PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Southeast Asian foreign ministers issued a joint statement Friday after a series of meetings in the Cambodian capital criticizing Myanmar for its lack of progress in ending violence there, but with weaker language than several countries had hoped for.
Myanmar’s military-led government, which seized power from elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021, has been accused of thousands of extrajudicial killings, and last week carried out its first official executions in decades, raising an outcry from several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and countries around the world.
ASEAN has been trying to implement a five-point consensus it reached on Myanmar last year, calling for dialogue among all concerned parties, provision of humanitarian assistance and an immediate cessation of violence, among other things.
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Following news of the late-July executions, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah accused Myanmar of “making a mockery of the five-point process.”
Still, in their joint statement Friday, the foreign ministers only ”expressed our concerns over the prolonged political crisis in the country, including the execution of four opposition activists," while adding they were “deeply disappointed by the limited progress” in the implementation of the five-point consensus.
Myanmar's foreign ministry issued a statement later Friday saying it objected to a reference in the ASEAN joint statement to a “lack of progress” in implementing the five-point consensus because “it neglects Myanmar’s efforts on its implementation.”
The ministry's statement, released to journalists in Myanmar, decried efforts by some ASEAN and Western nations to contact opposition forces in Myanmar known as the National Unity Government and its affiliated armed wing, the People Defense Force, which it branded “terrorists.”
“If ASEAN member states and external partners genuinely wish to help Myanmar in restoring normalcy, they should not encourage engaging with the terrorist groups such as NUG and PDF and should avoid any actions that could encourage terrorism," it said.
The statement said Myanmar will continue to cooperate in implementing ASEAN's five-point consensus through a “Myanmar-owned and Myanmar-led process without compromising its national sovereignty.”
Cambodia currently holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, which also includes the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei in addition to Myanmar.
With the ongoing violence in Myanmar, the country was asked not to send any political representative to the ASEAN meetings. In protest, Myanmar’s military government said it would send no delegate at all, so was unrepresented in the talks.
But in preliminary discussions leading up to the main meetings, a lower-level representative from Myanmar expressed objections to the proposed wording of the joint statement, which led to the exclusion of stronger criticism being proposed by Malaysia, Singapore and others, according to a diplomat who was involved in the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meetings.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has in the past urged ASEAN to do more to confront Myanmar, also known as Burma, noted that the executions of the four political prisoners had occurred despite Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in his capacity as ASEAN chair, pushing Myanmar to reconsider.
“I urge my fellow ministers to continue to press the regime to end its brutal violence, to release those unjustly detained to allow humanitarian access and restore Burma’s path to democracy,” Blinken said at a news conference after the foreign ministers' statement was released. "We also have to increase economic pressure to do more to stop the flow of arms and revenue to the regime, insist on accountability for the atrocities committed.”
Russia is Myanmar’s top arms supplier, and Blinken took a swipe at Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to Myanmar on his way to the ASEAN meetings and calling the country a “friendly partner."
“That directly flies in the face of ASEAN's hard work to bring the violence to an end,” Blinken said.
Although ASEAN has tried to project itself as a showcase of regional unity with its leaders and top diplomats locking their hands in an unusual group handshake photo-op in their annual summits, the diverse bloc has been perennially buffeted by conflicting agendas within.
Following their daylong meeting on Wednesday, they delayed issuing the joint statement due to differences over the section on Myanmar, the diplomat said.
Cambodia forged a compromise Thursday night which paved the way for the belated release of the weaker statement on Friday, the diplomat said.
There were concerns that if a compromise was not reached, the contrasting viewpoints on Myanmar could have blocked the issuance of the statement like in a similar embarrassing incident about a decade ago when Cambodia also hosted the ministerial gathering, the diplomat said.
In the 2012 meeting, the unresolved impasse centered on whether China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea should be included in the joint statement. Cambodia then was accused by the Philippines and Vietnam of blocking mention of the increasingly tense territorial conflicts. It was the first time that the bloc, founded in 1967, had failed to issue a post-conference joint statement in its history.
The military's overthrow of Suu Kyi's government triggered widespread peaceful protests that were violently suppressed. They have evolved into an armed resistance and the country has slipped into what some U.N. experts characterize as a civil war.
More than 2,100 people have been killed by the military government since it took power and nearly 15,000 have been arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a non-governmental organization that tracks killings and arrests.
Gomez reported from Manila, Philippines.