BANGKOK, Jan 9 (The Straits Times/ANN): Expectations were low for Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's visit to crisis-ridden Myanmar on Friday (Jan 7) and at the end, it appears junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has conceded little.
A joint statement was leavened with the language of Asean's "five-point consensus" to address the turmoil in a member state, but hewed to the objectives of the general who seized power on Feb 1 last year.
Cambodia, which is Asean chair this year under its rotating arrangement, could claim a few "wins" from the trip even though critics saw it as granting legitimacy to a junta currently shut out from the bloc's high-level summits.
Cambodian foreign minister Prak Sokhonn on Saturday (Jan 8) described the talks as "very positive" and a "progressive step" towards the Asean road map.
The statement issued on Friday referred to the junta's earlier declared ceasefire with the numerous ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing promised to extend the expiry date of the truce from February to the end of this year, and then called on all parties to accept it and exercise restraint.
He "welcomed" the Asean special envoy for Myanmar - Prak Sokhonn - to join the ceasefire talks with the ethnic armed groups.
"This important step is embodied in the Asean five-point consensus," said the joint statement.
The Asean plan, drafted in April, called for a cessation of violence, humanitarian aid to Myanmar and an inclusive dialogue that a special Asean envoy would help facilitate. It also stated that the envoy would visit Myanmar to meet all stakeholders concerned.
Slow progress on this front prompted Asean members to insist that Myanmar not be represented by a political appointee at its recent summits.
On Friday, Mr Hun Sen and Gen Min Aung Hlaing agreed to convene a meeting involving Prak Sokhonn and humanitarian actors from Asean, Myanmar and the United Nations to help in the delivery of aid.
The junta chief "pledged full support" to Prak Sokhonn in fulfilling his mandate but stressed that it had to complement the junta's own road map. Gen Min Aung Hlaing also said that he would facilitate the envoy's visit and meeting with all parties concerned, "taking into account the prevailing situation in Myanmar".
"It seems to be another effort of the State Administration Council to steer the Asean process to its interests," said ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute Fellow Moe Thuzar, referring to the junta's self-declared name.
"This is an indication that, if the prevailing situation in Myanmar is deemed to be 'unstable' because of the continuing clashes the military has with various forces across the country - including the ethnic armed organisations and so-called people's defence forces (PDFs) - it could be used as a reason to stall the process again".
As it is, Myanmar is now trapped in a deadly spiral of violence triggered by the unpopular coup. More than 1,400 people have been killed so far.
Erstwhile peaceful anti-coup protesters have taken up arms, some with training from longstanding ethnic armed groups that control a patchwork of territory along Myanmar's border.
Long sputtering peace talks with these ethnic armed groups have been complicated by the coup, so the invitation for Mr Prak Sokhonn to join the process is curious.
"I am not so sure about the practicality of it," said Moe Thuzar. "Rather than an information overload, what the special envoy needs is opportunities to sit down in conversation with the key stakeholders in the country's political future to really find out what their interests are."
Notably, even after declaring the ceasefire in September, the Myanmar military has clashed with ethnic armed groups in the eastern states of Kayah and Kayin, with air raids sending thousands of villagers fleeing into Thailand.
In Chin state and the Sagaing region, where the regime faces strong resistance from the PDFs, troops and pro-junta militia have torched homes and destroyed food stocks.
Friday's statement provided little indication of what might be done to address the PDFs which are now waging an insurgency. Hundreds of the junta's political rivals from the deposed National League for Democracy party, meanwhile, remain behind bars.
In trying to build peace in Myanmar, Hun Sen may have cracked the door slightly open. But where this leads is anybody's guess. - The Straits Times/ANN