Hun Sen's Myanmar gamble

Hun Sen's Myanmar gamble

I'm not a fan of Hun Sen, the strongman who has ruled Cambodia for more than 38 years. A co-premier from 1993-97 before seizing power in a 1997 coup, the Cambodian leader has won all subsequent elections while political rivals have been jailed or exiled and critical media crushed. His legacy appears secure now that his Cambodian People's Party has endorsed his eldest son, 44-year-old army commander Hun Manet, as "future prime minister".

Cambodia holds the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, and Hun Sen wasted no time making his mark by visiting Myanmar on Jan 7-8. It was the first visit by a head of government since the army overthrew the civilian administration on Feb 1 last year.

I initially agreed with critics who saw no fruitful result coming from his high-profile yet controversial visit to a country that has been plagued by unrest and violence as the Tatmadaw continues its crackdowns on opponents.

Perhaps we were right, as it was business as usual again last week in Myanmar. On Monday, a court sentenced ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi to another four years in jail on charges including possession of unlicensed walkie-talkies. The 76-year-old Nobel laureate has been detained since the coup and faces nearly a dozen cases that carry combined maximum sentences of more than 100 years in prison.

Elsewhere, airstrikes against ethnic minority groups have continued, undermining a so-called ceasefire, not to mention trust in the Myanmar military's commitment to the five-point consensus agreed with Asean last April. But Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, eager to create the appearance of action, declared after meeting with Hun Sen that he had extended the ceasefire, originally set to expire at the end of February, through the end of this year.

The junta leader also said he would assure a special Asean envoy to Myanmar that he could meet with "all parties" involved, including minority groups, according to Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who accompanied Hun Sen to Myanmar and is expected to take up the envoy's post. He will succeed Bruneian diplomat Erywan Yusof, who aborted a planned trip to Myanmar last October when the junta would not guarantee he could meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.

And just last Wednesday, Cambodia said it had postponed a meeting of Asean foreign ministers scheduled for this week, because some ministers had expressed "difficulties" in attending.

Prior to his trip to Myanmar, Prak Sokhonn indicated that Cambodia would likely invite junta officials to Asean meetings -- possibly starting with the foreign ministers' meeting. That was a reversal of Asean's unprecedented step last year of excluding the junta chief from its annual leaders' summit and other top-level discussions.

Hun Sen also brushed aside widespread criticism that his visit was legitimising the State Administration Council, as the junta calls itself. Some concerned officials even said the meeting outcome could divide Asean.

So far, only Japan has praised Hun Sen's trip. Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi pointed to the ceasefire extension and a pledge to enable humanitarian support.

Tokyo is concerned about the violence in Myanmar but wants to maintain close ties as part of a strategy of countering Chinese influence, and also to protect Japan's significant investments in industries ranging from consumer goods to banking.

The US Embassy in Myanmar, meanwhile, said Cambodia needs to press for adherence to the five-point consensus as well as a "meaningful" visit by the Asean special envoy.

While Asean's leaders have refrained for commenting about Hun Sen's proactive approach, the Cambodian strongman suggested that member states establish a "troika" consisting of representatives from Cambodia, Brunei and Indonesia that would be tasked with mediating a ceasefire in Myanmar.

"The [Myanmar] issue will not be over with by the end of 2022. It will continue into the term of the next Asean chair, Indonesia," the Phnom Penh Post quoted him as saying. The troika, he said, should be set up "for continuity purposes".

Clearly, there is no easy solution for Myanmar. Hun Sen may have scored a point in terms of getting a foot in the door and making direct contact with the military. Hopefully, he did the right thing by breaking the ice for Asean. This now must be followed by constructive dialogues and engagement to restore the status of the 10-member bloc as well as regional peace.

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