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2022 ASEAN Chair, 3 Cheers for Cambodia!
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Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn speaks during a special meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretariat in Jakarta, Oct. 27, 2022.

by Dr. Seun Sam


ASEAN leaders will gather in Phnom Penh, Cambodia between the 8th to 13th of November for the annual leaders summit. Cambodia was elected to lead ASEAN for only the third time in 2021 and assumed the Chair in 2022. At that time, there were many preconceived notions about its stance on numerous crises, including those in Myanmar, Ukraine, Korean Peninsula, and the South China Sea. While the Myanmar problem began during Brunei’s 2021 Chair it was during Cambodia’s Chair that the crisis began to dominate ASEAN meeting agendas.

In April 2021, with Brunei unable to make headway on any peace initiative, Indonesia facilitated a meeting of ASEAN leaders, including the leader of Myanmar’s military government. The outcome of the ASEAN leaders meeting was the adoption of a five-point consensus to address the crisis:

1) the immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar;

2) constructive dialogue among all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people;

3) mediation to be facilitated by an envoy of ASEAN's chair, with the assistance of the secretary-general;

4) humanitarian assistance provided by ASEAN's AHA Centre and

5) a visit by the special envoy and delegation to Myanmar to meet all parties concerned.

Cambodia, however, was immediately and unfairly criticised by some extra-regional countries for the five-point plan to address Myanmar’s political, economic and security challenges. This raises the question; What would people think if Cambodia had attempted to resolve the problem in Myanmar using the same methods as Brunei? Some would claim that because Cambodia followed the same strategies as Brunei, it would be powerless to resolve the situation. However, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen took the initiative and visited Myanmar on January 7, 2022, to meet with members of the military government and relevant ministers and officials. Critics said prime minister Hun Sen’s visit had legitimised military rule and claimed that ASEAN was becoming a forum for authoritarian leaders.

Cambodia's ASEAN Chair passes to Indonesia in 2023 and while Myanmar remains a thorny issue for President Joko Widodo, many observers believe Indonesia has sufficient influence and political leverage to facilitate a resolution to the Myanmar crisis. However, the question of what approach Indonesia can take remains? Should Indonesia approach the Myanmar situation in the same manner as Cambodia or Brunei? If Indonesia believes that Brunei was taking the proper steps to resolve the crisis in Myanmar, then it would adopt a strategy of ignoring Myanmar while cooperating with other ASEAN member countries and dialogue partners. However, if Indonesia believes that Cambodia has taken the proper steps towards resolution, then Indonesia should cooperate with all relevant parties, including the military governments leaders, in order to find the best solutions.

By disregarding the military government of Myanmar, which has existed for over 70 years, how can a resolution to the crisis be found? All parties seek to assist Myanmar, but how best to ensure the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and internal security? Numerous comments and suggestions were made during Cambodia’s ASEAN Chair including plans to meet with the leaders of the so-called National Unity Government (NUG) of exiles as well as the county’s military leaders. Cambodia has persistently requested to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, however, government officials have demurred. If Myanmar’s military leadership rejects Cambodia’s requests, how could other ASEAN leaders meet with Aung San Suu Kyi?

While any ASEAN representation could potentially meet with individuals associated with Aung San Suu Kyi they would still require permission from local administrative authorities. To meet directly with Aung San Suu Kyi, ASEAN representatives would require permission directly from the central military authorities. The complexities of the Myanmar situation, including borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand and Laos, border security issues, extra-regional interference, a multiplicity of rebellious ethnic groups, poor infrastructure and widespread poverty, indicate that ASEAN faces a longer-term problem. Meanwhile, both rebel and government forces continue to generate funding using both legal and criminal commercial interchange in the “Golden Triangle” between Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

Despite the fact that no crisis was entirely resolved during Cambodia’s tenure as ASEAN Chair, the country made significant strides in guiding ASEAN foreign ministers and dialogue partners to issue the five-point consensus. Cambodia’s ASEAN Chair also saw the introduction of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as well as two bilateral Free Trade agreements (FTAs) with China and Korea. Cambodia was the second country globally, after the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to regain its pre-pandemic economic performance and was able to provide leadership on ASEAN’s continued pandemic response and control.

In sum, the international economic outlook has taken a downward turn toward recession led by poor US fiscal and monetary policies and its export of rampant inflation, and intensifying tech and trade war with China. Thus, ASEAN faces continuing challenges not just with Myanmar and the inability to finalise the South China Sea Code of Conduct (CoC) 20 years after the signing of the Declaration of Conduct (DoC), but also the spillover effects of the Ukraine crisis. For ASEAN, Europe’s energy crisis, a US-led global recession, US provocations over Taiwan and the South China Sea, US-led military mini-laterals the Quad and AUKUS, tensions over a nuclear free Pacific and non-proliferation, Japanese rearmament and Korean unification, are compounded by pressing climate change, food security, and energy supply issues. Despite the imminent arrival of a global recession the Asian Development Bank (ADB) predicts that Asia and ASEAN will still drive global growth. In the final analysis, Indonesia’s Chair of ASEAN should build on Cambodia’s track record to construct internal accord among member states and wider regional consensuses for action on the aforementioned issues before extra-regional powers, and ASEAN dialogue partners, attempt to wrest control of policy narratives and influence outcomes in favour of their own narrow geo-political interests.

Dr. Seun Sam is a Policy Analyst bases in the Royal Academy of Cambodia. The article is first published in the Long Mekong Newsletter by Digby Wren: https://open.substack.com/pub/longmekong/p/2022-asean-chair-3-cheers-for-cambodia 

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