Guest Column

Cambodia: ASEAN’s Spoiler or Savior?

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 5 January 2022

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will be the Myanmar military’s first guest of honor in Naypyitaw this weekend. Whatever the outcome of his two-day trip, it will have both intended and unintended consequences for the future of the ASEAN process, especially the five-point consensus (FPC). For nearly a year since the coup on Feb. 1, ASEAN has assumed the role of peacemaker, going strictly by the book to ensure that the crisis in Myanmar would come to an end through the grouping’s agency and good practices.

After Brunei handed over the chair to Cambodia at the end of October, Hun Sen made it clear that he would like to see Myanmar’s top leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, return to the ASEAN fold and take part in upcoming ASEAN-related summits under his watch. ASEAN decided in mid-October to invite a senior non-political representative instead of its leader for their meetings after the junta had not fulfilled its pledges outlined in the FPC.

So far, the junta chief has missed two major gatherings—the 38th-39th ASEAN summits and the ASEAN-China special summit commemorating the 30th anniversary of their relations. The latter was a sore point as Myanmar is the current country coordinator for ASEAN-China ties. To ascertain the progress of the FPC, Hun Sen will not shy away from enhancing dialogue with Myanmar from the first day.

When the ASEAN leaders met in Jakarta for an emergency summit on April 24, Hun Sen was the only leader who spoke to and looked into the eyes of the junta leader, recommending that he take up the grouping’s assistance and citing his own experience with ASEAN as an example. Indeed, when it comes to ASEAN affairs and his 22-year engagement, it has to be said that the Cambodian leader knows ASEAN like the back of his hand. In the past eight weeks, his comments have caused trepidation and high anxiety among some ASEAN member countries and their supporters.

They believe that Hun Sen could be a spoiler who might ignore the ASEAN process and go his own way in engaging Myanmar. The 2012 faux pas remains the former ASEAN chair’s albatross. After all, Hun Sen had extensive and quite memorable engagements with ASEAN long before Cambodia joined ASEAN in October 1999—the last country to do so. ASEAN envisaged in 1997 having Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia come under one roof simultaneously.

As a veteran ASEAN politician, Hun Sen knows both the terrain and its pitfalls ahead of attempts to make headway with Myanmar. Doubtless, he will maximize his capacity as the ASEAN chair in proactive ways. After all, it will be his third chair and also his last before he retires from politics. During the Thai-Cambodian dispute over the Preah Vihear/Phra Viharn Temple in 2008, he single-handedly pushed the issue up to the UN Security Council for review. His multilateral diplomatic experience since the Paris days in the 1990s has furnished him with broad perspectives and maneuverability.

Naypyitaw reiterated earlier that a general election is scheduled for August 2023. That amounts to a 20-month deadline for all stakeholders to make peace in Myanmar. Like it or not, if all goes as planned, the State Administration Council (SAC) will eventually have to handle all the electoral preparations under the current 2008 constitution.

That helps explain partly why Hun Sen has been eager to visit Naypyitaw ahead of the scheduled ASEAN ministerial retreat in Siem Reap on Jan. 19. It is highly likely that Hun Sen will not return empty handed from Naypyitaw, although any trumpeted achievements will likely be accompanied by skepticism in equal measure. Hun Sen’s special envoy designate, Foreign Minister Prak Sokonn, will have something concrete and positive to report to his ASEAN colleagues at the retreat, who will assess his boss’ trip and determine whether it conforms to the ASEAN process. Consensus from all ASEAN members is needed before any further steps are taken.

Hun Sen is going to Naypyitaw on his own without any conditions. That is unlike the proposed visit of the previous ASEAN special envoy, Second Foreign Minister of Brunei, Erywan Yusof, who demanded to meet with the imprisoned opposition party leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, among others during his planned visit. Naypyitaw was not ready to comply with the request.

Months of wrangling failed to bring about the much-awaited visit. This time around, it is possible that Naypyitaw will permit Hun Sen to meet with representatives of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which could include Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other stakeholders. It depends on the optics Naypyitaw wants to project. If past history is any judge, the junta has been very expedient in coming up with unexpected moves.

Furthermore, the new ASEAN chair has succinctly said that he wants to work with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), the current power holders. His experience in engaging with ASEAN during the Cambodian conflict in the 1980s and early 1990s taught him that the real power brokers on the ground, especially in the dry season, determine the endgame. At this juncture, the Tatmadaw has intensified its assaults against armed ethnic groups and the resistance groups, consisting of People’s Defense Force groups and young fighters.

During the past three weeks, over 5,000 refugees from villagers in Karen State opposite Thailand’s Tak province crossed the Thai border. As of today, some remain in temporary shelters provided by provincial authorities instructed not to force them back. Thai military leaders have already fired warning shots to respond to stray bullets and artillery shells.

Given the current violent circumstances, the ASEAN chair will try to convince all conflicting parties to come to the negotiating table to kick off a series of political dialogues aimed at ending the current carnage. At the moment, it does not augur well as both sides still appear focused on war-making.

Having ruled Cambodia for nearly four decades, thanks to past ASEAN endeavors that helped to create a unique political environment for the country, Hun Sen has already designated his son, Hun Manet, as his political successor. Under his leadership, the country’s human rights record has long been criticized by Western aid donors. Nevertheless, despite many harsh words, none has severed ties with Cambodia, knowing full well its geostrategic value.

Now that the Cambodian People’s Party has endorsed Hun Manet as his successor, he can move on to the next level of engagement to put a regional stamp on his longstanding leadership. If ASEAN leaders support his approach and proposed plans, Hun Sen’s chair would be considered a success.

Then, he will leave the chair to the group’s most powerful member, Indonesia, to wrap up the loose ends, especially preparations for the democratic transition in Myanmar. Judging from the trajectory of predictable circumstances, Cambodia would prefer the role of savior to end the quagmire in Myanmar. We will find out sooner rather than later whether the region’s, if not the world’s, most versatile leader will be successful in his final act of political brinkmanship.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.

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