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PM: ASEAN ‘hot stone’ cooled

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Prime Minister Hun Sen hands over the ceremonial gavel of ASEAN chairmanship to Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, signifying Cambodia passing the baton to the archipelago nation to lead the Southeast Asian bloc next year. Hong Menea

PM: ASEAN ‘hot stone’ cooled

Prime Minister Hun Sen wrapped up the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summit and related meetings on November 13, saying that Cambodia had been tossed a hot stone and had managed to handle it and cool it down and could now pass along a merely warm stone to Indonesia as it takes over as ASEAN chair.

He also said that playing host to this international event, where “a hundred documents” were signed, enhanced Cambodia’s prestige and reflected its status as a peaceful country.

Speaking at a press conference on the afternoon of November 13 after the closing of the four days of summits, Hun Sen said that Cambodia proved itself mature enough to facilitate debates on many heated issues such as Ukraine, Myanmar and the South China Sea dispute.

“During the meetings, there were no unpleasant exchanges or unkind words, although there were controversial topics discussed. No one walked out of any meetings. This reflects the maturity of the leaders at the EAS, but also was due to Cambodia acting as the facilitator that enabled all sides to have their say in the meetings,” Hun Sen said referring to the East Asia Summit during which the leaders or top representatives of the US, China and Russia were all gathered together in one place.

“We’ve gained prestige from this. We managed to sign a hundred documents that the next generation will one day be able to learn from,” he said.

According to Hun Sen, the leaders who attended the meetings all appreciated Cambodia’s leadership role as ASEAN chair and the efforts of the ASEAN chair’s Special Envoy on Myanmar in seeking a solution to the Myanmar crisis through the implementation of ASEAN’s five-point consensus.

On the South China Sea dispute that caused much controversy at the last ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh in 2012, Hun Sen said that the meeting had noted the importance of the promotion of peace, security, safety, stability and freedom of navigation and flight over the sea, which required a thorough and full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) to guarantee.

“We are optimistic and happy with the progress on the ongoing negotiations on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC), which were recently resumed in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh,” he said, adding that the COC must follow international laws and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, adopted in 1982.

“On Ukraine, I can say that it was the hottest stone as we have seen some very diverging views, especially during the East Asia Summit. I am happy that Cambodia could manage to host this summit in which many sides had different positions and they exchanged their opinions in a frank manner.

“We reiterated our calls for respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. We stressed the importance of a cessation of hostilities in order to produce a conducive environment for peaceful solutions. We also called for support in the form of immediate humanitarian assistance – safely and without interruption – to the people of Ukraine,” he said.

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Prime Minister Hun Sen holds a watch which was made in Cambodia as a souvenir for summit leaders during a press conference. Yousos Apdoulrashim

Hun Sen also said that he had urged Ukraine’s and Russia’s foreign ministers to consider meeting with each other in Phnom Penh, “but unfortunately, they could not meet.”

Regarding the tensions on the Korean peninsula, Hun Sen said that the ASEAN leaders and partners all expressed concerns about North Korea’s ballistic missile tests over Japan, saying they regarded such actions as a threat to the security of the region and calling on North Korea to respect the decisions made by the UN Security Council and refrain from testing anymore nuclear weapons, as they had recently indicated was their intention.

Given that the prime minister opened the summit with a declaration that the world is at an uncertain juncture, Hun Sen was asked whether there are today two geopolitical “poles” or power centres like during the cold war with the USSR and US – but now with the US and China instead – and which side ASEAN was going to go with. Hun Sen responded that ASEAN has unity and centrality and would never lean to either side.

Cambodia announced previously that in cooperation with Japan it will send deminers to Ukraine, with the first group set to leave for Ukraine in December. Hun Sen said that this assistance should be seen as humanitarian assistance, not military assistance.

On the Myanmar issue, Hun Sen said that ASEAN wants all parties to the conflict in Myanmar to work together on a solution. He said he did not agree with any suggestions to use “hot” measures against Myanmar, nor can ASEAN expel Myanmar from the bloc as doing so without Myanmar itself voting in favour of it would violate ASEAN’s charter, which calls for unanimity for such decisions.

“The best way is keeping the door open, rather than slamming the door shut,” Hun Sen said, adding that he had not yet decided whether the ASEAN chair’s Special Envoy Prak Sokhonn would visit Naypyidaw again before Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship mandate ends.

He explained that ASEAN still invited non-political representatives from Myanmar’s current ruling regime to attend the meetings at the ASEAN Summit, but Myanmar declined to send anyone.

The prime minister said, however, should Myanmar continue to show no progress in implementing ASEAN’s five point consensus and continue to decide not to send non-political representatives, then their ASEAN seats will remain empty for the next meetings and the foreseeable future.

The White House issue a press statement saying that US president Joe Biden had urged transparency regarding the development of Ream Naval Base and for Cambodia to release American citizen Seng Theary, who is serving six years in Preah Vihear prison for activities related to her activism with the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Asked for his reaction, Hun Sen said that President Biden did not speak about those issues with him and he repeated his earlier statements that Cambodia will never choose one country over another country and will instead be open to diplomacy and good relations with all countries, including both superpowers, while adding that though Biden didn’t bring up those other issues, he did tell Hun Sen that he very much enjoyed the Khmer food he’d had during his visit.

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