Hun Sen's diplomatic test in Myanmar

Hun Sen's diplomatic test in Myanmar

As chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for 2022, Cambodia seems keen to lead the 10-member bloc to help tackle the ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for nearly four decades through regular crackdowns on opponents and critics, has vowed to engage directly with the junta to restore peace in military-ruled Myanmar.

He made the pledge during a visit to Phnom Penh last week by Wunna Maung Lwin, the junta-appointed foreign minister, which some observers say amounted to the recognition by Cambodia of an illegitimate government.

After the meeting, Hun Sen confirmed he would travel to Myanmar on Jan 7-8 to engage in "quiet diplomacy" with the junta and meet General Min Aung Hlaing, who led the Feb 1 coup that ousted the elected civilian government.

The planned visit would make Hun Sen the first national leader to visit the country since the military takeover. "If I don't work with the leadership, whom can I work with?" he asked rhetorically.

Few countries have recognised Myanmar's military, and the UN General Assembly last Monday delayed action on the generals' request to take Myanmar's seat. Kyaw Moe Tun, the ambassador appointed by the former government, remains in his post for now.

Myanmar has been in turmoil for months, with widespread street protests and the emergence of an armed resistance. The death toll from the military's crackdown on protesters has exceeded 1,300 with more than 10,000 political prisoners arrested, rights groups estimate.

In his speech, Hun Sen also said he would press for junta officials to be invited to Asean meetings. "It's a family member of Asean; they must have the rights to attend meetings."

The junta was barred from the Asean Summit in late October after months of frustration with the generals' flouting of the five-point consensus agreed at a special summit in April. It called for dialogue involving "all parties", an end to violence, and granting an Asean special envoy full access -- none of which the junta has shown any interest in implementing.

Hun Sen's eagerness for engagement, however, appears to mark a change in tone. Only two months ago, he suggested Myanmar's current rulers had only themselves to blame for being frozen out of the summit.

"By the time Cambodia becomes chair of Asean next year, I do not know if Myanmar will continue this issue," he said at the time. "Now we are in the situation of Asean-minus-one. That is not because of Asean but because of Myanmar herself."

But his latest statements make it unlikely that Asean over the coming year will take stronger steps to isolate the junta amid growing pressure from international community following the first prison sentences handed down by a junta-appointed court against former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Many more charges are yet to be heard, as the regime aims to shut the Nobel laureate out of politics forever.

Hun Sen's willingness to work with the junta possibly reflects his perception of himself as a peacemaker, but it could weaken the fragile diplomatic progress Asean had made.

"Since Asean operates by consensus, the Cambodian leader will be able to block any proposed Myanmar policies in 2022," Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in World Politics Review.

And while Malaysia, Indonesia and others have said they want electoral democracy reinstated in Myanmar, Cambodia's one-party government has no commitment to democracy, human rights or any other such principles. The country is once more facing an arms embargo and new export restrictions imposed by the US, citing rights abuses and corruption, amid the growing influence of China's military.

China has so far declined to condemn the junta but is growing increasingly fed up with the Tatmadaw's inability to control the country and protect Chinese investments. Cambodian leaders, meanwhile, have little personal interest in Myanmar, lacking strong historical ties or significant trade with the country.

The junta is well seasoned in playing for time, bogging Asean and others down in endless negotiations around the minutiae of engagement while offering no meaningful concessions. Nonetheless, a failed or even stagnant Cambodian chairmanship will only allow the Myanmar crisis to fester and undermine Asean's image.

Constructive engagement is required to prevent Asean's further decline. And though members have different political agendas, the bloc must resolve this regional issue through mutual respect.

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