Concerns Over Hun Sen’s Aims Ahead of ASEAN Chair’s Visit

By The Irrawaddy 5 January 2022

Later this week, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will fly into Myanmar, which has been riddled with violence since a military coup last year.

But he holds out hope of a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis in the country as he prepares for a visit on Jan. 7 in a bid to bring Myanmar back into the fold of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The country was isolated by the bloc last year, especially over junta boss Min Aung Hlaing’s failure to keep his promise to the group to implement a peace plan.

During the visit, Hun Sen will meet with top junta leaders including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. But will he be able to meet Myanmar’s political icon and most famous prisoner, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?

The Myanmar junta’s spokesman said on Tuesday that the regime would not allow Hun Sen to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit to the country.

“[O]nly those who represent political parties are allowed to meet and hold discussions, but there are limitations on those who are still facing legal charges,” junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun told RFA. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained since the first day of the coup last February and faces junta lawsuits that many see as politically motivated.

Before his departure to Myanmar, Hun Sen said on Wednesday in Phnom Penh he had not set any pre-conditions before his visit, but said his aims were not far from the five-point consensus or the peace plan.

He called on all observers not to make any early conclusions on the outcome of his visit to Myanmar. 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, he underlined, according to the Cambodian state news agency, AKP.

The prime minister said that while his return was scheduled for the afternoon of Jan. 8, it could be delayed if there is any fruitful outcome on the Myanmar’s crisis.

However, Myanmar citizens worry that Hun Sen’s visit will lend legitimacy to the regime, as he will be the first foreign leader to meet the ruling generals, who have been globally denounced for their brutality against their own people, including the killings of more than 1,300 people for opposing their rule.

It’s not surprising to see outrage on social media over Hun Sen’s visit as the regime continues to arrest and kill people and burn down villages where armed resistance has been taking place.

Many also question Hun Sen’s engagement with the regime, saying he should be making contact with all key actors in Myanmar including the National Unity Government, a shadow civilian government.

A joint statement issued on Tuesday by 200 civil society groups in Myanmar and abroad condemned Hun Sen for his planned visit.

Last April, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing and leaders of ASEAN member states agreed 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—with access to all sides in the conflict—and the delivery of humanitarian assistance. But the regime’s leader failed to honor the consensus, prompting ASEAN to exclude him from its summit in October last year.

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 civil society groups said.

Last week, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn told Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, 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.”

According to The Phnom Penh Post, Hun Sen at first said Myanmar had itself to blame for being excluded from the ASEAN summit. But he changed his rhetoric soon after receiving 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,” Hun Sen 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.

Two bombs recently exploded near the Cambodian Embassy in Myanmar, hurting no one. The blasts have not fazed Hun Sen, however, with the Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman saying the visit would go ahead as planned.

Hun Sen spoke to Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Tuesday and they discussed the Myanmar issue.

The Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation also issued a press statement on the outcome of the telephone conversation between Hun Sen and Jokowi.

“The two leaders also exchanged views on the current developments in Myanmar and underscored the important need to focus ASEAN’s efforts to assist Myanmar in finding suitable solutions to achieving national reconciliation, durable peace, stability and development,” it said.

Ro Vannak, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said the meeting between Hun Sen and Jokowi—taking place mere days before the Myanmar trip—was a form of public diplomacy that showed there was solidarity within ASEAN toward all of the parties to the conflict within Myanmar and beyond.

Vannak said Hun Sen places a high value on Indonesian input in any discussion on regional issues because Jakarta has played an important role as mediator and facilitator in regional conflicts in the past.

Now, he said, Hun Sen may need the full backing of Indonesia if his trip to Myanmar is to go smoothly and bear fruit. His call with Jokowi may have been intended to shore up that support, Vannak said.

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