Malaysia: New ASEAN Chair Cambodia Should Reappoint Current Special Envoy to Myanmar

Iskandar Zulkarnain and Nisha David
Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, Malaysia
2021-11-01
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Malaysia: New ASEAN Chair Cambodia Should Reappoint Current Special Envoy to Myanmar Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah speaks to reporters in Putrajaya, Nov. 1, 2021.
[Handout Ministry of Foreign Affairs]

Updated at 5:40 p.m. ET on 2021-11-01

Malaysia is urging the new ASEAN chair to retain the bloc’s current envoy to Myanmar, after Phnom Penh indicated that it wanted to appoint someone else as the emissary to deal with the post-coup Burmese humanitarian crisis.

Cambodia last week took over from Brunei as chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the bloc’s summit, which ASEAN had barred Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from attending because he refused to give the envoy access to all Burmese parties.

On Monday, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said he hoped the current ASEAN envoy to Myanmar, Erywan Yusof, would be reappointed.

“If you ask me, I would prefer we stick to the same envoy. After all, Erywan is the special envoy of the ASEAN chair,” Saifuddin told reporters in Putrajaya.

“For the sake of continuity, let him remain [as envoy].”

Erywan, he said, could keep the momentum going on some of the groundwork he had already laid to deal with the crisis caused by the Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar.

Malaysia had already requested Cambodia to call a meeting of senior ASEAN officials to discuss next steps vis-à-vis Myanmar and put the issue of the special envoy high on the agenda.

However, Cambodia’s foreign minister told Reuters news agency last week that as the new chair, the country would appoint a new ASEAN envoy to Myanmar to start work early next year.

Erywan, who is second foreign minister of Brunei, was appointed in August, after months-long, fractious negotiations among the bloc’s members and with Myanmar’s military government.

Having settled on Erywan, Myanmar’s junta went back on its word and did not allow him to meet with all parties concerned, including senior officials from the National League for Democracy, the party that won last year’s general election and whose leaders were thrown in jail after the coup.

In April, Min Aung Hlaing had agreed to allow such a meeting as part of a five-point consensus that he and other ASEAN leaders had reached during an emergency meeting in Jakarta.

The coup leader also reneged on a promise to end violence. As of Monday, around 1,230 people – mostly pro-democracy protesters – have been killed by Burmese security forces since Feb. 1.

This backtracking led ASEAN to take the unprecedented move of shutting Min Aung Hlaing out of last week’s summit.

On Monday, United States President Joe Biden and his Indonesian counterpart Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said the Burmese military needs to stop violence, release all political prisoners, and work toward a swift return to democracy.

The two leaders had a bilateral meeting in Glasgow on the sidelines of the COP26 climate summit.

“President Biden expressed support for ASEAN’s efforts to hold the Burmese military accountable to the ASEAN Five Point Consensus,” a statement from the White House said about the leaders’ meeting.

Hun Sen.JPG

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony of the Project for Flood Protection, donated by Japan, in Phnom Penh, March 4, 2019. [Reuters]

Criticism of ASEAN’s Myanmar envoy

Not everyone may agree with Malaysia’s foreign minister that the envoy to Myanmar should remain the same.

Some Southeast Asian analysts have faulted Erywan’s stewardship of ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar crisis.

Because Erywan is from undemocratic Brunei, he should not have been named envoy to a country where the military toppled a democratically elected government, analysts said.

On the other hand, Cambodia is a one-party state – some call it a dictatorship – with a poor human rights record, leaving some other analysts to ask whether its envoy to Myanmar would do any better than Erywan.

Additionally, few can forget that Cambodia was accused in 2012 of siding with China and preventing ASEAN from reaching an agreement on the South China Sea. It was the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history that ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement.

As with Cambodia, China has close ties to Myanmar and vast investments in the country, and has refrained from being overly critical of the military coup.

On the face of it, though, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen wants to keep ASEAN pressure going on Myanmar. He had stern words for the Burmese junta last week before being handed the ASEAN’s chairman’s ceremonial gavel from Brunei.

ASEAN, Hun Sen said, had not expelled Myanmar from its summit, but Naypyidaw’s junta had “abandoned its right,” according to Reuters.

“Now we are in the situation of ASEAN minus one. It is not because of ASEAN, but because of Myanmar,” said the strongman who has ruled Cambodia since 1985.

Cambodian Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn backed his prime minister, saying on the sidelines of the summit that Myanmar was on the “brink of civil war.”

“While we all respect the principle of non-interference into domestic affairs of member states, the situation in Myanmar continues to be a subject of grave concern,” Sokhonn told Reuters.

He was referring to a core ASEAN principle which, critics have long said, allows the bloc to turn a blind eye to abuses committed by its member-states.

Malaysian academic Md. Mahbubul Haque is not so sure about Cambodia’s intent or abilities.

“The human rights and internal issue in Cambodia is same as in Myanmar … for sure they won’t take concrete action towards Myanmar,” the senior lecturer in international studies at University Sultan Zainal Abidin, told BenarNews.

“So now, other ASEAN countries need to take action and solve the issues in Myanmar.”

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