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ASEAN leaders meet as Myanmar, other flashpoints steer summit agenda


Southeast Asian heads of government held talks on Friday with global leaders that were dominated by efforts to address a failing peace plan in Myanmar, as well as responses to other tensions in the region, including the Korean peninsula and Taiwan.

After leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held their own closed-door summit, they were joined by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and then by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in separate meetings.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are scheduled to hold discussions with the group on Saturday. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will also attend some meetings.

Cambodian Prime Minister and ASEAN host Hun Sen addressed Friday’s opening ceremony with a call for vigilance and wisdom during times of economic and geopolitical turmoil.

“We are now at the most uncertain juncture; the lives of millions in our region depend on our wisdom and foresight,” said Hun Sen, who spoke after a traditional Khmer dance performance.

ASEAN, which has barred Myanmar’s junta leaders from its meetings since last year, repeated its commitment to the so-called five-point peace consensus, but some members have been pushing for a stronger stance.

Leaders from the other nine countries in the bloc – Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – were present at the summit in Phnom Penh.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said talks on Myanmar were “open and intensive”.

According to a statement issued after the meeting, ASEAN will stick by the five-point consensus but after “little progress” leaders concluded a need for an implementation plan to outline “concrete, practical and measurable indicators with a specific timeline.”

It also said that ASEAN would review Myanmar’s representation at all levels of meetings, though it did not include an earlier suggestion in a draft to hold talks with those deemed by the Myanmar military administration as “terrorists”.

The junta has labelled opponents including the shadow National Unity Government, which includes former lawmakers from the ousted government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, as “terrorists”.

Political, social and economic chaos have gripped Myanmar since the military overthrew an elected government led by Suu Kyi last year and unleashed a deadly crackdown on dissent that unravelled years of tentative reform towards democracy.

Retno told Reuters last week that the junta was squarely responsible for a lack of progress on the peace plan and that recommendations would be made to leaders on strengthening its implementation.

The junta has blamed the lack of progress on the pandemic and obstruction from armed resistance movements.

Patrick Phongsathorn, an official at Fortify Rights, an independent non-profit organisation, said ASEAN should suspend Myanmar’s participation throughout the bloc so the junta cannot “continue to stymie any progress towards peace.”

The bloc, which has a long-standing tradition of non-interference in members’ sovereign affairs, has ruled out Western-style sanctions against Myanmar or expelling it from the 10-member group, even as it condemns increasingly violent actions by the junta such as the executions of democracy activists and an air strike that killed at least 50 people.

At a summit retreat on Friday, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos said that talks had also covered the nuclear threat from North Korea and strains in cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan, his press secretary said.

Separately at the summit, ASEAN agreed in principle to admit East Timor as the group’s 11th member. Asia’s youngest democracy started the process of accession in 2002, but only formally applied for membership in 2011.

Officials expect a number of summits in the region in the next seven days to be difficult, with discussions also expected to include the war in Ukraine, climate and regional tensions over the South China Sea. G20 leaders are meeting in Bali next week and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum will take place in Bangkok after that.

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ASEAN leaders pose for a group photo during the ASEAN summit held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia November 11, 2022. REUTERS/Cindy Liu

ASEAN leaders pose for a group picture as they meet with representatives of ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA) during the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia November 10, 2022. REUTERS/Cindy Liu