December 8, 2023

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Efforts by Myanmar’s neighbors to help restore peace and order in the Southeast Asian nation have been hampered by the recent executions of four political activists in the country, Cambodia’s foreign minister said Saturday.

Prak Sokhonn, speaking as the special envoy to Myanmar of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, warned that further executions would force the regional group to reconsider how it works with fellow member Myanmar.

Cambodia is the current chair of the regional grouping, and Myanmar is not welcome to send members of its ruling military government to ASEAN meetings because of its failure to cooperate with a plan agreed last year to work to restore peace.

Myanmar’s military leaders initially agreed to the plan, a five-point consensus, but have since made little effort to implement it. The country has slipped into what some UN experts have called a civil war.

Prak Sokhonn was speaking at a press conference after a weekly meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Cambodia. The meeting’s final communiqué, issued Friday, included a section criticizing Myanmar for its lack of progress in ending violence there, but in weaker language than many countries had hoped.

On Saturday, he described the executions of Myanmar dissidents as a “setback” in his mediation efforts and said the nine ASEAN members other than Myanmar “agreed to see how things develop in the coming weeks and months.”

He said “if more executions are carried out, then things will have to be reviewed”, suggesting ASEAN is ready to downgrade its engagement with Myanmar’s military government. ASEAN has been criticized by some of its members, as well as other countries, for doing too little to pressure Myanmar to implement the five-point consensus.

Myanmar’s military in February last year overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and then violently suppressed widespread protests against her actions. After security forces unleashed deadly force against peaceful protesters, some opponents of military rule took up arms.

Myanmar’s foreign ministry issued a statement on 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 to implement it”.

It also said that the four men who were recently executed were not punished for being political activists, but because they were “found guilty of masterminding, abetting, supporting, arming and committing terrorist activities that caused massive loss of innocent lives.”

Prak Sokhonn said progress has been made on humanitarian aid to Myanmar, but not on the other key points of ASEAN’s plan: ending violence and opening political dialogue between all warring parties in the country.

“All I’m going to see now is keep fighting,” he said. “Why? Because of the lack of trust and execution of activists, whether it is legal or illegal.”

“And without that trust, the struggle will continue and the political process will never start because no one will come if they fear for their lives,” he said.

Although the executions of the men were a matter of law for Myanmar to decide, he said, it was a setback in building trust between Myanmar’s warring forces.

He also explained that his mandate as ASEAN’s special envoy was to work with all stakeholders, including the organized opposition to Myanmar’s military leaders.

The opposition forces in Myanmar operate as an underground alternative administration, the Government of National Unity and its affiliated armed wing, the People’s Defense Force.

Myanmar’s military government has labeled the groups “terrorists” and has even declared contact with them illegal.

“If ASEAN member states and external partners really want to help Myanmar restore order, they should not encourage engagement with terrorist groups such as NUG and PDF and should avoid any actions that could encourage terrorism,” said Friday’s statement from Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Prak Sokhonn declined to say Saturday whether he had contact with the opposition, but said he was free as a special envoy to work with anyone outside Myanmar.


Peck reported from Bangkok, Thailand

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