ASEAN Postpones Foreign Ministers’ Meeting Over Myanmar Impasse

Cambodian chair shelves first meeting . . .

On Wednesday, Cambodia announced it had postponed an upcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Siem Reap, Cambodia, scheduled for next week, citing several foreign ministers’ travel difficulties. This first meeting under Cambodia’s chairmanship of the regional bloc comes amid growing internal divisions over how to address the ongoing crisis in Myanmar after a military coup last year led to violent crackdowns on the regime’s opponents and a severe financial crisis. Observers believe that ASEAN ministers avoided the meeting to signal opposition to Cambodia’s plans to invite the Myanmar junta’s foreign minister. Last year, ASEAN opted to exclude Myanmar’s military rulers from its annual summit due to the regime’s failure to implement the bloc’s five-point consensus plan. Cambodia’s break-away approach to Myanmar now threatens to undermine the ASEAN’s unity and cohesion.

Hun Sen’s controversial visit . . .

On January 7, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen met with coup leader Min Aung Hlaing amid protests against the visit on the ground in Myanmar. Anti-junta and human rights groups argue that Hun Sen’s visit was tantamount to conferring legitimacy to the Myanmar junta, while Phnom Penh maintains that the move was necessary to revive peace efforts. In a joint statement from the two leaders, the Myanmar junta promised to extend a ceasefire with ethnic armed organizations and hold meetings on co-ordinating humanitarian assistance. However, the statement did not mention jailed leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, nor the National Unity Government, Myanmar’s parallel government representing ousted lawmakers.

Stepping forward or backward?

International condemnation and sidelining have failed to bring the Myanmar military closer to meaningful concessions. With the foreign ministers’ meeting indefinitely postponed and much of the situation in Myanmar outside of ASEAN control, it remains to be seen what influence ASEAN will have on the ongoing crisis. Meanwhile, beyond the bloc, China and Japan – both with strong military and business ties to Myanmar – have expressed support for Cambodia’s divisive diplomatic approach. And India said it will work with Cambodia over the Myanmar issue. These positions could make it harder for ASEAN and other regional players to keep up pressure on Myanmar’s military regime.