Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen meeting Myanmar’s military junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw on Jan 7, 2022. (Photo: Prime Minister Hun Sen / Facebook)

Hun Sen’s Cowboy Diplomacy: Quick Draw or Firing Blanks?

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By visiting Myanmar, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has demonstrated some derring-do in trying to resolve the crisis in the country. That said, it could be argued that the trip has not moved the needle much.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar over the weekend was greeted with polite optimism at best but largely with cynicism and scepticism. On the ground, it was met with angry opposition evidenced by bombs going off near the Cambodian Embassy in Yangon and reports of flash mobs and protests against the visit in several Myanmar townships. Prior to the visit, PM Hun Sen was called out for undermining ASEAN with his ‘cowboy diplomacy’, legitimising the military junta and sacrificing what little gains ASEAN has made in barring Myanmar’s political representation at its annual Summits last November. 

Branding it a ‘bilateral visit’ at the invitation of Myanmar’s State Administration Council (SAC) chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Hun Sen headed a high-level delegation including Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and a host of senior officials for a two-day visit to Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw. The press release by the Cambodian Foreign Ministry prioritised the working visit’s discussion on ‘bilateral and multilateral cooperation’ over ‘recent developments in ASEAN’ — a reference to troubled Myanmar in ASEAN. The wording of the release was a clear signal that the visit was not an ASEAN mission (and therefore no consensus needed for Cambodia to proceed with it), and that whatever discussions regarding Myanmar was couched as a bilateral outcome. Coincidentally (or not), the visit coincided with the 43rd anniversary of Cambodia’s Liberation Day from the Khmer Rouge regime. Hun Sen had earlier expressed that Cambodia’s experiences with civil war, in particular, its success in achieving national reconciliation, was something he wanted to share with Myanmar. 

To its credit, the trip stems from Cambodia’s assessment that there has been little traction on Myanmar. At the 23rd ASEAN Lecture hosted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute five days before the visit, Prak Sokhonn, who is also the 2022 ASEAN Chair’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, said that ‘all the ingredients for a civil war are now on the table’ and that there were ‘bad implications on regional stability’ if nothing was done. Referring to a deadlock because there has been ‘no consensus on the approaches in the implementation of the Five Point Consensus’, Prak Sokhonn said that Cambodia decided to take a different tack by accepting an invitation to visit Myanmar. He said his prime minister ‘has set no condition, no precondition for his visit, but I made it clear with (sic) Foreign Minister Wunna that we wish to have a useful visit for our Prime Minister — that useful visit means useful outcomes’. 

Two ‘useful outcomes’ that Prak Sokhonn outlined were to: seek progress on the Five Point Consensus, namely a de-escalation of violence, and deliver humanitarian aid. It is debatable whether Hun Sen’s visit will result in a de-escalation of violence if no efforts were made to meet other domestic stakeholders. The Cambodian delegation did not appear to have any intention of engaging with the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) which largely comprises members of the National League for Democracy (the deposed ruling party) or the National Unity Government (NUG) appointed by the CRPH. Prak Sokhonn confirmed in a press briefing that PM Hun Sen had not sought to meet Aung San Suu Kyi or any NLD leaders. This is a deviation from the previous Bruneian Special Envoy’s request to meet with all parties concerned. 

The visit lent a useful stage for the SAC that it was engaging ASEAN ‘constructively’. But without real concessions to improve the situation, it is incumbent on ASEAN to hold the line on non-political representation.

The joint press release issued at the end of Hun Sen’s visit mentions Covid-19 assistance and ‘frank and candid’ conversations on ‘issues of common interests and concerns’. Hun Sen’s visit seems to have prompted the SAC’s extension of a unilateral ceasefire by the Myanmar military with the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) from end-February through to end-2022. The announcement, however, chooses to ignore certain realities. Despite numerous past ceasefires, whether unilaterally, official or unofficial, or multi-party, clashes have continued in Myanmar. This current extension does not mention the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), and thus in practical terms, will do nothing to end the deadly cyclical violence taking place across Myanmar. The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and PDF enjoy no assurances that the junta will apply the principle of proportionality in their response to future protests. The junta delivered a sop to Hun Sen by welcoming the participation of the Special Envoy in the ceasefire talks with and among the EAOs, hoping that this will demonstrate progress on the Five Point Consensus. It is engagement with the NLD, NUG, PDFs, CDM and CRPH that will make a difference in the situation that has now evolved beyond simply managing the EAOs. It should not be up to the junta to cherry-pick parties for the Special Envoy to meet since the Five Point Consensus mandates him to meet with ‘all parties’. 

The visit lent a useful stage for the SAC that it was engaging ASEAN ‘constructively’. But without real concessions to improve the situation, it is incumbent on ASEAN to hold the line on non-political representation. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, in a phone call to Hun Sen before the visit and in a rare tweet in English (he usually tweets in Bahasa Indonesia), reiterated Indonesia’s position on the importance of implementing the Five Point Consensus and that if there were no significant progress, Myanmar should only be represented at the non-political level at ASEAN summits. 

Cambodia is due to host the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Siem Reap on 18-19 January 2022. Military-appointed Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin is expected to attend. Sources say that there have been no objections so far to ministerial-level representation as ASEAN had gone through last year with SAC-appointed ministerial representation from Myanmar at all its sectoral body meetings. It would be difficult for ASEAN to retract ministerial representation. This may well prove a key point of contention since Prak Sokhonn’s stated position was that the ASEAN Charter gave no legal basis to deny any country political participation. Cambodia might do well to remember Article 32(b) of the ASEAN Charter: ‘The Member State holding the Chairmanship of ASEAN shall ensure the centrality of ASEAN’. 

The reality is that Hun Sen’s visit did nothing for centrality as far as ASEAN is concerned. In response to a growing chorus of criticisms against his visit, Hun Sen retorted in a Facebook post that those who oppose the ceasefire want people to die of war and those who oppose humanitarian aid want people to die of starvation and illness. Unfortunately, the reality is far more complicated.

2022/8

Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.