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PM outlines ambitious new year as ASEAN chair

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Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a speech at the inauguration of the Hyatt Regency Phnom Penh Hotel on Wednesday. SPM

PM outlines ambitious new year as ASEAN chair

Prime Minister Hun Sen has publicly revealed two ambitious goals he wishes to accomplish in 2022 while Cambodia serves as chair of ASEAN.

Speaking at the inauguration of the new Hyatt Regency Phnom Penh Hotel on December 15, Hun Sen said Cambodia wishes to see the crisis in Myanmar improve and for ASEAN to return to functioning with its usual 10-member bloc.

The prime minister stated that he also wants to see the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea be adopted in Phnom Penh by all concerned parties at the ASEAN summit next year, if at all possible.

In regards to the issue of Myanmar, Hun Sen said ASEAN is not complete if it convenes without the predominantly Buddhist country like it did during the recent summit. And in a bid to find possible solutions to the crisis, he will visit Myanmar on January 7 for talks with General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of the ruling State Administration Council (SAC).

Hun Sen also appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn as the ASEAN envoy assigned to dealing with the Myanmar crisis.

Sokhonn will be supported in that role by Minister of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation Cham Prasidh, a veteran negotiator who previously served as commerce minister for 15 years.

“Don’t try to block me. Give me the opportunity to deal with it. We cannot call ourselves ASEAN if we only have nine of our members. We have to rescue ASEAN by bringing it up from just nine back to 10 full members. That is the highest priority for ASEAN,” he said.

Hun Sen said the recent ASEAN summit without Myanmar set a bad precedent for the future, allowing any country that takes over the ASEAN chairmanship to choose to exclude any of the other members from summits for potentially any reason.

Hun Sen reiterated that a solution for Myanmar cannot be achieved without negotiating with those who are currently in power.

By way of example, he mentioned that aid provided to Myanmar must go to those who hold power rather than to guerrilla fighters or shadow governments.

“Whether I can solve the problem or not doesn’t depend on ASEAN, which can contribute to a solution in Myanmar but the real solutions must come from Myanmar itself that will need to solve its own problems. ASEAN can act as a mediator,” he said.

“Don’t set unrealistic expectations for Cambodia in its role as chair of ASEAN, but at the same time do not look with disdain upon this duty we take up. First, give me the opportunity to deal with [the Myanmar crisis].

“The most fruitful negotiations are the ones that take place out of sight and under the table. Thus, meeting in person with Myanmar leaders is very important to me. Please don’t pester me for now, just give me some time to do this,” he said.

Regarding the South China Sea, the prime minister said he wants to have the COC adopted in Cambodia at the summit next year. But if an acceptable draft of the COC cannot be issued by then, people should not place the blame on Cambodia as they did in 2012 when the country last chaired ASEAN.

“Cambodia was not defending China, but the claimant countries on the South China Sea demanded that the ASEAN chair issue a declaration acknowledging specific islands and maritime locations as belonging to certain countries,” he said.

Cambodia as the ASEAN chair will try its best, along with the other ASEAN members and China, to negotiate a COC that is effective and acceptable to all parties, he said.

“Don’t toss Cambodia this hot potato and then expect us to juggle it on our own like in 2012,” he said.

Ro Vannak, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, told The Post that Indonesia has been viewed in the past as the lead country in ASEAN for the resolution of its biggest controversies.

He said Hun Sen taking the lead on these matters indicates that he views Cambodia – under his leadership – as capable of solving these difficult problems and he is somewhat boldly expressing the Kingdom’s willingness to go to the trouble of attempting to solve such difficult problems, though the results remain to be seen.

“As I’ve said before, we should expect very little in the way of results from these efforts because the crisis in Myanmar is deep and linked to the superpowers influencing it from the outside. Our small country will have limited capacity to solve their problems, but I praise the initiative that Cambodia is showing in the attempt,” he said.

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