy,” she said.
Repeated attempts by RFA to contact junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun for comment went unanswered on Thursday.
Status of armed groups
In the lead up to and during Prak Sokhonn’s visit, sources reported a relative lull in clashes in Myanmar’s remote border regions, where the junta has faced tough resistance since launching offensives against ethnic insurgents and branches of the prodemocracy People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitary group loyal to the NUG.
But the lull followed what was described as overall intensified fighting throughout the month of March in the areas, which include Sagaing and Magway regions, as well as Chin, Kayin and Kayah states, with rising civilian casualties and the mass displacement of residents fleeing the violence.
Many ethnic armies have been fighting against Myanmar’s military since the country’s 1948 independence. After the coup, several groups threw their support behind local PDF branches to battle junta troops.
Only 10 groups have signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the government since 2015, when the document was inked in the presence of international observers and Myanmar’s highest legislature.
The 10 groups suggested in June that the deal remains in place, despite an already flailing peace process that was all but destroyed by the unpopular junta’s coup. However, they say they will not pursue talks with the military, which they view as having stolen power from the country’s democratically elected government.
Min Zaw Oo, the director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, said that given the current situation, it will only be possible for the NUG to enter negotiations after discussions between the junta and the ethnic groups that have signed the ceasefire agreement have taken place.
“At the moment, it is far from possible to talk to the [junta] for some forces, especially groups like NUG and the PDF,” he said.
“Another question is whether the NUG holds enough influence over all the PDF groups in the country. Some of them are not even coordinating with the NUG and operate on their own, without a proper chain of command.”
Political analyst Than Soe Naing agreed that a dialogue between all stakeholders is unlikely.
“In the past 70 years of fighting against the military, [the ethnic armies] were fighting separately from one another, in their own way,” he said. “Now, most of the ethnic armed groups and PDF militias have joined hands and are fighting a civil war, so there is no room for negotiations.”
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based rights group, junta security forces have killed more than 1,700 civilians and arrested more than 9,900 since the military coup.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said earlier this week that more than 500,000 people have been displaced by fighting in the country since February 2021.
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