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Sokhonn seeks to meet all sides on visit to Myanmar

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Foreign minister Prak Sokhonn (centre) and his ASEAN counterparts pose for a photo at Thursday’s retreat. MFAIC

Sokhonn seeks to meet all sides on visit to Myanmar

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn, who has been appointed as ASEAN Special Envoy on Myanmar, has announced plans for an official visit to the beleaguered nation in March, expressing his intention to meet all “relevant” sides that Naypyidaw will permit.

The announcement came at the close of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat on February 17 hosted in Phnom Penh. ASEAN foreign ministers had used the two-day conference to express their concerns on the situation in Myanmar, which had observed the proceedings virtually.

The retreat was attended in person by ministers of six ASEAN nations, including host Cambodia. The Vietnamese foreign minister attended via video conference after testing positive for Covid-19 upon arrival in the Kingdom, while the ministers of Brunei and Thailand attended virtually as planned.

Sokhonn said in a press conference after the retreat that ASEAN member states had issued an urgent appeal to Myanmar authorities to take concrete actions to expedite full implementation of the five-point consensus [5PC].

“We urge all parties to exercise utmost restraint, engage in constructive dialogue and seek [a] peaceful and inclusive solution in the interest of the people of Myanmar,” he said.

Responding to a media inquiry, Sokhonn said he planned to visit Myanmar after returning from his weeklong official trip to Europe, but that the date is tentative and ultimately subject to Naypyidaw’s decisions.

“This is the planning we [originally] had. But when exactly the date is depends on the programme that Naypyidaw [has] prepared.

The programme has currently remained as stated in the 5PC, which ASEAN leaders had approved in April last year.

Sokhonn tempered expectations after announcing the visit, warning that because it was an initial meeting, results should not be expected immediately.

“First is to have a dialogue with relevant parties. I stressed ‘relevant’ parties; we can say not all of them [are relevant]. As this is the first visit, we can say that we should not be too greedy to get everything [in terms of results].

“How much our mouth can take, we should just swallow that,” he said.

Sokhonn added that he had requested to meet with General Min Aung Hlaing – military chief and chairman of the ruling State Administration Council (SAC) – and SAC-appointed foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin. He stressed that he was open to meeting other dignitaries at Naypyidaw’s discretion.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Foreign minister Prak Sokhonn speaks at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat. MFAIC

Per the original programme, Sokhonn will visit aid distribution drives in Yangon and meet with ASEAN ambassadors in Myanmar to receive their input on the evolving situation, as well as to consult with them on future decisions concerning the country.

Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed his view on February 16 that the approach to the Myanmar issue “should not be too similar to that of previous years”. He indicated that as ASEAN chair, Cambodia will take a middleground approach that would be “not too lenient or too harsh”.

Asked why the leadership had seemingly changed tact on the Myanmar issue, Sokhonn replied that they had learned from mistakes in the previous approach attempted by his predecessor in the special envoy role, Brunei’s second foreign minister Erywan Yusof.

“[Hun Sen] decided to take [a] different approach because the work of the Special Envoy [Erywan] was ‘stuck’ last year. My colleague [Erywan] had visited in the first mission, but some of our colleagues demanded a bit too much.”

During the first visit, Sokhonn said, “the special envoy [wanted] to be able to meet Madam Aung San Suu Kyi and former President Win Myint. Naypyidaw did not accept that.

“So it stalled, the process was blocked, [and] nothing has happened even two months later,” he said.

“[Hun Sen] decided to take [a] different approach, including engaging with Naypyidaw to break the ice and to understand what [options] would be possible for Myanmar and ASEAN member states in solving the Myanmar crisis,” he said.

Sokhonn said he was of the view that all political parties in Myanmar were stakeholders in the conflict and expressed his wish to meet with all of them – including members from the former ruling party – saying that “it was just a question of when” he would be able to meet “everybody involved”.

But he conceded that it may not be possible in his upcoming visit and that he would respect the decisions of the SAC, saying: “For the time being, we [just] want to keep the hope and confidence alive to [be able to] continue to engage with Naypyidaw.”

Sokhonn added that he has so far avoided making contact with the National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG) because Naypyidaw had designated them as a terrorist group.

He then detracted from the Myanmar issue, saying ASEAN had many other priority areas that needed to be focused on. He added that ASEAN should not be “held hostage” by the ongoing situation, echoing comments made by Singaporean foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan at an earlier meeting with Hun Sen.

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