Days ahead of a visit to Myanmar as the new chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen switched tack and vowed to ensure the junta honors an agreement to end violence in the country nearly a year after it seized power in a coup.
Speaking during a ceremony on Wednesday to honor athlete Ouk Sreymom for her recent gold medal win at the 2021 World Petanque Championships, Hun Sen dismissed the suggestion that he would be soft on Myanmar, despite concerns that the trip — planned for Jan. 7-8 and the first by a foreign leader since the Feb. 1, 2021 coup — would confer legitimacy on the country’s military chief. Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s forces stand accused of committing widespread atrocities since the takeover.
“Please don’t blame the ASEAN chairman yet. Wait and see,” he said, adding that his agenda during the visit “will not be going far beyond the five-point consensus” that was agreed upon by the bloc’s 10 member states during an emergency meeting in April 2021 to discuss Myanmar’s political crisis.
“Nonetheless, I haven’t set preconditions for my visit. We will surely discuss the five-point consensus,” he added, referring to a planned meeting with Min Aung Hlaing to discuss bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
Hun Sen said he had no “hidden agenda” for his visit and that Cambodia only hopes to “ease the tension” in Myanmar, where nearly 8,400 civilians have been arrested and 1,437 killed by junta authorities since February, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, mostly during non-violent protests of the coup.
“The first point of our [ASEAN] consensus agreement is to remain ‘patient and end violence.’ This is what we want,” he said. He added that he would extend his visit to Myanmar if necessary to ensure that progress is made.
Hun Sen’s shift in tone comes a day after he held a phone exchange with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who later took to Twitter to offer his support for Cambodia’s chairmanship and to reiterate his country’s stance that, should Myanmar fail to honor its agreement and reinstate democracy through inclusive dialogue, it must “only be represented on the non-political level at ASEAN meetings.”
Neither Hun Sen nor Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry mentioned Joko Widodo’s comments in a statement that followed the call.
It also followed a joint statement by nearly 200 Cambodia- and Myanmar-based civil society groups condemning Hun Sen for showing support to the junta, and amid demands by Cambodian youth groups that he reconsider the trip and instead work on improving human rights and democracy in his own country.
No mention of opposition
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. However, after months of failing to implement any steps to do so, relations between the two sides have spiraled downwards, with ASEAN choosing not to invite junta delegations to several high-profile meetings, including its annual summit.
ASEAN’s previous special envoy to Myanmar, Brunei Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, attempted to travel to the country in October but was refused permission by the junta to meet with deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other prisoners.
Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed that Hun Sen plans to hold a bilateral meeting with Min Aung Hlaing during his visit but made no mention of whether the prime minister would seek to hold talks with Aung San Suu Kyi or leaders of Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG).
Myanmar’s junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Wednesday that he was unaware of whether Hun Sen had requested permission to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, who last month was sentenced by a military court to four years in prison over incitement and breaches of COVID-19 laws. The 76-year-old was arrested on the day of the coup along with President Win Myint and other NLD officials on 11 charges and faces a total of more than 100 years in prison.
“We have already said that he would meet all those concerned [but] it is not customary in any country to allow access to meet with those facing trial or detainees and prisoners,” he said.
Sasa, the NUG’s minister for international relations, questioned whether Hun Sen plans to represent ASEAN, Cambodia or his own interests during his visit to Myanmar.
“If he represents ASEAN, he must speak to the people of ASEAN. If he’s making the visit for the people of Myanmar, the Myanmar people must be involved. If he is there as a friend of … Min Aung Hlaing, he’s going to write his own history,” he said.
“People will not accept him if he’s there to just shake Min Aung Hlaing’s blood-soaked hand. It won’t be acceptable. If Cambodia really wants to improve the situation in Myanmar, it cannot do it alone, it must coordinate with other ASEAN members.”
Burmese political analyst Than Soe Naing told RFA that Hun Sen’s visit will mostly benefit the junta and do little for the people of Myanmar.
“If there’s anything special about Hun Sen's visit, it will be for those who support the policies of the junta,” he said.
“The rest of the people have nothing to gain from this visit because we have already seen that Hun Sen intends to try to get the junta chief back into ASEAN … our people do not welcome Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar.”
Cambodian political commentator Em Sovannara told RFA’s Khmer Service that if Cambodia insists on allowing Myanmar to rejoin ASEAN without making any significant progress on its April agreement, “there will surely be boycott decision” from bloc members.
He said that simply by meeting Min Aung Hlaing without any preconditions, Hun Sen had already overstepped his authority.
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