PHNOM PENH — As Cambodia prepares to assume the ASEAN chair next month, Prime Minister Hun Sen sent a resounding and divisive message last week: Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing is welcome back into the club after being shunned since leading a coup in February.
The pronouncement, made during a visit to Phnom Penh by the Myanmar junta’s foreign minister Wunna Muang Lwin, was blasted by anti-coup activists in Myanmar and some regional parliamentarians, but drew little public response from other members of the bloc.
And while Hun Sen suggested the decision was obvious, differences within the bloc over its approach to Myanmar are already starting to emerge, and analysts say the 69-year-old prime minister clearly has his own legacy — and China’s desires — in mind during what may be his last time in the ASEAN chair.
“For Cambodia, if we are not working with those leaders holding powers in Myanmar, you want us to work with whom?” Hun Sen said on Monday. “As a member of ASEAN family, [Min Aung Hlaing] has the right to attend meetings…Let's see how Hun Sen handles it.”
“Should we accept the choice of having to burn down our own home in order to please the neighbors?” Hun Sen added, in a nod to foreign pressure to isolate Myanmar.
Hun Sen will personally visit Myanmar for talks with Tatmadaw top brass in January, while Cambodia extended an invitation for Min Aung Hlaing to join the ASEAN Chiefs of Defense Forces Meeting in Phnom Penh in March.
Along with handshake photos with Wunna Muang Lwin, the invite set off a firestorm among anti-coup Myanmar netizens on Twitter and Facebook, who said the move legitimizes coup leaders who had no right to represent them.
In apparent response to the blowback, the Cambodian government issued a statement saying that Phnom Penh is “strongly hopeful that a diplomatic solution will take place for the benefits of all parties and all political ideologies in a direction toward genuine peace, political stability, and development of our Myanmar friends.”
There have been few signs of progress toward peace in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader ousted in the coup, was sentenced last week to two years in prison, while fighting between the Tatmadaw and the opposition People’s Defence Force continues, and reports of military-supervised civilian deaths keep coming.
The key question for ASEAN is whether to pursue a strategy of pressure or engagement with the junta, and Hun Sen’s challenge will be making sure those competing positions do not create wider rifts between members of the bloc, said Chheang Vannarith, president of the Asian Vision Institute in Phnom Penh.
“There will be many challenges going forward,” he told VOA Khmer. “There can be misunderstandings among ASEAN family members. For that, if we do not manage to carefully walk the line, there will be risks of cracks among ASEAN member states.”
With the junta so far refusing to even allow an ASEAN envoy to visit Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned elected leader of the country, Chheang Vannarith said a softer tack might be necessary to make progress.
Min Aung Hlaing has been barred from two ASEAN summits and the Asia-Europe Meeting since late October, with Brunei as the chair, allowing Naypyidaw to send only their “non-political representative” — an arrangement the junta declined, instead opting for a no-show.
Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of Singapore’s foreign ministry, said he agreed with Hun Sen’s strategy toward the outcast ASEAN member.
“If ASEAN wants to play a role in Myanmar, ASEAN has to engage Myanmar and engage those who hold real power in Myanmar. Like it or not, the power holder happens to be senior general Min Aung [Hlaing],” he told VOA Khmer.
Kausikan said blocking Min Aung Hlaing from summits was a "necessary gesture." But, he added "if ASEAN is to play a role in finding some sort of solution, ASEAN has to go beyond just making gestures."
The lone response to Hun Sen welcoming Myanmar’s junta to future ASEAN meetings came from Hanoi, which supported the move. But the group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), which includes members of Cambodia’s opposition, criticized the move.
“Hun Sen's reckless comments on recognizing the junta risk wasting ASEAN’s hard-won diplomatic progress since the coup took place,” said former Thai foreign minister and APHR board member Kasit Piromya.
“It makes no sense that Cambodian PM Hun Sen is discussing plans to visit Myanmar, thereby legitimizing the junta, before progress has been made on the Five-Point Consensus. This was the very reason ASEAN excluded junta leader Min Aung Hlaing from its Summit in October,” Kasit Piromya said.
Cambodia has also insisted on appointing its own envoy to enforce that “five-point consensus” on Myanmar, which was struck during an April summit and calls for a cessation of violence, constructive dialogue, provision of humanitarian assistance, the appointment of a special envoy, and a visit by that envoy to Myanmar.
In a speech on Wednesday, Hun Sen said foreign minister Prak Sokhonn will be the new ASEAN chair’s special envoy on the Myanmar crisis, taking over from Brunei’s top diplomat Erywan Yusof.
The U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet, who visited Phnom Penh on December 10, recommended caution as Cambodia engages with the junta. “The US is not against engagement,” he said, but added “the engagement needs to have a purpose that can't come for free, and we want to see genuine progress on the ground.”
Hun Sen’s comments last week were a far cry from the position he staked out during an ASEAN summit in late October, when he slammed the junta over their refusal to cooperate with the bloc’s efforts to engage in the escalating civil strife.
“Until now, there has been no significant progress. It shows the lack of cooperation from the part of the Myanmar military government,” he said at the time.
Cambodia’s changing stance on the Myanmar crisis parallels the positions taken by Beijing.
In August and September, China’s special envoy on Asian affairs Sun Guoxiang made two trips to Myanmar. While it was unclear if Sun Guoxiang met with Aung San Suu Kyi, Beijing appeared to make public its engagement with her National League for Democracy,
A week after Sun Guoxiang’s second visit, Beijing invited the NLD to the international “Political Parties’ Cooperation in Joint Pursuit of Economic Development,” a virtual summit organized by the Chinese Communist Party, in a move seen by many as a snub to the Tatmadaw, though its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party was also invited.
Sun Guoxiang made yet another visit in mid-November, before unsuccessfully lobbying to re-include Min Aung Hlaing in the ASEAN summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping due to the disapproval of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Weeks later, Cambodia seemed to soften its stance toward the junta.
Sun Guoxiang’s lobbying efforts and a Sino-Russian bid to block a U.N. Security Council condemnation of the Burmese junta demonstrate that Beijing “remains extremely supportive of the junta,” said Irene Chan, associate research fellow at the Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“China would want Cambodia to stay firm on avoiding official condemnation of the junta or mention of the Myanmar crisis in the ASEAN communique. It would also want Cambodia to push for the re-inclusion of [Min Aung Hlaing] for the ASEAN summits in 2022,” Chan told VOA Khmer.
“However, Beijing may be careful to not place too much pressure [on] Cambodia or other ASEAN states over the Myanmar issue,” she added. “China would not want to appear as the main instigator for yet another failure for ASEAN to issue its joint communique under Cambodia’s chairmanship.”
Chan was referring to the ASEAN summit in 2012, when for the first time in its nearly 50-year history the bloc failed to issue a joint statement following the meeting, due to Cambodia allegedly blocking mention of disputes between members and China in the South China Sea.
While China wants Myanmar to “regain” stability given its interests through the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and its own Southwestern economy, Chan said Beijing is keeping its options open by both supporting the junta and maintaining communication with Suu Kyi’s NLD.
Hun Sen’s Personal Legacy?
If all goes according to plan, this upcoming ASEAN chairmanship will be Hun Sen’s last. The longtime prime minister, in power since 1985, confirmed that he wants his eldest son, Army Chief Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, to succeed him as prime minister after the 2028 general election.
Though Hun Sen has sought to consolidate personal power in the party and neutralize all opposition threats, key aspects of his legacy will depend on how he handles succession, and whether he can unify the CPP behind his heir apparent.
With his own domestic legitimacy front of mind, how much Hun Sen can achieve in Myanmar remains to be seen, Evan Laksmana, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said on the podcast Conversation Six.
“Hun Sen, I think, is trying to strike a balance between securing his own transition as well as his legacy,” Laksmana said in an episode of the podcast broadcast in the past week.
“I think senior diplomats in the region would say that Hun Sen might surprise us, and that could be a good thing or a bad thing,” Laksmana said.
Former senior Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan agreed that Hun Sen’s proactive approach to the situation is due to the 69-year-old leader being mindful of his legacy.
“I suspect Hun Sen is thinking of his long-term legacy as a Southeast Asian leader and hopes to secure that legacy by contributing to a solution in Myanmar. That requires him to engage Min Aung [Hlaing].”
Kausikan, however, didn’t expect much from Hun Sen’s outreach to the Tatmadaw.
“I don’t think he [Hun Sen] will achieve much. It really depends [on] whether Min Aung [Hlaing] and the Tatmadaw want to do Hun Sen a favor,” he added. “The hard fact is that the initiative lies with Min Aung [Hlaing] and the Tatmadaw and no outside power has much influence over them.”
Hun Sen this week appears more reserved, urging observers to manage their expectation on his Myanmar endeavor.
“Let me be clear in advance: You must not blame Cambodia. Whether the Myanmar crisis will be resolved does not depend on ASEAN. ASEAN is just a part of helping hands to Myanmar. Myanmar themselves, however, are the ones to solve their own crisis,” Hun Sen said.
Keeping the status quo of ASEAN-9 “will create a dangerous practice that whoever is the ASEAN chair can refuse to invite any one [member state] they don’t like to the meetings. How will ASEAN be then? Where are ASEAN values then,” the Cambodian prime minister said.
Former Singaporean diplomat Kausikan, who last year made a controversial suggestion for ASEAN to consider a choice of having to “cut loose” Cambodia and Laos as he questioned the pair’s neutrality and commitment to the bloc, said how ASEAN sidelined Min Aung Hlaing already gave way to future practice.
“The precedent has already been created and regardless of whether or not Min Aung Hliang attends ASEAN meetings under Cambodia’s chairmanship, cannot be uncreated and will remain a precedent. You cannot turn back the clock and pretend it never happened,” he told VOA Khmer.
Irene Chan at the Nanyang Technological University added that keeping Myanmar out may backfire to the rest of the bloc.
“Looking at coups that have occurred and the creeping authoritarianism in Southeast Asia in the past two decades, I would argue that none of the member states will be happy to support the legal precedence and model interpretation of the ASEAN Charter which the Myanmar crisis has created as they run the risk of having it being applied to themselves in future,” she said.