Cambodia’s ASEAN Chairmanship: Shortcomings and Decisive Steps

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo receives the gavel from Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) as the ASEAN chairmanship is passed to Indonesia at the closing ceremony of the 40th and 41st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summits in Phnom Penh on November 13, 2022. Photo: AFP

The Myanmar crisis dominated talks during the ASEAN 2022 Summits in Phnom Penh as Cambodia chaired the bloc of 10 member states this year. The crisis, which has become the region's hot-button issue among other regional and world turmoil, has highly challenged the leaders of ASEAN. And as the summits came to an end, there has yet to be any remarkable progress to push Myanmar out of the long-standing dispute among factions.

During the summits, the bloc leaders came out with the ASEAN Leaders’ Review and Decision on the Implementation of the Five-Point Consensus final draft, which contains a 15-point statement on the resolutions to solve the Myanmar crisis. The leaders of ASEAN also demonstrated their effort and commitment to provide and support humanitarian assistance, their commitment to political dialogue, cessation of violence, and adoption of the five-point consensus. 

According to the 15-point decision of the ASEAN leaders, the five-point consensus (5PC) that the bloc's leaders and the leader of the junta agreed on in Jakarta on April 24, 2021, remains a valid reference and should be fully implemented while encouraging the parties in the dispute to de-escalate the tensions and calling for the international community to assist implementation.

From ASEAN to Cambodia as chair

It has been nearly a year since Cambodia assumed the seat as ASEAN chair on Jan. 01, 2022. The Myanmar crisis has been a great challenge and a "headache" or "hot stone" for the kingdom in particular and ASEAN as a whole, weakening the ASEAN unity and centrality, and especially destabilizing peace in the region. During the chairmanship, Cambodia's roles were to facilitate and attempts to peacefully bring all the factions in the dispute to the negotiating table and to avoid worsening the ongoing conflict.

Cambodia has been playing a very active and constructive role to help the country go back to normalcy and get on a democratic path through ASEAN led-mechanisms. Even though the Tatmadaw is ignoring the 5PC of ASEAN, the kingdom has not lost faith and its commitment to engage all concerned parties. On the contrary, Cambodia has really put an effort regarding the crisis, hoping that it could help the country out of this situation. Moreover, Cambodia has prioritized humanitarian assistance by providing medical supplies, financial resources, and vaccines bilaterally and through the ASEAN mechanism, believing that "peace talk can take time, but saving a life cannot wait."

Furthermore, ASEAN’s special envoys paid two visits to Myanmar, but the two working trips yielded insignificant results. Cambodia’s approach to the Myanmar crisis is at a standstill and has led to very little progress due to the junta leader not agreeing to meet the ousted leader. The turmoil keeps increasing daily as the illegitimate ruling government and concerned parties have no willingness to end the conflict, further complicating circumstances and the status quo through its airstrikes on the standing arm forces.

However, the shortfall is that there is a problem with the 5-point consensus papers still containing vague and broad arguments that have yet to mention a specific timeline, appropriate indicators, practical activities, and clear objectives. Thus, doing this will help member states appraise the process of the 5PC through scientific means that are not based on subjective interpretation. Secondly, the military junta has no political will to show efforts to solve this crisis. Only when there is an agreement on viewpoints among the parties concerned with Myanmar can a discussion begin. And thirdly, ASEAN seems to have not yet engaged with the National Unity Government (NUG) even though there have been numerous scholars and a few ASEAN ministers calling on ASEAN to leapfrog to engage with the NUG as "a decisive step" to solution. Fourth, regarding having talks, the ASEAN Chair's Special Envoy mechanism is not efficient and functional because it is just a part-time job of the Chair's foreign minister, and the envoy could perform better if he had the status equivalent to  minister and was working on Myanmar fulltime.

The complexity and difficulty of Myanmar's political crisis represented a tough mandate for Cambodia's chairmanship in 2022. But, unfortunately, it affected its reputation and reduced room for pride at having been chair of the ASEAN bloc, as ASEAN has hardly moved forward on the issue.

The tenure of the country as ASEAN Chair has almost ended, with little more than a month to go before fully turning it over to Indonesia. However, the country still cannot formulate and/or use other approaches, which would increase pressure on the military junta. This shows the incapability of the regional organization as a whole and its Chair to deal with the regional issue as they have yet to decide to go beyond the current situation. And this is the nature of ASEAN. When dealing with the region's political and security problems, the bloc seems too far to make changes.

A decisive step

To deal with a protracted crisis, the parties concerned in a country must find common ground and compromise. Without compromising for the sake of their nation, no one can get them out of fighting if they have no favour to offer. And we need to acknowledge that an outsider like ASEAN can only be a mediator and facilitator. It has little leverage to solve the dispute. An equal share in the peace process and transition to democracy in Myanmar is significant. It’s high time that Myanmar dealt with the parties’differences based on national unity, peace, security, political stability, prosperity and people’s well-being. Otherwise, that country will be divided and fall into civil war and a geopolitical trap. 

The international community and especially the superpowers (United States, China and Russia) should not ignore the crisis in Myanmar and take it as a geopolitical game to serve their interests, which is not the responsibility of world country leaders. Notably, China and Russia should not play this card and back the military junta, which only brings about more violence, chaos, and humanitarian collapse in the country. For instance, Russia should reconsider de-facto diplomatic relations to solve the Myanmar crisis by not just treating Myanmar as its reliable ally and strategic partner of the Russian Federation in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, but by bringing peace to the region. And China should reconsider not supporting the military junta on military supplies and financial recourse and call out Myanmar to cease the conflict. By doing this, China will benefit more from the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor project.

Indonesia will assume the ASEAN Chair in 2023, and this will test its capability to deal with the continuing political crisis in Myanmar. To many, Indonesia is expected to be " a truly outstanding testament to the country's leadership in the Myanmar crisis." Moreover, President Joko Widdo’s powerful speech during the ASEAN Chairmanship handover ceremony, highlighting that ASEAN "must not be a proxy to any powers," is likely to give hope to the region for the year to come.

Han Noy is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and 5th generation leader of Politikoffee. His main interests are Cambodia-China-Vietnam relations, small-state diplomacy, and international relations and security.

Chea Sameang is a former op-ed writer at Politikoffee. Politikoffee is a sociopolitical and economic discussion group established more than 10 years ago in Cambodia

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