A string of high-level meetings has continued back-to-back in Phnom Penh this weekend, with Asean stating it could reconsider Myanmar’s participation in future talks and the U.N. chief calling for human rights defenders and climate activists in Cambodia to be protected.
The Asean Summit, ongoing at Sokha Hotel through Sunday, has seen the arrivals of leaders from the regional bloc’s 10 member countries and other key states, including U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday morning.
Since its start earlier this week, Asean officials have issued a statement saying they may reconsider Myanmar’s inclusion in the bloc’s decision-making body amid ongoing violence, while Ukraine’s foreign minister took the signing of a partnership with Asean as a show of support for his nation under siege.
Though hundreds of Cambodian and international media members have also attended the events, reporters have had few opportunities to hear proceedings, only allowed brief entry into the Sokha ballroom to snap photos of leaders in the signature cross-handed pose.
Some livestreams of the bilateral meetings and press briefings were available, but reporters in a Telegram channel set up by organizers sent several complaints about translations and audio cutting out mid-speech.
On Friday, following the two main Asean-focused sessions in the morning, the bloc released a statement saying it could reconsider Myanmar’s political representation in Asean “if the situation so requires,” noting “little progress” in following the bloc’s five-point consensus for the junta to end violence and broker dialogues with all parties.
Asked if Cambodia and Thailand were going against the rest of the bloc behind the scenes over this potential exclusion of Myanmar, Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry secretary of state Kung Phoak deferred on Friday, saying the parties all “come up with their own ways of how Asean should resolve its problems … based on their own experiences.”
From the beginning of Cambodia’s chairmanship, Prime Minister Hun Sen stirred up controversy among Asean members with his desire to include junta chief Min Aung Hlaing in negotiations and visiting the country early this year even as violence and human rights violations continued amid a hollow pledge of ceasefire.
Without directly answering the question, Phoak continued that the group should “work with all partners.”
“It is not possible to say we only want to work with these [certain] people. Asean has to work with all partners in Myanmar to make sure that this whole process will be as inclusive as possible and especially when it comes to who are the actors who will be able to make substantial progress when it comes to implementation of the five-point consensus,” Phoak said.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres took a harder line against the junta and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, calling the situation “an unending nightmare” for citizens and calling for the Myanmar government to allow the voluntary return of Rohingya refugees into the country.
When asked broadly about respect for human rights in Southeast Asia, he referenced recent suppression of activists in Cambodia, who protested this week hoping for attention from U.S. President Joe Biden.
“Mainly my appeal in a country like Cambodia is for the public space to be open and for human rights defenders and climate activists to be protected and the cooperation of civil society to be extended,” he said.
Among the bloc’s actions as of Saturday, Timor Leste was admitted into Asean as an observer, with the understanding that Asean would help build a “roadmap” to bringing Timor Leste in as a full member.
Asean also signed a cooperation treaty with Ukraine, and Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba addressed the press on Saturday saying the process had been underway for years but he was pleased the agreement went through.
“We take it as a message of support from Asean countries to Ukraine,” he said. “It brings our relationship with Asean countries to a new level. We’ll explore and utilize all resources to build a relationship with Asean countries,” he explained. He added that Ukraine would continue to cooperate with Southeast Asia, particularly for the export of products like grains and sunflower oil.
He reiterated comments made by Prime Minister Hun Sen in a meeting on Wednesday, when Hun Sen told Kuleba that Cambodians “understand well the feeling of Ukrainians.”
“This country suffered so much from conflict and the war, and in my stay in Phnom Penh. … I feel the people of Cambodia understand very well the pain that we’re going through,” the Ukrainian foreign minister said on Saturday.
However, when asked about Hun Sen’s offer to host peace talks in Cambodia, Kuleba said this would not be possible until Russia showed signs it was willing to stop its attacks.
“Guys, I understand you’re looking for a big deal to take place, a big deal or negotiations. … But there’s no single indication that Russia is really serious about negotiations.”
Kuleba added that he had held conversations with several attending leaders on the sidelines of the summit, including Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and foreign ministers from Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand and Laos. Kuleba said he had wanted to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi but had just learned he was not attending the summit.
“Of course we call on Asean countries to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine because this is not just an attack on a sovereign country, it’s also an attack on the U.N. charter agreement,” he said referring to the U.N.’s founding document.
Kuleba shook hands with Information Minister Khieu Kanharith after speaking to the press: The Ukrainian minister gifted Kanharith cufflinks made by a Ukrainian artist, while the information minister provided a book on Cambodia published by his ministry.
Following a meeting between Hun Sen, Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn and Japanese ambassador Mikami Masahiro, Japan promised more than $50 million in aid to Cambodia for four different projects, including a $23.3 million expansion of the Phum Prek Water Treatment Plant in northern Phnom Penh, and $17 million for a Cambodia Mine Action Center training facility. Cambodia also urged the Philippines to buy more Cambodian rice and encouraged more direct flights between Phnom Penh and Manila, and Cebu and Siem Reap, in a meeting between foreign ministers.