Asean special envoy walks a tightrope over visit to Myanmar

Nik Luqman Wan Zainoddin
04 Apr 2022 04:05pm
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Soon after Cambodia assumed the Asean chair this year, its chairmanship is more often than not under the glare of international scrutiny, especially how Cambodia is helming the regional bloc on Myanmar’s crisis.

Indeed, the expectation was high for Prak Sokhonn, the Cambodian foreign minister and special envoy for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). He is facing an uphill task to ensure that Myanmar’s military, which seized power in February last year, complies with the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) in his recently concluded visit to Nay Pyi Taw on March 21-23.

The 5PC is a peace plan laid out by Asean at a special summit last April, agreed upon to achieve “an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar” and open the path for a peaceful solution involving “all parties”.

Interestingly, the scheduled visit came amid the United States’ formal declaration that Myanmar’s junta had committed the violence that amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity, hence augmenting more global condemnation against the junta.

Even Asean leaders went to the extent to exclude the military’s junta representatives from attending the bloc meetings since last October – a decision made due to the lack of substantial progress and cooperation to implement the 5PC. Despite the promise from the army chief, notably Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to comply with the peace plan, no concrete result was shown.

Myanmar since then has been plagued by violence and instability, a direct result of the coup engineered by the Tatmadaw, as the military’s junta is infamously known. At least more than 1,600 have been killed, and 890,000 have been displaced since the coup.

Realized stakes were high, Prak Sokhonn was swift to strike the chord in lowering the expectation through a statement, of which the visit “will be aimed at creating a favourable condition leading to the end of violence”.

Despite his delegation’s visit to the country was met with protests among angry civilians and civil-right groups, and was seen as granting the junta legitimacy, bottom line is – the bloc’s envoy's visit to Myanmar has laid basic peace groundwork.

For one, Prak Sokhonn’s delegation consists of representatives from Asean Secretariat and Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre). Both are instrumental regional bodies to address the pressing humanitarian needs in Myanmar.
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This is indeed progressed because access was denied since Asean outgoing special envoy last year, Brunei’s top diplomat, Erywan Yusof’s pushed the humanitarian agenda.

The bloc’s delegation also had meetings with the United Nations Specialized Agencies and Myanmar Red Cross to coordinate for proper humanitarian access. More coordinated humanitarian assistance is expected to come swiftly to the Myanmar people.

What is clear now is that Asean is employing a tripartite strategy - Asean, Myanmar and international organizations working together to provide humanitarian aid to the affected civilians and areas. This working formula was proven successful based on the bloc’s own experience with Cyclone Nargis; the worst storm ever recorded that struck Myanmar in 2008.

Then, the military junta was resistant to international help, which was often viewed as a potential threat to their internal security. But delays only devastated the Myanmar people and left millions of them injured, hungry, and homeless.

But weeks later, international organizations were allowed into Myanmar to provide relief assistance after pressures from the international community – and often at the urging of former Asean secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan.

But fast-forward to the present time, the Asean peace delegation met with a stumbling block, to which it was declined to meet the deposed leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, despite clear calling by Asean for inclusive political negotiation.

While military chief Min Aung Hlaing’s lip service on a possible future visit to meet Suu Kyi, it remains to be seen if this will be materialized. Therefore, it is unlikely for Asean, which is accountable to assess the progress of the 5PC implementation, to consider allowing the military’s junta representatives in the regional meeting soon.

What's more when the Tatmadaw remains adamant about dictating on its own terms, stressing the implementation of 5PC must be “Myanmar-led and Myanmar-owned”, much to the chagrin of both regional and international spectators.

Come what may, managing and resolving the Myanmar crisis is not an overnight journey. In fact, the United Nations special envoy to Myanmar invariably referred to as the “Good Office”, is deemed one of the longest diplomatic efforts in the world body's history.

Starting in 1993, the special envoy’s mandate was derived from the United Nations General Assembly. Essentially, the good office was tasked to implement annual resolutions on the human rights situation in Myanmar and, consequently, played a pivotal role in mediating between the military’s junta and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Despite long-standing efforts to resolve Myanmar’s crisis, at both international and regional levels, it is now high time for Asean to continue to exhaust all available means and tools – peer pressure from Asean and dialogue partners for Myanmar’s military to honour and show significant progress in implementing the 5PC.

While Prak Sokhonn and his delegation’s visit is a good start, until and unless there is a departure on the junta’s intransigence, Prak Sokhonn may find himself in an unfavourable situation to mediate the conflict. Indeed, the faster the military's junta implements the 5PC, the better for regional peace and stability.

Nik Luqman Wan Zainoddin is an analyst and freelance writer focused on Southeast Asia. Previously he was attached to the IKMAS UKM-Nippon Foundation as a research fellow. He tweets at @NLuqman.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.
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