Cambodian PM Hun Sen meets Myanmar junta chief amid widespread protests

Cambodian Prime Minister and rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Hun Sen arrived in Myanmar Friday for a two-day visit and met with junta chief Snr. Gen Min Aung Hlaing, despite protests over what is seen as his support…

Cambodian Prime Minister and rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Hun Sen arrived in Myanmar Friday for a two-day visit and met with junta chief Snr. Gen Min Aung Hlaing, despite protests over what is seen as his support for the military regime and its repressive policies.

Hun Sen held an afternoon meeting with Min Aung Hlaing in the capital Naypyidaw, accompanied by five Cambodian Cabinet ministers, the deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces, two deputy ministers, and a team of delegates, a source within the junta said.

While details of the meeting were not immediately clear, the two sides issued a joint statement saying that the leaders had “discussed a number of bilateral and regional issues of common interest and concerns,” and that Min Aung Hlaing had agreed to allow ASEAN Special Envoy to Myanmar Prasat Khun to join ceasefire talks between the military and armed ethnic groups in the country’s border regions.

The statement emphasized that allowing the special envoy to join talks on “deescalating tension” is an “important step … in the ASEAN five-point consensus,” agreed to by Min Aung Hlaing during an emergency ASEAN meeting on Myanmar’s political crisis held in April.

It said that Min Aung Hlaing had “pledged full support … in fulfilling his mandate to implement the five-point consensus in accordance with the ASEAN Charter,” but pointed out that its implementation “should be complementary in realization of the five-point roadmap of the State Administration Council,” or junta.

Min Aung Hlaing initially signaled to ASEAN that he would end the violence in his country and allow the bloc to send an envoy to monitor the situation following the April meeting. But after months of failing to implement any steps to do so, relations between the two sides have frayed, with ASEAN choosing not to invite junta delegations to several high-profile meetings, including its annual summit.

Meanwhile, nearly 8,440 civilians have been arrested and 1,445 killed by junta authorities since the military carried out a Feb. 1 coup, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, mostly during non-violent protests of its rule.

The joint statement said the meeting also included agreements on providing humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, but efforts by RFA’s Myanmar Service to reach junta Deputy Information Minister Zaw Min Tun by telephone for more details went unanswered Friday.

Widespread protests

The visit — the first by a foreign leader since the coup — came amid widespread protests by activists who said it would do nothing for the people of Myanmar while conferring legitimacy on the junta, despite its failure to implement any of the five-point consensus measures.

On Wednesday, Hun Sen had dismissed the suggestion that he would be soft on Myanmar and that talks would center around Myanmar’s obligations. However, the same day, Chan Aye, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, attended an ASEAN Senior Officials’ Meeting to prepare for a summit later this month of ASEAN foreign ministers, suggesting that Cambodia is willing to include the junta in high-level deliberations of the bloc.

On Friday, as talks took place in Naypyidaw, protests were reported in the Sagaing region townships of Shwebo, Yinmabin, Kalay and Salingyi, as well as in Hpakant in Kachin state. Similar anti-Hun Sen protests were held in Mandalay in the Sagaing townships of Debayin, Kalay and Salingyi and in Tanintharyi region’s Launglon township over the past two days. Security was tight in the capital, after at least three explosions went off in the vicinity of the Cambodian Embassy in Yangon in recent weeks.

Hun Sen’s visit was also met with criticism from Myanmar’s Committee Representing the Pyihtaungsu Hluttaw, which called in a statement on Friday for the ASEAN chair to respect the prodemocracy efforts of Myanmar people.

Undermining ASEAN

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, called Hun Sen’s unanimous decision to meet with Min Aung Hlaing “an affront to the people of Myanmar” and “a slap in the face of the eight other ASEAN member states.”

“The other eight ASEAN countries should publicly demand an explanation from Hun Sen and make it clear that the majority of ASEAN states favor an approach that requires negotiations with all parties to the Myanmar conflict, not just the generals who launched the coup and led Myanmar into this unmitigated disaster of continuous conflict, violence and rights abuses,” Robertson said in a statement.

Other observers similarly said that Hun Sen’s visit would only embolden the junta’s repression of its own people.

“Both Hun Sen and Min Aung Hlaing are known for committing human rights violations in their respective countries. It is ridiculous that two men who are responsible for rights violations are engaging in talks, reportedly for peace, stability and inclusivity,” said Bo Hla Tint, the shadow National Unity Government’s ambassador to ASEAN.

“This is like meeting of two drug cartel lords who promised to work on drug eradication. We cannot expect anything from their meeting. It’s superficial and their talks will only serve their personal interests.”

Bo Hla Tint called on Hun Sen to demand the unconditional release of political prisoners in Myanmar if he wants to bring real change to the country.

Hunter Marston, a PhD candidate at Australian National University who researches Myanmar, said the visit suggests Hun Sen is trying to reset the ASEAN response to Myanmar’s crisis through his own political vision.

“I think Hun Sen is trying to engage directly with Min Aung Hlaing … to earn trust and try to facilitate talks his way. It is very clear that he sees himself as the problem solver here,” he said.

“I don't think he really cares much for Myanmar's democracy. To him I think he will try to win quick political points by bringing about the easiest solution that presents itself, which in all likelihood will be to cede some ground to military terms.”

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