ASEAN envoy sees minor progress in Myanmar mission

Cambodia’s foreign minister has claimed he made minor progress in his mission as a special regional envoy to strife-torn Myanmar despite not being allowed by the military to meet with ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi

BySOPHENG CHEANG Associated Press
March 23, 2022, 10:46 AM
Min Aung Hlaing, Prak Sokhonn
In this photo provided by the Military True News Information Team, Myanmar State Administration Council Chairman Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, right, talks with Cambodian Foreign Minister and ASEAN Special Envoy to Myanmar Prak Sokhonn during a meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Monday, March 21, 2022. Sokhonn arrived Monday in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw on his mission as a special regional envoy seeking to facilitate peacemaking in the strife-torn, military-led nation. (Military True News Information Team via AP)
The Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Cambodia’s foreign minister on Wednesday claimed he made minor progress in his mission as a special regional envoy to strife-torn Myanmar despite not being allowed by the military to meet with ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Prak Sokhonn, representing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, spoke after his return from a visit to military-ruled Myanmar, which was plunged into an extended violent crisis after the army seized power last year.

He said he was encouraged by the military government allowing him to meet with various parties to the conflict but that did not include the imprisoned Suu Kyi. He said he was pessimistic about immediate chances for a cease-fire.

Popular discontent with the military’s ouster of Suu Kyi has turned into what some U.N. experts have characterized as a civil war, leading as well to a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

Prak Sokhonn held discussions Monday and Tuesday with Myanmar’s military leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and members of his cabinet about ASEAN’s peace plan, issued in April last year. He also met with diplomats from other ASEAN countries and the U.N., as well as Ko Ko Gyi, a Myanmar politician best known as an activist in the failed 1988 uprising against military rule.

Myanmar, although a member of ASEAN, has done little to implement the plan, which calls for the immediate cessation of violence, a dialogue among all parties, mediation by an ASEAN special envoy and access to all parties, as well as provision of humanitarian aid.

A major sticking point has been Myanmar’s refusal to let a previous ASEAN envoy meet with Suu Kyi, who has been in detention since the army seized power in February 2021. ASEAN in response ostracized Myanmar by blocking its leaders from attending major meetings of the regional grouping. Min Aung Hlaing was not invited to last October’s virtual summit because of the disagreement.

Prak Sokhonn said Min Aung Hlaing repeated his previous public explanation that under the law, meetings with Suu Kyi were not allowed as long as there were legal proceedings underway against her. She has been charged with more than a dozen offenses in what her supporters say is a perversion of justice to keep her locked up and out of politics.

Cambodian officials said earlier this month that Myanmar had agreed to allow the ASEAN envoy to meet with members of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, but it appeared that did not occur. Most of the party senior leaders are in detention or on the run, and it would be politically awkward for any to be seen as cooperating with the military.

Prak Sokhonn said Min Aung Hlaing declared he would in the future give consideration to all requests to meet with Suu Kyi as well as other figures.

The Cambodian diplomat described the general’s position “like opening a window to let in the light” by paving a way for all parties to eventually achieve national reconciliation.

He said, however, that the parties currently did not seem to want to negotiate, and instead keep fighting.

Humanitarian aid is stockpiled in Myanmar, but it could not be distributed because of the fighting, Prak Sokhonn said, adding that he proposed holding a conference in April or May to discuss the fair distribution of assistance.

The military would almost certainly insist on controlling the distribution of aid, which would not be acceptable to its opponents, who charge that the army has already hindered or blocked efforts to deliver assistance to some areas.

Opponents of the military government have criticized ASEAN for failing to do more to help restore peace and democracy, but the main opposition group, the self-styled National Unity Government, has said it is willing to engage with the regional grouping.

Prak Sokhonn rebutted criticism that his mission enhanced the legitimacy of Myanmar’s military government, saying that Cambodia sought only to help reestablish peace.

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