Updated at 4:00 p.m. ET on 2022-01-04
The Myanmar junta’s spokesman indicated Tuesday that the Burmese regime would not allow Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to meet with detained pro-democracy leaders during his visit to the country later this week.
Analysts, however, said Hun Sen would undermine efforts by the ASEAN bloc to press the Burmese junta into putting Myanmar back on a democratic path, if he failed to meet pro-democracy leaders on his Jan. 8-9 trip – the first by a foreign leader since the military coup last February.
“[O]nly those who represent political parties would be able to meet and discuss, but there are limitations for those who are still facing legal charges,” junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun told RFA, with which BenarNews is affiliated.
He was referring to charges, among others, of importing walkie-talkies, inciting dissent and breaking COVID-19 rules against State Counselor and National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi as well as ousted President Win Myint.
The junta had similarly not allowed the former ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar to meet with democracy leaders last year.
Zaw Min Tun did not elaborate on whether Hun Sen had asked to meet with top NLD leaders, including Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi. And when RFA asked him about it, Koy Koung, the spokesman for Cambodia’s foreign ministry, said he did not have information about whether Hun Sen would meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.
‘He must not endorse what is happening in Myanmar’
Hun Sen’s visit comes only two months after ASEAN shut out the Burmese junta from its main summit in 2021 for reneging on a promise to allow access to all parties in the current political impasse.
Many pro-democracy Burmese are outraged that Hun Sen is visiting the junta and, according to them, conferring legitimacy on the country’s military chief, whose forces stand accused of committing widespread atrocities since the coup.
Khit Thit Media, one of the five major independent news media outlets that were banned by the junta last March, posted photographs of Burmese stomping on pictures of Hun Sen.
Other outlets posted photos of protesters with a message on placards for Hun Sen: “Don’t Support the Killing Fields in Myanmar.”
They were alluding to the Cambodian genocide when as many as 1.7 million people died under the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, according to researchers at Yale University.
Meanwhile, a joint statement issued on Tuesday by close to 200 civil society groups in Myanmar and abroad condemned Hun Sen for his planned visit.
ASEAN and the United Nations General Assembly have backed the Five-Point Consensus, and “must ensure that Hun Sen does not act alone in 2022 – lending legitimacy to the Myanmar military junta and further emboldening them to cause more harm to the people,” the groups said.
“This would be an insult to the people of Myanmar and Cambodia and further jeopardizing ASEAN’s already-diminishing credibility during the Cambodia tenure as chair of ASEAN in 2022.”
Engagement with Myanmar should involve “making contact with all relevant actors,” including the National Unity Government – the parallel civilian government body – said Muhammad Arif, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Indonesia.
“What ASEAN is aiming with its policy to isolate the junta diplomatically is to inflict some political cost on the junta,” Arif told BenarNews about the bloc headquartered in Jakarta.
“If Hun Sen engages exclusively with the junta, it would only undo this effort.”
In Malaysia, a former foreign minister said it was imperative that Hun Sen makes clear that what is happening in Myanmar is not acceptable to ASEAN. He was referring to the Feb. 1, 2021 military coup and the nearly 1,400 people – mostly pro-democracy protesters – killed by Burmese security forces since then.
“He must not endorse what is happening in Myanmar as its own internal and domestic affairs,” Syed Hamid Albar, also a former envoy to Myanmar from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, told BenarNews.
“It is important that Hun Sen in his engagement with Myanmar reflect both the ASEAN and international sentiments on what is happening in Myanmar. … His visit must not undermine ASEAN’s collective position vis-à-vis the coup,” he said.
Hun Sen: under-the-table negotiations ‘are best’
Hun Sen has said nothing about the post-coup killings in Myanmar so far.
Last week, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn told Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, the new United Nations special envoy on Myanmar, that Phnom Penh was committed to taking “a practical step-by-step approach toward achieving progress on the implementation of the ASEAN five-point consensus.”
Last April, Burmese junta chief Min Aung Hlaing and leaders of ASEAN member-states reached a five-point consensus that aimed to set Myanmar back on the path to democracy. The consensus called for an end to violence, the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to Myanmar and access to all sides in the conflict to that envoy.
Myanmar has reneged on all these points.
In late 2021, the 10-member bloc barred Min Aung Hlaing from attending its annual summit in October for not living up to his promises. Since then, Myanmar has been absent from two other top-level meetings.
Hun Sen, at first, said Myanmar was to blame for being excluded from the ASEAN summit. But he changed his rhetoric soon after he received the ceremonial gavel for the revolving chairmanship of ASEAN.
“It is not up to ASEAN to resolve this issue. ASEAN is here to help, but Myanmar needs to solve its own problems by itself,” the Cambodian PM said on Dec. 15.
“It is important for me to meet Myanmar’s [military] leaders, but under-the-table negotiations are the best and most fruitful approach for us to take. Don’t disturb me, just give me time,” he said.
News of two bombs exploding near the Cambodian embassy in Naypyidaw on Dec. 31 also has not fazed Hun Sen, with the foreign ministry spokesman saying the visit would go ahead as planned.
Some critics had expected no less of the strongman who, they said, had used ASEAN to legitimize his authoritarian government. They noted that the pro-China leader had, as ASEAN chairman in 2012, been accused of siding with Beijing and preventing the bloc from reaching an agreement on the disputed South China Sea.
Still, according to Arif of the University of Indonesia, through this upcoming trip to Myanmar, Hun Sen may be trying to erase the memory of Cambodia’s 2012 chairmanship.
“Apparently Hun Sen doesn’t want to repeat the same mistake and wants to make his mark this time. Cambodia’s engagement with Myanmar can be seen in this context. But he should not depart too far from ASEAN’s collective stance,” Arif said.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he speaks during an event at the Morodok Techo National Stadium, in Phnom Penh, Sept. 12, 2021. [Reuters]
According to an ASEAN parliamentarian from Malaysia, many of the bloc’s member-states would be unhappy with Hun Sen’s plan to visit Myanmar.
“If [Hun Sen] is going there representing ASEAN, he should inform all the ASEAN countries and get [their] endorsement but until now all the countries have not been informed or even endorse[d] his visit,” Charles Santiago, chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, told BenarNews.
Government officials from the Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand – all founding members of ASEAN – declined to comment for this report.
As far as political analyst Dinna Prapto Raharja is concerned, Hun Sen is indeed going to Naypyidaw as an ASEAN representative, because Cambodia is the new holder of the rotating ASEAN chair and Myanmar is a member of the 54-year-old bloc.
“The key is who will Hun Sen meet? I’m almost certain he’ll meet with the military junta,” Dinna, founder of Indonesian think-tank Synergy Policies, told BenarNews.
“If Hun Sen meets with the military junta and not with the representatives of NUG, he’d send the wrong message to the Myanmar junta on ASEAN’s intent and the five-point consensus agreed on.”
The ASEAN parliamentarians group is not confident that Hun Sen will represent ASEAN sentiments.
“Cambodian PM Hun Sen is willing to split ASEAN like he did in 2012. This time over legitimizing accused war criminals [the] Myanmar junta,” APHR said in a tweet on Tuesday.
“Is this the beginning of the end for ASEAN?”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar and Khmer services contributed to this report.