On January 27, the government-aligned Khmer Times newspaper published an opinion piece defending Cambodia’s engagement with Myanmar.
It counters criticism that Cambodia created rifts within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after it assumed the chairmanship of the group in October 2021.
The author, Phnom Penh-based political analyst and commentator Leap Chanthavy, claims that ASEAN has been divided since Myanmar’s February 2021 military coup. But that is not Cambodia’s fault, he argues:
“ASEAN is divided over Myanmar is true, but Cambodia is dividing ASEAN over Myanmar is false.”
While it is true that ASEAN has never shown complete unity over the Myanmar military’s takeover, it is misleading to say that Hun Sen has not created division within the association.
ASEAN, an economic and political union of 10 Southeast Asian countries – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – has sought to end the bloodshed that erupted in Myanmar following the coup.
In April 2021, ASEAN put forward a Five-Point Consensus on Myanmar. It calls for a cessation of violence, constructive dialogue, the delivery of humanitarian assistance, the appointment of a special envoy to facilitate mediation and dialogue, and access for that special ASEAN envoy to "meet with all parties concerned.”
Myanmar was excluded from an October 2021 ASEAN meeting for failing to make progress on the ASEAN peace plan.
Hun Sen, meanwhile, appeared intent on engaging Myanmar without meeting those preconditions.
In January, Hun Sen was the first foreign leader to visit Myanmar since the military overthrew its democratically elected government. During that visit, Hun Sen met with Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing. But he made no effort to meet members of the political opposition.
Cambodia Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said his country would be taking "different approaches” to the Myanmar crisis, Reuters reported.
Prak Sokhonn was recently appointed ASEAN’s envoy to Myanmar. He appeared to criticize the former ASEAN envoy to Myanmar, Brunei’s Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, who refused to visit Myanmar without receiving guarantees he would be able to meet with the country’s ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi was hit with an additional four-year prison sentence on January 10, just days after Hun Sen’s visit.
Critics accused Hun Sen of giving legitimacy to Myanmar’s military rulers – an accusation he denied. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore also pushed back against his approach.
On January 12, Cambodia postponed the first ASEAN meeting under Cambodia’s chairmanship, scheduled for January 18-19.
That cancellation was in part chalked up to concerns over COVID-19. But analysts said Cambodia's tentative plan to invite the Myanmar junta’s foreign minister played a part in scuttling the meeting, the Voice of America and other media reported.
Abdul Kadir Jailani, director general for Asia, the Pacific and Africa at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, partially confirmed that.
Apart from concerns over the Omicron variant, Abdul Kadir said many things needed to be “ironed out” within ASEAN “in order to come to a common stand on the issue of Myanmar’s representation,” Voice of America’s sister news organization Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.
Cambodia says the meeting has been rescheduled for February 16-17.
For example, the Jakarta Post newspaper’s editorial board said that Hun Sen had “reportedly asked all ASEAN member states to allow the junta to attend the group’s meeting on Myanmar’s behalf.”
That ran counter to the positions of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore.
Two days before Hun Sen’s Myanmar visit, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo told Hun Sen in a phone call that Myanmar had no choice but to implement the Five-Point Consensus.
Shortly after the ASEAN meeting was canceled, Abdul Kadir reaffirmed Jokowi’s position. Abdul Kadir said he hoped “the Cambodian chairmanship can consistently implement what has been agreed [to] in previous ASEAN meetings” regarding the Five-Point Consensus, RFA reported.
On January 15, Singapore’s Foreign Ministry released a statement saying only “a non-political representative from Myanmar” should be invited to any ASEAN meeting until there is “significant progress” in implementing the consensus.
That statement added that Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong “hoped that Cambodia would consider his views and those of other ASEAN Leaders.”
Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah was more direct, stating explicitly that not all members of ASEAN were on board with Hun Sen’s Myanmar visit.
“There are people who think that he should not have taken the visit because his visit has been construed or interpreted as a recognition of the military in Myanmar,” RFA quoted Saifuddin as saying.
“Malaysia is of the opinion that he has the right to visit Myanmar as the head of government of Cambodia. However, we also feel that because he has already assumed the chair of ASEAN, he could have probably consulted the other ASEAN leaders and sought our views as to what he should do if he were to go to Myanmar,” Saifuddin added.
Leap Chanthavy said it was “false” to say Myanmar had not consulted other ASEAN member states prior to Hun Sen’s Myanmar visit.
During a January 21 phone call between Hun Sen and Jokowi, Hun Sen called Saifuddin “arrogant,” accusing him of making inappropriate comments and “disrespect[ing] the ASEAN chair by using undiplomatic language and [showing] a lack of courtesy.”
On January 26, Cambodia’s National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, also strongly rebuked Charles Santiago, chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
Santiago had earlier accused Hun Sen of “cowboy diplomacy” and “sabotaging” ASEAN’s position in the Five-Point Consensus over his Myanmar visit.
“Without a doubt, only an evil-minded person and his/her clique would under the pretext of human rights dare to turn their blind eyes to the goodwill and deliberate efforts of Prime Minister Hun Sen to foster an environment for peace, reconciliation and unity as well to protect the life of the people in Myanmar,” the National Assembly said.
The National Assembly is completely dominated by Hun Sen’s Cambodia’s People’s Party.
Analysts have linked these “fissures” to Hun Sen.
Meantime, Hun Sen’s recent actions suggest he is realigning his position to that of the other ASEAN members.
In a January 25 video conference between Hun Sen and his Malaysian counterpart, Hun Sen said Myanmar’s military leader would be invited to an upcoming summit “if there is progress in implementing the five-point agreement,” a statement on his Facebook page read.
If not, Myanmar would be invited to send a non-political representative to the meeting, a position previously stressed by Singapore.
In a video call with Min Aung Hlaing the following day, Hun Sen called on Myanmar’s ruler to abide by the Five-Point Consensus and end violence in the country.
Speaking to Jokowi on January 21, Hun Sen said Myanmar had “two governments.” Voice of America reporter Chhengpor Aun tweeted that Hun Sen’s comment appeared to be his first public acknowledgement of the existence of the National Unity Government of Myanmar — Myanmar’s government in exile.
RFA also noted that statements on Hun Sen’s Facebook page called Min Aung Hlaing the “ ‘senior leader’ of Myanmar or chairman of the country’s State Administration Council, using the official name of the junta.”
That, RFA reported, was “noticeably different than the more deferential tone” after Hun Sen’s January visit.