Myanmar a key focus as Asean foreign ministers gather for meeting in Cambodia

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (left) meets with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in Phnom Penh, on Feb 16, 2022. PHOTO: VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN/FACEBOOK

PHNOM PENH - Asean foreign ministers will begin their two-day Retreat in Cambodia on Thursday (Feb 17), with Myanmar skipping the meeting after the regional group invited only a "non-political" representative to attend.

Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan is in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to attend the Retreat.

Dr Balakrishnan arrived in Cambodia on Tuesday to meet the country's leaders. He called on Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said in a statement.

Cambodia is the Asean chair this year.

The MFA has said that the foreign ministers were expected to discuss the group's priorities for the year, take stock of Asean's Community-building efforts and cooperation with its external partners, and exchange views on regional and international issues.

The Retreat is the first in a series of meetings that Cambodia will be hosting as Asean chair under the theme "Asean A.C.T.: Addressing Challenges Together".

Cambodia on Wednesday confirmed that Myanmar won't be attending, a day after Myanmar's ruling military junta criticised its neighbours for insisting its generals are not invited, Reuters reported.

Asean has since October only invited a "non-political" Myanmar official to its meetings, following the military coup in February last year that ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar has been mired in political conflict since the military takeover, triggering massive demonstrations that have morphed into armed insurgency in various parts of the country, with Myanmar's Institute for Strategy and Policy saying over 3,500 civilians were killed last year.

Nationwide, at least 320,000 people have been displaced and millions are at risk of poverty and hunger.

Mr Hun Sen and Dr Balakrishnan on Wednesday had a wide-ranging discussion on developments in the region.

"They hoped to see further progress on the negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

"They also agreed it was important to foster more trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region.

"Prime Minister Hun Sen looked forward to the early resumption of safe travel in the region and the Asean arrangements to support that," the MFA statement said.

Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore "remained deeply concerned about the situation in Myanmar".

"The lack of progress in the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus since its adoption by Asean Leaders and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on 24 April 2021 is disappointing.

"Prime Minister Hun Sen and Minister Balakrishnan agreed that the current arrangements for Myanmar to be represented at the non-political level at Asean meetings should continue. They emphasised the need for the Myanmar military authorities to swiftly and fully implement the Five-Point Consensus.

"If there is significant progress on the Five-Point Consensus, Asean will review the arrangements," the Singapore statement said.

Under the Five-Point Consensus hammered out in April last year, the Asean special envoy is tasked with meeting and helping to facilitate constructive dialogue among all parties concerned in Myanmar's political crisis.

The blueprint also calls for violence to cease, and for humanitarian aid to be facilitated.

Dr Balakrishnan reiterated Singapore's support for the appointment of the special envoy of the Asean chair on Myanmar and for him to meet with all parties concerned. That special envoy on Myanmar this year is Mr Prak Sokhonn, Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and Dr Balakrishnan in their discussions agreed that "Asean's full agenda should not be held hostage by the situation in Myanmar".

The Singapore minister on Wednesday also met with Mr Hun Many, Chairman of the National Assembly Commission on Education, Youth, Sports, Religion, Culture and Tourism.

"They discussed youth concerns on climate change, social inequality and access to good jobs," MFA said.

The Singapore minister met on Tuesday Mr Prak Sokhonn and Minister of Environment Say Samal.

In the meeting with Mr Say Samal, the ministers "discussed ways to identify new opportunities for bilateral cooperation in sustainable development and tackling climate change," the statement said.

Dr Balakrishnan on Wednesday evening attended the Asean Foreign Ministers' Retreat Welcome Dinner hosted by Mr Prak Sokhonn.

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