November 2, 2022
PHNOM PENH – The ongoing Myanmar crisis stemming from the removal of former civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi from power and subsequent violent conflicts between her supporters and the military remains a mounting concern among ASEAN member states with no immediate end in sight, analysts said.
Cambodian political observers generally believe that the Kingdom, as the rotating chair of ASEAN this year, has achieved some fruitful results in its work on the Myanmar situation as it prepares to hand the task off to Indonesia in 2023.
Meanwhile, as the Kingdom prepares to host the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits and related meetings in Phnom Penh on November 10-13, the Myanmar crisis is expected to be a central topic for discussion, with tact and diplomacy most likely required on the Cambodian side as was the case in previous talks.
Local pundits said they see it as a success that Cambodia has been able to maintain Myanmar’s membership within the ASEAN family at all, given the hard stances taken by some of the bloc member states and Myanmar’s lack of progress on the five-point consensus (5PC) devised as the guiding principles for solving the crisis.
Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said Cambodia and ASEAN have worked well together for nearly a half-century now, in line with the Kingdom’s policy of strong support for multilateral diplomacy in the region.
Phea said the Myanmar crisis is hard to solve partly because it is now enmeshed in the country’s historical conflicts arising from its decades of military rule that came about after the nation gained its independence and ceased being a British colony.
“Throughout the many decades of its post-colonial era, Myanmar has been under its military’s power and it has not been easy to get the juntas to give up their power,” he said.
Phea noted that some of Myanmar’s neighbouring countries have also been barriers to resolving its internal political crisis, citing India as an example.
He explained that India does not want to see political stability in Myanmar as it serves its geopolitical strategy, and that China and the US also have differences over the crisis.
Vann Bunna, a researcher at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, believes that the Kingdom has taken three positive steps towards helping with the Myanmar crisis.
First, Cambodia created the ASEAN special envoy position held by Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn. Second was the visit to Myanmar by both the ASEAN special envoy and Prime Minister Hun Sen who urged each side to end the conflict. The third was paving the way for ASEAN’s provision of humanitarian assistance directly to Myanmar, which has helped avert even greater tragedies from occurring.
Bunna said these were all good elements to finding a solution, though they have not come to full fruition yet. He explained that Myanmar, currently led by the State Administration Council (SAC) with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as chairman, does not seem interested in making any political concessions or negotiating with the other parties to the conflict, which has subsequently prolonged the crisis.
He stressed that besides Myanmar’s internal problems, there is also the issue of the support provided to the SAC from powerful countries as well as ASEAN’s “slow-moving” mechanisms for responding to it.
“We see that Russia and China’s support for the military regime is also a key reason why Myanmar military leaders remain strong despite sanctions from the international community, especially the West.
“On the other hand, ASEAN does not seem to be able to force a solution in a timely manner, and besides issuing the 5PC, ASEAN has had no other consensus on plans for solving the crisis,” he said.
With only two months remaining before Cambodia hands over the chair’s gavel, Bunna said he does not believe that the Kingdom will be able to make much further progress on Myanmar aside from handing over work on the issue to Indonesia, which is said to be in the process of developing a master plan to address the crisis.
Puy Kea, a correspondent for the Kyodo News Agency, said one remarkable result that Cambodia has achieved is to keep the ASEAN family from splitting up over this issue and losing any of its 10 members.
On the other hand, he said Cambodia has not persuaded the SAC to begin negotiations with the other parties to the conflict nor make headway on implementing the 5PC.
Kea believes that if Indonesia dares to use “hot” measures against Myanmar during its turn in the rotating chairmanship, then ASEAN could be faced with a bad scenario in which Myanmar might withdraw from the organisation in protest, as the nation was famously isolationist in its approach and closed off for decades by its military regime.
Rim Sokvy, co-founder and chairman of foreign relations research institute The Thinker Cambodia, believes that ASEAN uses mechanisms that are too complex and require total consensus on most measures while some of the bloc’s members actively disagree on certain aspects of how to approach the Myanmar crisis.
“Obviously, in the 5PC, ASEAN has a common position in supporting negotiations between the parties to the conflict in Myanmar. But in reality, ASEAN has only met with the military side through Min Aung Hlaing and has not been given access to the others.
“So that is a serious issue that ASEAN has not been allowed to meet with the other parties to the conflict, such as members of the former civilian government led by Suu Kyi, while ASEAN meetings or visits [by the chair’s special envoy] seem to have had little effect,” he said.
Thong Mengdavid, a researcher at the Asian Vision Institute’s Mekong Centre for Strategic Studies, said the Myanmar issue has given ASEAN members a lot of headaches and caused many disagreements. But Cambodia as the rotating chair of ASEAN has to continue to embrace its role and its responsibility in leading discussions to find a common solution and position for the bloc on the matter.
“At the upcoming ASEAN Summit, I feel that Cambodia must remain committed to urging Myanmar’s non-political representatives to attend, despite some disagreements over the composition of Myanmar’s delegation.
“ASEAN has no choice but to urge Min Aung Hlaing to stop the military violence against civilians and members of other political parties in exchange for humanitarian assistance from ASEAN and the UN,” he said.
ASEAN unity is being tested and it remains to be seen whether the bloc can continue to stand on the principle of centrality, he said, adding and it would have to answer the question of how far it would go in putting pressure on Myanmar.
He said that at the November summit, Cambodia must focus on coordinating with other ASEAN members as well as do its utmost to urge more powerful countries to participate in resolving the crisis.
At the start of Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN in early January 2022, Hun Sen paid a state visit to Myanmar and was heavily criticised by some in the international community who felt it was a show of support for the SAC.
But the premier countered at the time that his two-day visit was aimed only at uniting Myanmar and finding a negotiated “win-win” solution to the crisis, and that Cambodia’s move as ASEAN chair and willingness to criticise the Myanmar leaders since then have generally substantiated his claims.
In April 2021, ASEAN member states agreed on the 5PC in Indonesia, namely an immediate cessation of violence; constructive dialogue among all parties; appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue; the provision of humanitarian assistance; and a visit by the special envoy. But the summit notably failed to call for the release of Suu Kyi and other “political prisoners”.
The local pundits agree that Cambodia should urge the SAC to respect its commitment to the cessation of violence called for by the 5PC, and that the bloc must remain united in its approach regardless of which member holds the ASEAN chair.
They agreed that Cambodia should do its utmost to urge Indonesia, as ASEAN chair for 2023, to continue to work towards resolving the crisis peacefully.
They also want to see ASEAN stay united, hoping that the bloc can soon find some way to end the Myanmar crisis so that the nation of 50 million people can heal quickly and return to peaceful democracy.