PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Efforts by Myanmar’s neighbors to help restore peace and normalcy to the strife-torn Southeast Asian nation were hindered by the country’s recent executions of four political activists, Cambodia’s foreign minister said Saturday.
Prak Sokhonn, speaking in his capacity as special envoy to Myanmar of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, warned that further executions would force the regional grouping to reconsider how it engages with fellow member Myanmar.
Cambodia is the current chair of the regional grouping, and Myanmar is not welcome to send members of its ruling military government to ASEAN meetings because of its failure to cooperate with a plan agreed upon last year to work toward restoring peace.
Myanmar’s military rulers initially agreed to the plan, a five-point consensus, but have since made little effort to implement it. The country has slipped into a situation that some U.N. experts have characterized as a civil war.
Prak Sokhonn was speaking at a news conference after a weeklong meeting in Cambodia of ASEAN foreign ministers. The meeting’s final communique, issued Friday, included a section criticizing Myanmar for its lack of progress in ending violence there, but with weaker language than several countries had hoped for.
On Saturday, he described the executions of Myanmar dissidents as a “setback” to his mediation efforts and said the nine ASEAN members aside from Myanmar had “agreed to see how things will evolve in the coming weeks and months.”
He said “if more executions are conducted, then things will have to be reconsidered,” which suggested that ASEAN is prepared to downgrade its engagement with Myanmar’s military government. ASEAN has been criticized by some of its own members as well as other countries for doing too little to pressure Myanmar to implement the five-point consensus.
Myanmar’s army in February last year ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and then violently cracked down on widespread protests against its actions. After security forces unleashed lethal force against peaceful demonstrators, some opponents of military rule took up arms.
Myanmar’s foreign ministry issued a statement Friday saying it objected to a reference in the ASEAN joint statement to a “lack of progress” in implementing the five-point consensus because “it neglects Myanmar’s efforts on its implementation.”
It also said that the four men recently executed were not punished because they were political activists but because they were “found guilty of masterminding, inciting, supporting, arming and committing terrorist activities which caused tremendous loss of innocent lives.”
Prak Sokhonn said progress has been made on providing humanitarian aid to Myanmar, but not on the other main points in ASEAN’s plan: stopping the violence and opening up a political dialogue among all the country’s contending parties.
“The only will I see now is to continue to fight,” he said. “Why? Because of the lack of trust and the execution of the activists, whether it is legal or illegal.”
“And without this trust, the fight will continue and the political process will never start because no one will come if they fear for their life,” he said.
While the men’s executions were a matter of law for Myanmar to decide, he said, they were a setback to building trust among Myanmar’s warring forces.
He also explained that his mandate as ASEAN special envoy was to engage with all stakeholders, which includes the organized opposition to Myanmar’s military rulers.
The opposition forces in Myanmar operate as an underground alternative administration, the National Unity Government, and its affiliated armed wing, the the People’s Defence Force.
Myanmar’s military government has branded the groups as “terrorists” and even declared contact with them to be illegal.
“If ASEAN member states and external partners genuinely wish to help Myanmar in restoring normalcy, they should not encourage engaging with the terrorist groups such as NUG and PDF and should avoid any actions that could encourage terrorism,” said Friday’s statement from Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry.
Prak Sokhonn declined to say Saturday whether he had been in contact with the opposition group, but declared that he was free as special envoy to engage with anyone outside Myanmar.
Peck reported from Bangkok, Thailand