‘Cambodia Should Not Practice Cowboy Diplomacy’ on Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 10 February 2022

Cambodia is facing a tough year as ASEAN chair this year due to the prolonged civil war in Myanmar. Myanmar’s case will be at the top of the agenda for ASEAN leaders at the upcoming ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat, which is scheduled for Feb. 16-17 after being postponed from January due to the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Having endured its own civil war, Cambodia has offered to share its past experience with Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of the State  Administration Council (SAC), to help resolve the current crisis. In early January, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen paid a visit to Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who promised to extend a “ceasefire” throughout 2022. Hun Sen called on all parties concerned to halt all violence and exercise the utmost restraint.

However, citing a lack of progress in implementing ASEAN’s five-point consensus (5PC), Cambodia now says Myanmar can only send a “non-political representative” if it wants to attend the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat.

Sophal Ear, PhD, associate dean and associate professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University in the US, recently sat down with The Irrawaddy to discuss the impact on the Myanmar crisis of Cambodia’s current role as ASEAN chair.

Sophal Ear

The Irrawaddy: Given that Myanmar will be at the top of ASEAN’s agenda this year, and with the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat kicking off soon, what do you think about Cambodia’s involvement in this issue?  

Sophal Ear: As chair of ASEAN, Cambodia should listen, not dictate. In 2012, Cambodia used its chairmanship to spoil ASEAN by blocking consensus. This year, Cambodia acted like an autocrat, which again caused chaos. Cambodia should not practice cowboy diplomacy. I believe the other members of ASEAN have already succeeded in reining in Cambodia because the authorities just announced that the [retired colonel] who is the foreign minister of Myanmar [Wunna Maung Lwin] will not be invited. “Since there is little progress in the implementation of the 5-Point Consensus, ASEAN member states find it hard to reach a consensus to invite Myanmar State Administration Council’s foreign minister to participate in the retreat. Thus, we have asked Myanmar to send a non-political representative instead,” Cambodian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Chum Sounry said. Finally, it seems, Cambodia has been cornered into listening. I’m hoping Cambodia will keep listening.

In early January, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen paid a visit to Myanmar, disappointing other ASEAN member states. Do you see anything behind the visit? Did it have a personal purpose? 

Did the good prime minister meet with the opposition leader in Cambodia? Of course not. So is it any surprise he will spurn his real counterpart in Myanmar? This is “The Lady” [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] who used to be on stage with him at ASEAN meetings. How can this be? Should a coup be legitimized like this? It should not be. Cambodia has no credibility when it comes to democracy. Of course the prime minister wants to embrace the Myanmar generals: They are, as the Thais say, “Same same, but different.”

After the visit, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing agreed to a ceasefire, however just over a week later there were clashes. Then, Hun Sen wrote on his Facebook page that he will not step in again if Myanmar’s leader continues to break his promises over the ceasefire. What is your take on that?

Precisely. Why reward those who break their word? Their word is their bond! Why did Hun Sen even give away diplomatic recognition for nothing in return? It’s like [former US President Donald] Trump going to meet [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un. What did he get? Nothing. Just like Trump, Hun Sen is a “peacemaker”.

ASEAN has established the 5PC on Myanmar. Did the visit of Prime Minister Hun Sen breach that principle? 

Yes, it rewarded the generals even though they showed no progress towards the five key points consensus. Not even one point improved. Again, why give away the store?

Recently, Phnom Penh announced that Myanmar can send a non-political representative to the upcoming ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Cambodia if they don’t want to leave the seat empty. Will Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing agree to that?

Cambodia has returned to the consensus, but don’t hold your breath. I think Hun Sen will use his role as chairman to once again take ASEAN on a rollercoaster. It’s obvious he has no intention of being a consensus-driven chairman. He will shoot from the hip, like a cowboy diplomat.

If his trip to Myanmar had resulted in a breakthrough in which the generals made real, measurable progress towards the five key points, then that would be one thing. Just release and pardon Aung San Suu Kyi. Hun Sen should look at his own house before going to fix someone else’s house: How about he releases and pardons Kem Sokha, Sam Rainsy and the many other opposition politicians and political prisoners he holds?

I think it’s good Cambodia will only allow nonpolitical representation of Myanmar. This is consistent with the five key points consensus as previously agreed. No progress, no generals.

How will Cambodia bring Myanmar back into ASEAN if other members continue to reject it for failing to implement the 5PC?

Cambodia is trusted by the generals in Myanmar because Cambodia is also jailing its opposition leader, so in that sense, they are both traveling the same journey. Myanmar, I am sure, would love to be treated like Cambodia, where it can do what it wants but not be punished. The other members of ASEAN who reject Myanmar can maybe get Cambodia to do things they would not be willing to do themselves. They can use Cambodia to send messages to Myanmar. Cambodia can be a messenger. It should not, however, send a message that is not ASEAN’s, pretending that it came from ASEAN. Cambodia should not masquerade as though it represents ASEAN. The views of Cambodia are theirs alone and do not represent the views of ASEAN.


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