Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's visit to Myanmar has sparked controversy. The Cambodian view is that fostering a conducive environment for dialogue with the military junta would pave the way for the implementation of ASEAN's five-point consensus.
There were mixed reactions before Prime Minister Hun Sen’s high-profile visit to Myanmar over the weekend. Some observers criticised the visit, arguing that it would legitimise the military regime. On the other hand, others felt the visit would enhance ASEAN’s effective engagement with Myanmar, particularly to enforce the ASEAN’s five-point consensus on Myanmar adopted in April last year.
The view in Cambodia is inclined more to the latter. The intention of the visit is clear: to create a conducive environment for dialogue and to pave the way for the implementation of the five-point consensus.
It is beyond dispute that there has been a lack of progress in implementing the five-point consensus. Primarily, violence in the country has not ceased; neither did the SAC allow the Special Envoy to meet all parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi (the junta has said that these parties are still facing ongoing legal processes). As a result, ASEAN decided that Myanmar should not be permitted to send political representation to the 2021 ASEAN Summits and related meetings last year. The SAC decided to boycott the ASEAN meetings altogether (by not sending a non-political representative). Myanmar also did not send a political representative to the special ASEAN-China Summit to mark the 30th anniversary of the ASEAN-China dialogue partnership, even though it is currently the country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations.
Within ASEAN, there are differences regarding the representation issue. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore have strong views on this issue, while other ASEAN members are relatively flexible. Therefore, the future of the representation of Myanmar at ASEAN Summits depends on the sincerity of SAC and progress in implementing the five-point consensus.
As the rotating Chair of ASEAN this year, the Cambodian government is of the view that the absence of Myanmar ministerial representation at the Summits would not portend well for the grouping. Since there is no mechanism to withdraw Myanmar’s ASEAN credentials, the issue of representation at the ministerial level depends on the decision of the other nine ASEAN members.
Seen in this context, the outcome of Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar is regarded as an ice-breaking moment and a positive step, if not yet a breakthrough, towards effective implementation of the five-point consensus (it should be noted, however, that the SAC has linked the implementation of the consensus to the junta’s five-point roadmap; in essence, this prioritises the junta’s goals ahead of ASEAN’s). In a joint press release, the SAC pledged to extend the ceasefire with all Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) until the end of 2022 and called upon all parties to end all acts of violence (it is worth noting that the SAC failed to mention entities such as the People’s Defence Forces and the National Unity Government (NUG)).
Drawing on the experiences from Cambodia’s prolonged civil war, war cannot end war; only win-win negotiation can end the war. Hun Sen has encouraged Myanmar to de-escalate tensions and build momentum for constructive dialogues among relevant stakeholders. He also shared Cambodia’s experiences in the peace process by stressing the importance of having an inclusive political dialogue. He said peace and national reconciliation could not be realised unless all parties were involved in the negotiation and agreement. This is a point that other ASEAN members would have no issues agreeing with.
Another highlight of the visit is the commitment to facilitate humanitarian assistance to Myanmar people by convening a multi-stakeholder meeting among the ASEAN Special Envoy, the Secretary-General of ASEAN, the representative of the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Management Centre (AHA Centre), the Myanmar Red Cross Society, and agencies of the United Nations.
Myanmar also promised to facilitate the visit of the Special Envoy and allow him to meet all parties concerned. The parties concerned here are open for interpretation. The NUG — a key stakeholder in the peace process — must be included. Actions matter more than words. ASEAN must stay cautious to prevent the SAC from manipulating ASEAN’s diplomatic space to serve its political goals.
Hun Sen holds a strong view that isolation is not the solution. Flexible engagement with a clear purpose — sticking to the five-point consensus and the ASEAN Charter would deliver a breakthrough.
Based on the outcomes of the visit, Cambodia could convince other ASEAN members to allow the SAC’s political representative to attend the upcoming ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat to be held in Siem Reap on 18-19 January. This will enable ASEAN to hold the SAC accountable to the five-point consensus. There is no reason to believe that Myanmar’s political representative would be barred from the meeting; specifically, U Wunna Maung Lwin, the military-appointed Foreign Minister is expected to attend. Moreover, ASEAN went through 2021 with SAC-appointed ministerial representation from Myanmar at all its sectoral body meetings. Some ASEAN members, however, have kept raising the question as to Myanmar’s political representation at ASEAN meetings.
Hun Sen holds a strong view that isolation is not the solution. Flexible engagement with a clear purpose — sticking to the five-point consensus and the ASEAN Charter would deliver a breakthrough. Yet, it is still early to tell what Hun Sen could do in terms of enforcing the five-point consensus.
What ASEAN can do is to create a conducive environment for inclusive political dialogue among the parties concerned. Ending the violence is the most critical step. Meaningful negotiations cannot occur if the hostilities and violence do not stop. The ASEAN Special Envoy will need to ensure that the SAC honours its words, meet all parties concerned (including the NUG and other entities) to ensure that all parties end acts of violence. The envoy would also have to facilitate political dialogues among all interested entities.
Other elements in the peace process will include the guarantee of security and safety for all parties concerned and the provision of humanitarian assistance. In the end, Cambodia and ASEAN need to ensure that all Myanmar parties concerned play a role to re-establish and maintain an enduring peace. The peace process must be Myanmar-led and Myanmar-owned, as Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn has stated on various occasions.
Chheang Vannarith is President of Asian Vision Institute.