ASEAN foreign ministers meet dominated by Myanmar’s absence

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Southeast Asian foreign ministers held their annual retreat Thursday without their counterpart from military-ruled Myanmar, who was blackballed from participating but allowed to attend online as an observer.

The enforced absence of Myanmar’s foreign minister put a spotlight on the normally low-key event, held this year in Phnom Penh with Cambodia as chair of the 10-member Association of the Southeast Asian Nations. The regional bloc has been trying to exert its influence to help restore peace in Myanmar, but faces defiance from its ruling generals who took power in February last year.

The decision not to invite Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin reflected a disagreement within ASEAN over Myanmar’s lack of cooperation in implementing last year’s five-step agreement. It includes military leaders’ promise to allow a special ASEAN envoy to meet ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others to foster a dialogue aimed at easing the crisis.

The military has cracked down on widespread protests following its takeover. After security forces unleashed lethal force against peaceful demonstrators, opponents of military rule took up arms, and U.N. experts have described the country as being in a state of civil war.

At a news conference, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who was appointed the ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar, appeared to express regret that Myanmar was not fully participating in the meeting.

“But for the time being, we want to keep alive the hope, to continue to engage with Naypyitaw, especially the hope to keep trust and confidence alive,” he said, referring to Myanmar’s capital and the ruling generals.

The deadlock over Myanmar is almost unprecedented for the grouping, whose members have traditionally avoided public criticism of each other and operated by consensus.

Myanmar had spurned an invitation to send a non-political representative instead of the military-appointed foreign minister, saying it “contradicts the principles and practice of equal representation in ASEAN.”

Prak Sokhonn said Myanmar was allowed to listen in as an observer with agreement among the ministers.

He also said he will travel to Myanmar next month to meet with the leader of the military government, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Wunna Maung Lwin and political party leaders.

Prak Sokhonn also said he believes he should meet with Myanmar’s National Unity Government — a shadow civilian administration — even though the country’s military considers it a terrorist organization. All of the civilian leaders are in hiding or in exile.

“If Naypyitaw is not speaking with the NUG, so let the special envoy, as the bridge, as the facilitator, speak with (the NUG),” he said. It would have to be done in a way that did not create friction between the ASEAN envoy and Myanmar’s military government, he said.

Min Aung Hlaing, the military leader, was not invited to last October’s virtual meeting of ASEAN leaders after Myanmar declined to let an ASEAN envoy meet with detained Suu Kyi.

ASEAN was then chaired by Brunei.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose country assumed the rotating chairmanship, has repeatedly declared his interest to resolve the impasse and in January became the first foreign leader to visit Myanmar since the military takeover.

Prak Sokhonn acknowledged that ASEAN has other important issues to discuss, including increased geopolitical tensions and the urgent need to recover from the pandemic.

The group was reminded of the perils of the coronavirus when Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son tested positive upon his arrival in Cambodia and was forced to attend Thursday’s meeting by video from his quarantine room.