Foreign Ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Wednesday extensively discussed Myanmar, with Cambodia, this year's chair of the 10-nation bloc, saying that all member states are "deeply disappointed" over its military regime's recent execution of pro-democracy activists.
The top diplomats held an annual meeting in Phnom Penh, their first in person since the global outbreak of the coronavirus more than two years ago, but with no delegation from Myanmar.
"All ASEAN member states are deeply disappointed and disturbed by the execution of those opposition activists despite the appeals from me and others for the death sentence to be reconsidered for the sake of political dialogue, peace and reconciliation," Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said in his opening remarks at the meeting.
ASEAN will have to take a new approach toward the Myanmar crisis if the military junta continues to execute opposition activists, he said.
Myanmar, which has been ruled by the military since a coup in February 2021, put to death four people including two pro-democracy activists last week, just days before the start of a series of meetings involving foreign ministers from ASEAN and its partners, including China, Japan and the United States.
"We had a very extensive discussion this afternoon" on Myanmar, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told reporters, adding that there will be at least one paragraph on the country in their joint communique.
The ministers also discussed the negative impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, especially on energy and food prices, and rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait, according to Singapore's Foreign Ministry.
"Stable U.S.-China relations are vital for regional peace and prosperity," the ministry said in a statement as U.S. House Speaker Nancy' high-profile visit to Taiwan prompted Beijing to warn of serious consequences.
Before the four were executed, Cambodia had called for other member nations to allow Myanmar's top diplomat to attend the meeting, according to a report written by the host country's Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, circulated among the delegates and seen by Kyodo News.
ASEAN has excluded Myanmar's foreign minister and the chief of its military government from meetings of the group since October last year, in a response to the coup that ousted the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta's subsequent violent suppression of pro-democracy protests.
ASEAN, including Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, has continued discussions with Myanmar and called for a cessation of violence, adopted as part of a five-point consensus of the group.
But amid a lack of progress by the junta in implementing the consensus, which referred primarily to ending violence against the junta's political opponents and civilian protesters, the association may need to change tack in dealing with Myanmar, an ASEAN source said on condition of anonymity.
According to a draft of the communique, some countries have suggested stating that "ASEAN condemns and was strongly disappointed by the execution."
On Tuesday, ASEAN officials told Kyodo News the draft may also state that the capital punishment was "highly reprehensible" and has "created a serious setback" to expediting the implementation of the consensus.
However, Myanmar officials who attended a gathering before the ministerial meeting protested over the strong language, according to the source.
Malaysia is among the members that have taken a critical stance on Myanmar, with its foreign minister lamenting Sunday the lack of real progress on the consensus, tweeting "the violence continues, and (has) in fact gotten worse" and the junta has been monopolizing and politicizing humanitarian aid from ASEAN.
Saifuddin, who has met with members of the National Unity Government set up by pro-democracy forces as a shadow Myanmar government, and other factions in the country, said that the ASEAN foreign ministers should introduce a framework for the junta to implement the five-point consensus.
The consensus was reached by the leaders of ASEAN, including Myanmar junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, at a special summit in April 2021.
But Prak Sokhonn, serving as an ASEAN special envoy, could not meet with Suu Kyi, who has been detained since the coup, and other leaders of the National League for Democracy party she led, during his recent visit to Myanmar.
While Min Aung Hlaing said in a televised speech Monday that some points of the consensus will be implemented this year, it is not known whether the junta will take any action.
The meeting took place ahead of a series of ASEAN-related talks until Friday, with Cambodia having invited Russia, one of the group's partners, to attend some. ASEAN sources confirmed that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will attend.
A senior ASEAN official who declined to be identified said its member states have different opinions regarding the situation in Ukraine, with Singapore, which views the war as an invasion by Russia, having imposed sanctions.
(Chananthorn Kamjan and Christine Tjandraningsih contributed to this story)