March 24, 2022
PHNOM PENH – Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of Myanmar’s ruling State Administration Council (SAC), has hinted that a meeting between ASEAN special envoy Prak Sokhonn and former civil administration leader Aung San Suu Kyi could be on the cards in his future visits in this capacity.
Sokhonn, the Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, revealed this at a press conference addressing his first official Myanmar visit, which ended on March 23, in his capacity as the bloc’s special envoy.
Speaking to the media upon the delegation’s arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport, Sokhonn was asked whether he had requested to meet Aung San Suu Kyi. He said he did not make a direct request, noting that such as appeal was the reason that the former ASEAN special envoy, Brunei’s second foreign minister Erywan Yusof, had failed to secure a visit to Myanmar during his tenure.
However, he said Min Aung Hlaing had “hinted” that it may be possible for him to meet her in the future.
Sokhonn said: “I recalled Prime Minister Hun Sen’s request [to Min Aung Hlaing, to visit Aung San Suu Kyi]. His response this time was more open than before, saying that it is hard to do so at the moment because Aung San Suu Kyi’s case is undergoing court proceedings, and that Myanmar law states that permission to meet other people is not granted during this process.
“Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said this request can be considered in the future, not only to meet Her Excellency Aung San Suu Kyi, but other politicians as well.
“This shows that we are opening the window to allow in the ‘light’ needed for dialogue with all concerned parties, as stated in the mandate of the special envoy and in the interests of national reconciliation.”
Sokhonn began his three-day visit to Myanmar on March 21, accompanied by the ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi and senior Cambodian officials. During the visit, he had met with various parties that formed the SAC, foreign diplomats based in Yangon and notable figures in Myanmar politics.
He said he had learned from the diplomats and officials that there has been no sign of negotiation for reconciliation so far, and that many factions of the conflict are not ready to talk but, in fact, are committed to fight and continue their struggle.
“It is very clear that different political factions in Myanmar are not ready to negotiate. This is the most difficult task. When we want to reconcile and our partners do not want to negotiate, then trying to do so is incredibly difficult.
“Through the significant input we’ve received so far [from diplomats and officials], the picture that has been painted is that all sides still have high commitment to their struggle, especially those involved in armed resistance. This means that they still have the goal of destroying each other,” he said.
International NGO leaders have roundly criticised Sokhonn’s visit.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that by “rushing” to Myanmar to embrace top-level SAC representatives without a clear agreement for steps forward on the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus (5PC) – or even the possibility of meeting all meaningful stakeholders including senior representatives of the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi before the dissolution of the party last year over perceived irregularities in the 2020 general election – Sokhonn is granting the SAC a “public relations windfall” that “undermines the limited regional pressure being placed on Myanmar”.
Sokhonn responded to the criticism levelled at him by saying he believed it was “normal” that there would be different expectations about his visit – including immediate ceasefire. But offered his own rebuke, saying they were mostly unrealistic given that the conflict had stretched far beyond the last year.
“The expectation is normal because outsiders will always expect that the visit will bring good immediate results, especially a ceasefire. But I stress now that the fighting in Myanmar has not just started recently. It has been going on for more than 70 years, since 1948. So how can it end in a day, a month or a year? Just by just calling the parties to sit down and have a talk? It’s just not possible,” he said.
The special envoy said Cambodia, as ASEAN chair, will take a “pragmatic and step-by-step” approach, reiterating that the visit was not to legitimise Myanmar’s SAC or to serve the interests of one side over another in the conflict.
“Cambodia gains nothing from this, besides merely helping Myanmar and its people avoid tragedy such as what our country had gone through during the wars, armed conflict and genocide over 30 years ago.
“What benefit, political interests or strategy can Cambodia get from this? Nothing. We are only helping to support a solution and serve our mandate with honesty, as the ASEAN chair and I, myself, as ASEAN special envoy,” he said.
Sokhonn said he “regretted” that he could not meet former first lady Su Su Lwin – who is said to have a close relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi – because she had reportedly tested positive for Covid-19.
The former first lady “is a person close to Aung San Suu Kyi and a leading dignitary of the NLD. I believe a meeting with her would have been very beneficial to listen to and understand how the political situation in Myanmar is currently developing and how NLD is coping, and to find out how Aung San Suu Kyi is doing,” he said.
Sokhonn also noted that he had urged Myanmar to release more political prisoners, including Australian professor Sean Turnell, the former economic policy adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi who is being held on charges of breaching the Myanmar Official Secrets act while working for her.
Heng Kimkong, a visiting senior research fellow at the Cambodia Development Centre, said Min Aung Hlaing’s comments could be seen as an indicator of how the Myanmar crisis might be resolved.
He said the comments also signal the success of Cambodia’s diplomatic approach in dealing with the Myanmar issue.
“Prak Sokhonn’s visit to Myanmar will pave the way for solutions on the Myanmar crisis. However, a lot remains to be seen and whether the military junta will practice what it preaches,” he told The Post.