Foreign ministers from ASEAN states — excluding Myanmar — gathered in Phnom Penh this week at a moment of escalating global and regional tensions, and as the ongoing violence following Myanmar’s military coup has frustrated ASEAN efforts toward peace.
Citing the controversial execution last week of four political prisoners, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that ASEAN may have to rethink the plan it brokered with Myanmar to end military violence.
“If more prisoners are executed, we will be forced to rethink our role in the five-point consensus,” he said in the opening remarks at the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.
However, the prime minister stressed that ASEAN engagement had led to some progress in Myanmar, especially on humanitarian aid.
“We have spent so much time and energy, and braved so many difficulties and criticism to help this country and its people to find some political solution,” he said. “We will continue to do so without placing [anyone] at risk, in any way.”
Hun Sen added that Cambodia emphasizes “unity for cooperation” and not “unity for confrontation”.
“We strive to focus on issues that bind rather than those that divide us. We must prioritize peace above all,” he said.
Myanmar is not represented at this week’s meeting after its military rulers declined a proposal to send a non-junta representative instead.
In April 2021, ASEAN leaders agreed to a five-point consensus that called for an immediate end to violence and political dialogue. However, so far, the agreement has failed, and four democracy activists were executed by Myanmar’s military last week.
Hun Sen also noted that this year marks the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Signed in November 2002 by ASEAN members and China, the non-binding DOC aims to manage relations in the disputed South China Sea.
Negotiations on a Code of Conduct to manage disputes have moved slowly, though Hun Sen said ASEAN was working hard to finalize a substantive and effective COC in line with international law.
Kung Phoak, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and spokesperson of the 55th AMM told reporters after the ministers’ meetings that all ASEAN ministers expressed concern over tension in the Taiwan Strait, which has ratcheted up this week with the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei. The ministers also urged an end to the Russian-Ukraine war, he said, and called for a peaceful settlement over the South China Sea conflict.
Phoak said that Cambodia reiterates its position on one-China policy.
Ear Sophal, a US-based political commentator and associate professor at Arizona State University, said while it’s good that Hun Sen calls for ASEAN unity, there’s a question over what countries should unite around.
“We have seen his view on Myanmar which was to embrace the regime and when everyone else shunned his action, he gave that up but then pleaded with Myanmar not to execute the four political prisoners,” he said.
As for the COC, Sophal said he doubted it would be effective at addressing conflict.
“Countries like Vietnam are considering abandoning this multiyear fruitless process and simply going to the Permanent Court of Arbitration like the Philippines did under [former President Benigno S. Aquino III],” he said.
Cambodia is hosting the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and related meetings from July 29 to August 5. The meetings will be attended by US secretary of state Antony J. Blinken, China’s foreign affair minister Wang Yi, Japanese foreign minister Hayashi Yoshimasa and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.
According to a US department of State statement, Blinken will also hold bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn to discuss areas of mutual concern, including the crisis in Myanmar, the condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “and emphasizing the steps to address concerns about the China’s military presence at Ream Naval Base, democratic backsliding, and respect for human rights and labor rights.”