August 18, 2022

Hun Sen, as ASEAN Chair, Breaks the Ice in Myanmar

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — While Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen put the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Five-Point Consensus for peace in Myanmar back on the regional agenda during his two-day visit to the country, analysts said any agreement is unlikely to end the bloodshed that has engulfed the country since last February’s coup.
The consensus calls for an immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue among all the parties, mediation to be facilitated by an envoy of ASEAN’s chair with the assistance of the secretary-general, humanitarian assistance and a visit by the special envoy to Myanmar.
A communique issued after Hun Sen’s meeting reaffirmed the consensus. Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn told reporters “If Myanmar is in the midst of a civil war crisis, as we are concerned, it will have a devastating effect on our region, a bad reputation on ASEAN as well as ASEAN unity, so helping Myanmar is like helping ASEAN.”
Cambodia is this year’s ASEAN chair and Hun Sen’s visit, which started Friday, is the first state visit by a foreign leader to Myanmar since the coup after ASEAN failed to enforce the consensus.
Bradley Murg, distinguished senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said the process to date had been a failure, as shown by the continuing violence, but Hun Sen had created an opportunity to move the crisis out of its existing stalemate.
“The joint statement between both governments ticked the boxes, all of them, regarding the Five-Point Consensus,” he said following Hun Sen’s meeting with junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing.
“Now what that ultimately means, we’re not going to know immediately. We’re going to initially wait until the ASEAN foreign ministers retreat and see how this plays out and the reaction from the various ASEAN capitals,” he said.
The planned January 18-19 retreat in the northern Cambodian town of Siem Reap is an informal gathering of foreign ministers from the 10 ASEAN countries and is used to discuss issues facing the bloc.
Failure to enforce the consensus resulted in Min Aung Hlaing being denied entry to the October ASEAN summit and the ASEAN-China summit the next month.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian research group Future Forum, said Hun Sen got what he had asked for, and that included an extension by the military of a cease-fire agreement with ethnic groups until the end of this year.
However, Hun Sen did not meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, the jailed de facto leader of the former elected government.
That was a sticking point during the two-day visit, which was sharply criticized by human rights groups as legitimizing the military leadership and as a tool for Hun Sen to deflect criticism from his own human rights record and a harsh crackdown on dissent at home.
However, Ou Virak, said the meeting “seems to suggest” that the ASEAN special envoy, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, would eventually be allowed to negotiate with Suu Kyi and her supporters.
“It will be interesting and important to see whether Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition will be involved and invited to take part in a credible way. I think that’s the only way to make an effort in Myanmar legitimate.
“I would be very shocked and surprised if Cambodia would just accept not being able to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi,” Ou Virak said.
The visit was met with rowdy protests across Myanmar and by the diaspora abroad as Min Aung Hlaing rolled out the red carpet and an honor guard for Hun Sen.
Most ASEAN states have condemned the coup and the ensuing crisis, which has claimed more than 1,400 lives, including the massacre of more than 30 people in Kayah state on Christmas Eve while intensive attacks in Karen state continued throughout December.
The group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights also accused Hun Sen of threatening cohesion among its 10 members by “going rogue” in an attempt to bring Myanmar back into the ASEAN fold.
Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said the visit went against ASEAN policy, but as Hun Sen occupies the chair, he has “a sort of leeway” to act.
“To me there was a deeper agenda,” he said, noting Cambodia’s poor track record on human rights.
“But yes, ASEAN’s under pressure and he’s just picked up the mantle and he’s broken the ice. I mean he’s gone there, that’s just been done and there’s nothing ASEAN can do to turn it back,” he said. “He’s established the basis for a dialogue.”
Thayer also echoed Murg’s sentiments, saying the real test will arrive when ASEAN ministers begin their annual summits and whether or not Myanmar leaders will be allowed to attend, including possible meetings in Washington between ASEAN heads of state and U.S. President Joe Biden.
That meeting was expected to be held later this month but is yet to be confirmed.
Phil Robertson deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said Hun Sen was using Myanmar to deflect his own international criticism, which has intensified in recent years with the court dissolution of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party.
That enabled Hun Sen’s long ruling Cambodian People’s Party to win every seat contested at elections in 2018 and since then hundreds of CNRP supporters have been arrested and jailed alongside journalists, environmentalists and civil society activists.
“He [Hun Sen] wants to be left alone, he wants to be able to continue his dictatorial rule and if he has to use Myanmar as the foil, then, you know, that’s one of the perks of being the ASEAN chair,” Robertson said.

Source: Voice of America

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