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Omicron threatens Cambodia's plans as chair of ASEAN

Attempts to bring Myanmar back into the fold are already facing delays

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: January 13, 2022 08:02 AM GMT

Updated: January 13, 2022 08:14 AM GMT

Omicron threatens Cambodia's plans as chair of ASEAN

Chief representative of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency to Cambodia Haruko Kamei (left) exchanges documents with Cambodia's Minister of Economy and Finance Aun Pornmoniroth (right) as Prime Minister Hun Sen presides over a signing ceremony at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on Jan. 12 as part of a Covid-19 crisis response package loan. (Photo: AFP/TVK/An Khoun Samaun) 

The spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is threatening Cambodia’s agenda as chair of ASEAN and could undermine attempts to bring Myanmar back into the regional fold in the wake of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s controversial “peace visit" to the conflict-torn country.

That visit was sharply criticized by human rights groups for legitimizing the junta, which was banned from attending ASEAN summits after the military ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi through a coup staged on Feb. 1 last year.

Analysts said the first test would be whether ministers in General Min Aung Hlaing’s administration would be allowed to attend the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat in Siem Reap on Jan. 18-19. However, that meeting has been indefinitely postponed due to Omicron.

Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong told the government-friendly Fresh News service the retreat — where ministers hold frank but confidential talks ± has been “postponed due to traveling difficulties of ASEAN foreign ministers.”

A rapid rollout of Cambodia’s vaccination program early last year had prompted the cancellation of rapid testing for Covid-19 by the end of September and daily confirmed cases dropped from nearly 1,000 to less than 20 in recent months.

But the outbreak of Omicron, which is wreaking havoc across the world, has emerged in Cambodia, although numbers currently remain low.

The kingdom is implementing quarantine-free entry, so the booster shot requirement is necessary to prevent the strain from finding more ways into the country

On Jan. 13, health authorities reported 34 Covid-19 cases. Of them 12 were diagnosed as the Omicron variant, taking that total to 231, with 16 registered as community cases since the first case was reported on Dec. 14.

As a result, the government is reintroducing some health measures, mandating that masks must be worn in public and vaccination cards must be carried. Authorities are encouraging third and fourth booster shots among locals and people traveling into the country.

“The booster shot requirement is being implemented because the highly infectious Omicron variant is circulating widely and is a global concern,” Health Ministry spokesman Hok Kimcheng said.

“The kingdom is implementing quarantine-free entry, so the booster shot requirement is necessary to prevent the strain from finding more ways into the country.” 

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Postponement of the foreign ministers' retreat was announced as Hun Sen held a video conference with Noeleen Heyzar — the recently appointed UN special envoy on Myanmar — about his meeting with Min Aung Hlaing.

“We need to work together, not just ASEAN but all concerned parties including the United Nations,” Hun Sen said after the meeting.

The meeting also focused on pushing forward the Five-Point Consensus, essentially a peace plan, agreed to by all 10 ASEAN members including Myanmar in April last year.

Failure by Min Aung Hlaing and the military to adhere to the plan resulted in Myanmar’s isolation.

Hun Sen also asked Heyzar to work directly with the ASEAN chair’s special envoy Prak Sokhonn, who is also the Cambodian foreign minister, on the Myanmar crisis.

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