Phnom Penh, Cambodia (AFP) – Efforts by Myanmar’s neighbors to help restore peace and return to normal in the strife-torn Southeast Asian nation have been hampered by the recent executions of four political activists in the country, Cambodia’s foreign minister said Saturday.
Prak Sokhon, who was speaking as a special envoy to Myanmar from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, warned that additional executions would force the regional group to reconsider how it treats fellow Myanmar.
Cambodia is the current head of the regional grouping, and Myanmar does not welcome sending members of its ruling military government to ASEAN meetings due to its failure to cooperate with a plan agreed last year to work towards restoring peace.
Myanmar’s military rulers initially approved the plan, a five-point consensus, but have made little effort to implement it since. The country has slipped into a situation that some United Nations experts have described as a civil war.
Prak Sokhon was speaking at a news conference after a week-long meeting in Cambodia of ASEAN foreign ministers. The meeting’s closing statement, released on Friday, included a section criticizing Myanmar for the lack of progress in ending the violence there, but in weaker language than several countries had hoped.
On Saturday, he called the executions of dissidents in Myanmar a “setback” for his mediation efforts, and said the nine ASEAN members excluding Myanmar “agreed to see how things would develop in the coming weeks and months”.
“If more executions are carried out, things will have to be reconsidered,” he said, indicating that ASEAN is willing to reduce its involvement with Myanmar’s military government. ASEAN has been criticized by some of its members as well as other countries for doing little to pressure Myanmar to implement the Five Points Consensus.
Myanmar’s military in February last year ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, then launched a violent crackdown on widespread protests against its actions. After security forces used lethal force against peaceful protesters, 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 Points Consensus because it “neglects Myanmar’s efforts to implement it”.
She also said that the four men who were recently executed were not punished because they were political activists but because they were “convicted of plotting, inciting, supporting, arming and perpetrating terrorist activities that caused heavy loss of innocent lives.”
Prak Sokhon said progress has been made in providing humanitarian aid to Myanmar, but not on the other key points of the ASEAN plan: stopping violence and opening a political dialogue between all the conflicting parties in the country.
“What I will see now is to keep fighting,” he said. “Why? Because of the lack of trust and the execution of activists, whether legally or illegally.”
“Without this confidence, the fighting will continue and the political process will never start, because no one will come if he fears for his life,” he said.
He said that while the execution of the men was a legal matter to be decided by Myanmar, it was a setback for building trust between the warring forces in Myanmar.
He also explained that his mandate as the ASEAN Special Envoy was to engage with all stakeholders, including the organized opposition to Myanmar’s military rulers.
Myanmar’s opposition forces operate as a secret alternative administration, the Government of National Unity, and its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force.
Myanmar’s military government has described the groups as “terrorists” and even declared contact with them illegal.
A statement issued by Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry on Friday said: “If ASEAN member states and external partners really wish to help Myanmar restore normal life, they should not encourage engagement with terrorist groups such as the National Unity Group and the People’s Defense Forces and should avoid any actions It can encourage terrorism.”
On Saturday, Prak Sokhon refused to disclose whether he had been in contact with the opposition group, but declared that he was free as a special envoy to deal with anyone outside Myanmar.
Beck reported from Bangkok, Thailand