Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been accused of “going rogue” on the eve of his two-day trip to Myanmar starting Friday, where he says fruitful talks with the junta could end the bloodshed that erupted almost 12 months ago when the military seized power.
However, underpinning the trip is Hun Sen’s legacy and his desire for international legitimacy as this year’s head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a position allowing him to negotiate with the Myanmar junta’s leader, General Min Aung Hlaing. He is also expected to meet with other military leaders.
Ou Virak, president of a Cambodian think tank, Future Forum, said Hun Sen — who has said he plans to retire after elections next year — wanted to elevate the country as a regional player, leaving behind its history first as a failed state, then a post-conflict nation.
“As an ASEAN chair I think the Burmese issue, or the Myanmar issue, will never go away and it’s going to be one of the biggest topics to be discussed in the next year. In that regard Cambodia has very little option but to address it,” he said.
“I think the biggest motivation is Hun Sen himself and the legacy he wants to leave, but also the image he wants to present as a regional leader. I think that’s the biggest motivation,” he added.
ASEAN, which follows a non-interference policy in members’ domestic affairs, has faced increasing pressure to resolve the crisis, which has claimed more than 1,400 lives and resulted in more than 11,000 arrests.
Most ASEAN states have condemned the coup, and Hun Sen’s trip will be the first state visit by a foreign leader since the coup after the bloc failed to enforce its own Five-Point Consensus to end violence and start peace talks, struck in Jakarta last April.
That resulted in Min Aung Hlaing being denied entry to the ASEAN Summit in October and then the ASEAN-China Summit in November. Hun Sen says he wants to bring Myanmar back into the fold through his agenda, which he added was not far from the Five-Point Consensus.
“If the results are fruitful, it may bring peace to Myanmar and the people of Myanmar will acknowledge the efforts of the ASEAN member states,” Hun Sen said of his Myanmar trip, according to a dispatch from the official Agence Kampuchea Presse.
Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who Cambodia has appointed as the new ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar, described Monday the country’s outlook as dire, warning all the ingredients for a civil war were now on the table.
“There are now two governments, there are several armed forces, people are undergoing what they call the civil disobedience movement and [there is] guerrilla warfare around the country,” he said.
However, Hun Sen’s authoritarian style of leadership at home has earned him many critics. The main opposition party was dissolved by the courts in 2017 enabling the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to win every seat in the National Assembly in elections the following year.
That was accompanied by a crackdown on the independent press and civil society groups with hundreds of people detained and jailed, upsetting Western countries and human rights groups, who claim Hun Sen had substantially eroded democratic values in Cambodia.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights questioned Cambodia’s moral authority to act on the crisis, noting Hun Sen had reached out to the Myanmar military but has ignored the National Unity Government established by supporters of their ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
They also said Hun Sen’s visit did not respect the ASEAN consensus on Myanmar and accused the prime minister, who has ruled Cambodia for about 36 years, of “going rogue.”
“Furthermore, his actions and stated intention to instate the junta as the representatives for Myanmar, undermine ASEAN credibility and fundamentally threatens both regional bloc cohesion and efforts to return to a democratic path in Myanmar,” the organization said in a statement.
“Meanwhile, the junta has escalated violence against the people of Myanmar, including the massacre of more than 30 people in Kayah State on Christmas Eve and intensive attacks in Karen State throughout December which have drawn widespread international condemnation.”
Others have suggested that Cambodia’s cozy relationship with China, which has also caused deep rifts within ASEAN, was behind the talks. However, Bradley Murg at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, disputed that assertion.
“I don’t see it as China-related at all. It’s simply stemming from the fact that Cambodia is the chair of ASEAN and at this point Cambodia is in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation,” he said.
“If Cambodia and the prime minister actively don’t engage with the problem, ideally, consistent with the views and traditions of other ASEAN partners, Cambodia will be condemned as ignoring the Myanmar crisis,” Murg added.
However, by going to Myanmar Hun Sen risked legitimizing the military’s ousting of Suu Kyi’s government, which, in the eyes of civil society groups, won a landslide election shortly before last February’s coup.
“The bigger question everyone is looking at at the moment is ‘what will the substance of those meetings be’?” Murg said.