China Backs Cambodia’s Much Criticized Diplomatic Bid in Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 12 January 2022

China has expressed support for Cambodia’s divisive diplomatic initiative on Myanmar. Days after Prime Minister Hun Sen made his controversial visit to the Myanmar capital Naypyitaw, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China supports the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ efforts to resolve issues related to its neighboring country in accordance with the “ASEAN way,” and to successfully implement the bloc’s Five-Point Consensus. Myanmar and Cambodia are members of ASEAN.

He said, “China appreciates Myanmar’s readiness to create favorable conditions for ASEAN’s special envoy to fulfill his duty, and works toward effective alignment between Myanmar’s five-point roadmap and ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus. China will fully support Cambodia, the rotating chair of ASEAN, in playing an active role and making [an] important contribution to properly managing the differences among parties of Myanmar through political dialogue and restoring stability and achieving development at an early date.”

Analysts believe China is eager to restart its infrastructure projects in Myanmar.

Faced with record low foreign direct investment, Myanmar’s military regime is pushing China to restart several stalled infrastructure projects, including railways, ports and power projects, and to accelerate bilateral cooperation over the coming months.

In December, the junta’s Ministry of Information and Ministry of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations claimed that normalcy is returning to Myanmar. The junta ministers said in a statement that the implementation of several joint projects with China is a major priority, following the disruptions caused by the pandemic and recent social unrest.

However, Beijing remains wary about resuming full cooperation with Myanmar after the widespread anti-China protests that followed the regime’s Feb. 1 coup, and subsequent attacks on Chinese-owned factories in Yangon.

With Hun Sen breaking the international isolation of conflict-ridden Myanmar, China is looking for ways to restart its projects including the Kyaukphyu deep sea port and Special Economic Zone in Rakhine State.

During his two-day visit on Friday and Saturday last week, Hun Sen met with coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other leaders of the military junta for talks aimed at resolving the country’s tangle of political, economic and humanitarian crises.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who accompanied Hun Sen on the trip, said talks between Hun Sen and Snr-Gen 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 ASEAN.

Hun Sen’s trip to Myanmar provoked a storm of criticism both in Myanmar and abroad, however, for bestowing legitimacy on an illegitimate regime.

Sokhonn, who also serves as ASEAN’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, defended the trip, saying: “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.”

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 the regime in Myanmar. Last year, ASEAN, whose rotating chair was then held by Brunei, made a collective decision to exclude the junta leader from the bloc’s summit meetings for failing to implement the five-point consensus.

Coup leader Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing also promised that Prak Sokhonn 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.

Myanmar coup leader Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen exchange commemorative gifts at a state dinner in Naypyitaw on Jan. 7, 2022. / Cncds

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 Jan. 18 and 19. “The statement they issued is full of words but nothing substantive to resolve the current political crisis regarding Myanmar,” he said.

With China’s backing, Hun Sen is likely to invite Myanmar back into the ASEAN fold.

Informed ASEAN sources also said that Brunei, Cambodia and Indonesia—the latter will hold the rotating chair of ASEAN in 2023—will coordinate on the Myanmar issue.

Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo talked with Hun Sen before the latter’s Myanmar trip.

Soon after the phone conversation, the Indonesian leader wrote on his official Twitter account, “I reiterated clearly Indonesia’s position on the importance of implementation of 5-Point Consensus to bring democracy back in Myanmar through inclusive dialogue.”

“Should there be no significant progress on the implementation of 5PCs, Myanmar should only be represented by non-political level at Asean meetings,” he added.

Meanwhile, Hun Sen reportedly plans to invite the chairman of Japan’s Nippon Foundation to assist in a “peace plan” for Myanmar.

Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the philanthropic Nippon Foundation and Japan’s special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar, mediated peace talks between the military and armed ethnic minority groups in Myanmar for many years.

Known to be close to Min Aung Hlaing and seen as a “godfather” figure to the senior general, Sasakawa made a “personal visit” to Myanmar late last year to meet with the coup leader.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi also welcomed Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar.

In a phone call with his counterpart Sokhonn on Tuesday, Hayashi said he remained concerned about the violence in Myanmar, and welcomed Cambodia’s positive efforts to resolve the situation, according to an emailed statement from the Foreign Ministry. Hun Sen’s trip resulted in progress toward a ceasefire with ethnic minority groups and enabling humanitarian support, Hayashi added.

Meanwhile, India said it will coordinate with Cambodia over the Myanmar issue.

The pledge was made during a telephone conversation between Prak Sokhonn and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Jan. 10.

Following the conversation, Jaishankar tweeted: “We discussed Indian-ASEAN relations, Mekong-Ganges Cooperation and the situation in Myanmar, upon which I will be working closely with Cambodia in its capacity as ASEAN Chair.”

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