Guest Column

Hun Sen Juggles Global, Regional Politics

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 9 November 2022

Who could have imagined that the world’s longest reigning prime minister, Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen—or Prime Minister Hun Sen, as he is more commonly known—would stand in the front row defending Ukraine against Russia as the biggest war in Europe since World War II rages on?

On top of that, Hun Sen still has to juggle the Myanmar quagmire and the 17th East Asia Summit, not to mention messy domestic politics in between.

This will be Hun Sen’s third summit, and presumably his last, a rare act for any ASEAN leader to follow. Apart from meeting with his colleagues on Nov. 11, he will have two full and tightly scheduled days on Nov. 12 and 13, with the eyes of the whole world on him and his country.

Truth be told, his international profile has been the subject of foreign scrutiny and analysis, especially this year with Cambodia serving as ASEAN chair. This time around Hun Sen has the biggest fish to fry, so he has to deploy all his political and diplomatic finesse with leaders from the US, China, and Russia among others, who will shape the region and global trajectory in years to come.

Hun Sen has been quick to seize upon the war in Ukraine and astutely take advantage of the conflict to demonstrate to the world that once war-torn Cambodia’s independence must not be likewise taken for granted. Most importantly, Phnom Penh’s strong support for the respect of national sovereignty, especially of a smaller nation bordering bigger countries, rests on its recent history. It was interesting the way Cambodia positioned itself on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its votes at the United Nations.

His country’s votes favoring the liberal West, albeit without calling for political sanctions, were praised by the global community much to the chagrin of its former Indochinese members and Russia, a former patron prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

To up the ante on Ukraine, Hun Sen and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky had a telephone conversation last week. He expressed concern over the recent attack on Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine.

“Cambodia is against the aggression, the threat of or use of force over sovereignty and the territory of an independent state, and does not support the succession or the annexation of territory by other countries,” he said.

The whole conversation was released and printed in the media. The message was clear and simple: Ukraine, for the time being, we are with you all the way. Doubtless, he was invited by Zelensky to visit Ukraine in the future. In return, Zelensky was invited to give a video speech to the ASEAN summit.

Under the Cambodian chairmanship, ASEAN issued three joint statements in support of Ukraine.

In addition, the chair encouraged Ukraine to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), the regional code of conduct with 51 signatories from all corners of the world.

This is an important move within the ASEAN community to show Ukraine as a sovereign state. For this purpose, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba will visit Phnom Penh on Saturday to sign the TAC along with Spain. Kyiv also has expressed the desire to become the bloc’s sectoral dialogue partner. An ASEAN consensus is needed for admission.

Of late, it has been clear that Hun Sen has shifted his focus to Ukraine and the immediate ASEAN-related summit instead of Myanmar.

In the beginning, he was so confident that he could make a difference in Myanmar with the military junta given his sincerity and experience in the 13-year Cambodian conflict.

But Hun Sen was a bit unrealistic as he found out later as the junta leaders in Naypyitaw not only ignored his pragmatic advice but also repeatedly rejected requests by his special envoy, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, to meet with all stakeholders including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and to release some political prisoners.

At the first ASEAN special meeting on Myanmar last April in Jakarta, Hun Sen was the only ASEAN leader who spoke out, telling his Myanmar colleague empathically that ASEAN could help end the conflict and bring normalcy back to the besieged country in much the same way as ASEAN had once assisted Cambodia.

He also reminded Myanmar that at that time Cambodia was not even a member of ASEAN. Phnom Penh joined ASEAN in October 1997, making it the last nation to join the union to date.

In August, he gave another strong push by writing to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing asking for an amnesty for four activists sentenced to death, but the senior general still went ahead with the executions.

Unfazed, on Aug. 19, Hun Sen again penned a long personal letter, his last, to the leader urging him to respond to the five-point consensus (5PCs), which the senior general agreed with the ASEAN members.

If he failed to do so, Hun Sen warned, his ASEAN colleagues might ban Myanmar from all meetings and recognize the National Unity Government (NUG).

He called the senior general “brother”, and the letter’s tone was friendly. He made clear that before Prak Sokhonn’s third scheduled visit, there needed to be some substantial progress that would warrant bringing Myanmar back into the ASEAN family again.

But his letter was once again ignored. Prak Sokhonn’s trip was subsequently further postponed. Under the media’s radar, the chair’s task force team has visited Myanmar five times but returned with reports of no progress.

Personally, Hun Sen has been intrigued by political developments in Myanmar due to the long military conflicts there.

Seven days after assuming the ASEAN chair, Hun Sen went to Naypyitaw and sincerely hoped that his experience in the Cambodian conflict would serve as valuable lessons as well as a rough roadmap for the junta leaders in Myanmar to pursue regarding conflict prevention and a peace process.

With the chairmanship of ASEAN coming to an end, he has now realized that the Myanmar situation is an entirely different ballgame. Throughout the past 314 days, Hun Sen has been patient and has waited for breakthroughs in Myanmar. But it has been like waiting for Godot. Most importantly, Hun Sen’s trust in the State Administration Council (SAC) disappeared after his appeal to save the four activists was bypassed.

At the end of October, during the special foreign ministerial meeting in Jakarta and subsequent consultation, some ASEAN members wanted to ban Myanmar from all meetings.

Indeed, Cambodia has tried in vain to ensure that Myanmar would not be further isolated, except for some key ministerial meetings. However, some other ASEAN members have insisted on being strict with Myanmar with two members calling for Myanmar’s membership to be suspended.

When ASEAN leaders meet on Nov. 11, they might agree to ban Myanmar from all meetings, short of a complete suspension, and leave it open for individual members to initiate contact with the NUG.

Malaysia has been quite open about meetings with NUG representatives while others have done the same but so far have been quiet about them.

As chair of the East Asia Summit on Nov. 13, Hun Sen must demonstrate his diplomatic finesse in engaging all EAS leaders, especially the US and Russian leaders. He must navigate discussions in ways that will not disrupt the integrity and centrality of ASEAN.

Given the polarization that has plagued the international community since the Ukraine war started, there will be walkouts and statements of condemnation from Ukraine’s supporters.

Hun Sen must walk a fine line in stressing the desire of ASEAN to see peace prevail and humanitarian assistance quickly delivered to the Ukrainian people. That has been the group’s position all along.

For Hun Sen, the ASEAN chair and the ASEAN-related summit have been a good political distraction and a great opportunity to show his other side—his ability to play with the big league.

Once the big event ends, Cambodian political conundrums and dramas that have been swept under the carpet will likely resurface once again.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

This story first appeared in The Bangkok Post.