Cambodia PM Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar benefits junta, not people: Analysts

Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar will do little to help the country’s people amid an ongoing political crisis that has led to hundreds of civilian deaths and thousands of arrests, analysts said Monday.

The Cambodian prime minister and chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Jan. 8 concluded a two-day trip to Myanmar, during which he met with junta chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to discuss international and regional issues. The visit marked the first by a foreign leader to the country since the military seized power in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup and came despite protests over what is seen as his support for the military regime and its repressive policies.

Following the meeting, the two sides released a statement that sought to highlight that the inclusion of a special envoy in talks to deescalate “tension” in Myanmar was an important step in meeting ASEAN’s so-called five-point consensus. Min Aung Hlaing agreed to the conditions during an emergency ASEAN meeting on Myanmar’s political crisis held in April, but the junta has failed to implement any of the steps and ASEAN has declined to invite its delegations to several high-profile meetings, including its annual summit.

On Monday, junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the junta had recently declared a year-long ceasefire with armed ethnic groups in the country’s remote border regions, and therefore “fulfilled the first of the five ASEAN recommendations,” which was to end all violence.

“We also agreed to give participation to both Cambodia and the ASEAN chair in talks with the [ethnic armies],” he said.

Since deposing the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) in February, junta forces have killed nearly 1,460 civilians and arrested more than 8,500 — mostly during nonviolent protests of military rule. The military also launched an offensive against armed ethnic groups and prodemocracy People’s Defense Forces militias in rural Myanmar, who the junta has labeled “terrorists.”

When asked whether Hun Sen had met with any of Myanmar’s prodemocracy leaders, including jailed NLD chief Aung San Suu Kyi — another condition of the five-point consensus — Zaw Min Tun said that the prime minister had “only met with the government during his visit.”

Political analyst Sai Kyi Zin Soe told RFA that Hun Sen only received the military’s side of the during his visit.

“The fact that Cambodia, the current chair of ASEAN, has a story to tell the ASEAN community from the visit, gives the junta a chance to rejoin ASEAN,” he said.

“On the other hand, our people did not get a chance to have their voices heard at a time when they are contesting with the military politically. This visit is not going to benefit the people of Myanmar at all, especially since it only involved the junta and not other parties or organizations that represent the people.”

Ye Tun, a former member of Myanmar’s Parliament, said Hun Sen’s stated goal was to get the junta to implement the ASEAN agreement but that the visit only benefitted Min Aung Hlaing, who has been ostracized by much of the international community.

“The conflict in Myanmar cannot be solved in a one-sided fashion — he must keep trying,” he said of Hun Sen. “Right now, [the junta] has profited politically. However, if there is no further progress, the ASEAN chair may be disappointed with [it].”

Implications for ASEAN

Kyaw Zaw Han, a political analyst, said Cambodia is likely to invite Myanmar to future ASEAN meetings following the visit.

“[Cambodia] was proud to get word from the military that there will be a ceasefire for the whole of 2022,” he said.

But he pointed out that the deal was inconsistent with the ASEAN five-point consensus as it appeared to only address conflict between the military and armed ethnic groups.

“What the military might get [in return] is that Cambodia can give [the junta] a voice in ASEAN. It is possible that [the junta] will be able to attend [future meetings], especially the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting scheduled for next month.”

Kyaw Htwe, a member of the NLD’s Central Working Committee, told RFA that although ASEAN’s rare tough stance on Myanmar provided a shot in the arm for prodemocracy groups in the country, Hun Sen’s visit was a disappointment.

“It is true that ASEAN’s stance on Myanmar over the past year has strengthened Myanmar's democracy, but it is hard to guess at this time what might come as we don’t know what Cambodia’s next move as ASEAN chair will be.”

Hun Sen lauds successful trip

On Monday, Hun Sen declared his diplomatic efforts a success, saying he had obtained three major outcomes from the talks: a ceasefire, humanitarian aid to all parties, and the agreement to allow ASEAN Special Envoy to Myanmar Prasat Khun to join ceasefire talks between the military and armed ethnic groups.

He said he had held a discussion with Min Aung Hlaing on the five-point consensus and the ASEAN Charter, governing the bloc’s jurisdiction over its 10 member nations.

“That is the Bible for me — I didn’t go beyond [what was agreed upon by] ASEAN,” he said, during an inauguration ceremony in Cambodia’s Battambang province.

Hun Sen vowed to continue to try to resolve Myanmar’s crisis.

“I have advised Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn to make efforts to coordinate with ASEAN to create two mechanisms, namely on the ceasefire and on the humanitarian issue,” he said.

He acknowledged that the crisis in Myanmar would not end during Cambodia’s term as the chair of ASEAN and that the responsibility to resolve it will likely fall to Indonesia when it takes over the post in 2023.

Cambodian observers weigh in

However, opposition activists in Cambodia dismissed Hun Sen’s visit as being part of a bid to legitimize the junta.

Hay Vanna, the head of the youth movement for Cambodia’s dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party in Japan, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Hun Sen’s visit brought “shame” to his country by ignoring bids by ASEAN and the international community to hold Myanmar’s junta to account.

He said the ceasefire was simply a ruse for Hun Sen to “protect the junta” because the prime minister had no intention of meeting the government’s opponents.

“We have already seen that the junta regime led by Min Aung Hlaing has never complied with what ASEAN wants, which is the five-point consensus,” he said.

Men Nath, a Sweden-based representative of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, told RFA that Hun Sen is incapable of resolving the political crisis in his own country, let alone the multifaceted one in Myanmar.

Hun Sen’s real intention is to lobby the international community to recognize and give legitimacy to Myanmar’s junta, but the plan would fail, Men Nath said.

“The result … is the complete opposite from the ASEAN mechanism for resolving the Myanmar issue,” he said. “What he has done by referring to the ASEAN mechanism is merely causing ASEAN to fracture.”

Asked whether Cambodia will invite Myanmar junta leaders or minister of foreign affairs to join the upcoming ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Cambodia on Jan. 17, Koy Koung, spokesman for Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry, told RFA to wait for an official ministry statement, which he said would be available “in days.”

At the conclusion of Hun Sen’s visit, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights issued a statement calling his meeting with Min Aung Hlaing “a brazen and dangerous attempt to seize the initiative away from ASEAN’s collective approach to the crisis in Myanmar.”

“These two coup makers are conducting another coup within ASEAN that threatens to split the organization itself,” the statement read, calling on the other eight members of the bloc to jointly demand that Cambodia adheres to the five-point consensus and works within the collective framework of ASEAN to resolve the crisis in Myanmar.

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