The Cambodian government has defended Prime Minister Hun Sen’s controversial decision to make a state visit to Myanmar, the first by a foreign leader since the military seized power last February. During his two-day visit on Friday and Saturday, Hun Sen met with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and other leaders of the military administration, for talks aimed at resolving the country’s tangle of political, economic, and humanitarian crises.
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who accompanied Hun Sen on the trip, said that talks between the Cambodian leader and Min Aung Hlaing achieved “a very good, positive result with a progressive step forward” on the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus agreed to by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Sokhonn, who also serves as ASEAN’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, also defended the trip, which has provoked a storm of criticism from both in Myanmar and abroad, for bestowing a degree of legitimacy on the sanguinary coup government. “If there is anyone who opposes progressing these negotiations and the agreements like this, it is only those people who love war, those people who do not want to see Myanmar return to stability and peace,” said Sokhonn.
Since taking over ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship late last year, Cambodia’s government has made clear its intention to adopt a policy of pragmatic engagement with Myanmar’s military administration, breaking with ASEAN’s collective decision to exclude the junta from the bloc’s meetings barring progress on the Five-Point Consensus that was agreed by ASEAN in April of last year. Among the points of consensus were an end to violence, political dialogue involving “all parties,” and the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy for Myanmar.
Prior to the trip, critics claimed that Hun Sen’s go-it-alone diplomacy on Myanmar would grant the junta an unwarranted degree of legitimacy, without extracting any binding commitments on the implementation of the Consensus. In a statement yesterday, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a regional advocacy group, said that Hun Sen had signaled “his disdain for the Five-Point Consensus,” and described his visit to Myanmar as “a brazen and dangerous attempt to seize the initiative” from the Southeast Asian regional bloc. “These two coup makers are conducting another coup within ASEAN that threatens to split the organization itself,” the group wrote.
While rumors of ASEAN’s demise are slightly exaggerated, the trip perhaps inevitably produced little in the way of immediate breakthroughs. According to a joint statement issued on Friday, which described the talks as “frank and candid,” Min Aung Hlaing promised to extended a ceasefire with ethnic armed groups until the end of the year. (The ceasefire was originally set to expire at the end of February.) Min Aung Hlaing also promised that Prak Sokhonn, as ASEAN’s special envoy, would be permitted to meet all parties involved in the country’s political turmoil, including the armed ethnic minority groups. Both leaders also promised to push for a meeting aimed at coordinating deliveries of humanitarian aid.
One possible area of progress concerns the plight of Australian academic Sean Turnell, a former economic adviser to ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi who is on trial in Myanmar on charges of violating state secrets. Sokhonn told reporters that Hun Sen brought up the case with Min Aung Hlaing after a request from Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and that he was optimistic about the situation.
“Hun Sen raised the issue with Min Aung Hlaing directly and he responded that the case is now before the court but he said that once it is completed, the senior general will consider the case. That means he promised that he would get back to Hun Sen with positive news,” he said.
But there is no reason to think that the military junta is any more willing to compromise on issues of substance under Cambodia’s chairmanship than it was under Brunei’s, nor that its pledges toward the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus are anything more than cost-free gestures masquerading as concessions.
Ong Keng Yong, a Singaporean diplomat and former ASEAN Secretary General, told Kyodo News that the effective purpose of Hun Sen’s trip was to produce a pretext for Myanmar’s foreign minister to be invited to ASEAN’s upcoming foreign ministers’ meeting on January 18 and 19. “The statement they issued is full of words but nothing substantive to resolve the current political crisis regarding Myanmar,” he said.
For instance, the joint statement made no reference to jailed leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, nor to the National Unity Government (NUG) that represents the mainstream of the anti-coup resistance. Moreover, the junta’s promised ceasefire applies only to ethnic armed organizations, but not to the array of NUG-aligned civilian militias that are waging an armed struggle against the junta. If such a ceasefire with ethnic rebels were to go into effect – so far it has existed mostly on paper – it would effectively allow the junta to redeploy its forces against civilian insurgents and consolidate control.
Of course, looming behind all of this is the question of what a substantive outcome would look like in a context where contending factions are locked into a zero-sum struggle, with little interest in compromise. It is also unclear whether blocking the junta from attending ASEAN meetings will bring the Myanmar military any closer to meaningful concessions. Nevertheless, at the very least there is value in maintaining the collective decision-making process of ASEAN, in the interests of the bloc’s wider unity and cohesion. After all, Myanmar is not the only pressing issue facing the organization.
As Joanne Lin and Moe Thuzar of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute wrote on Saturday, the Cambodian approach of “dealing with Myanmar on the military’s terms” could well “undermine ASEAN’s collective approach.” This, they argued, would “not bode well for Cambodia’s stated aim of strengthening ASEAN’s unity and cohesiveness during its chairmanship.” Ultimately, the pair argued that ASEAN needs to establish a detailed roadmap for the implementation of its Five-Point Consensus on Myanmar, involving the United Nations and key foreign governments. Lacking such a road-map, they wrote, the rotating ASEAN Chairs, like Hun Sen, will “likely apply their own approaches.”