Asean at crossroads as Hun Sen eyes Myanmar

In this file photo taken on Oct 13, 2009, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) poses with his son Hun Manet during a ceremony at a military base in Phnom Penh. - AFP

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network): A senior Asean official said on Tuesday (Dec 7)that incoming regional chair Cambodia “would and ought to” reflect the bloc’s stance “in its entirety”, as Prime Minister Hun Sen prepares to visit Myanmar next month, nearly a year after the latter's military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

More than 10 months after Myanmar’s Tatmadaw staged a coup to overthrow the country’s democratically elected leader, the South-East Asian “family” Asean looks no closer to getting the military regime to respect the regionally mandated Five-Point Consensus that aims to bring an end to the violence and turmoil plaguing the country.

The consensus demands the cessation of violence, the appointment of an Asean special envoy to mediate dialogue and the facilitation of humanitarian aid, among other things.

Members of the 10-nation grouping, which relies on consensus for decision making, have been at odds with each other over the regional response to the crisis.

And after the late start by current Asean chair Brunei to mediate talks between the military and opposing civilian elements in the power struggle, the position of the rotating chairmanship is set to fall on Cambodia, which analysts suggest could be more aligned with the junta due in part to the autocratic reign of Hun Sen.

Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, visited Phnom Penh on Tuesday to meet with Hun Sen in person, with Cambodia’s deputy prime minister and top diplomat Prak Sokhonn saying they discussed a range of topics including “Asean issues”.

“Cambodia and other Asean member states will help Myanmar to effectively achieve a win-win solution,” the official said in a Facebook post issued after the meeting.

Tuesday’s meeting has been played up as a precursor to Hun Sen’s planned visit to Naypyidaw, and comes just a day after a Myanmar court sentenced Suu Kyi to several years in prison on charges that her supporters insist are politically motivated.

Hun Sen’s office has confirmed that he will travel to Myanmar in the first week of 2022. The announcement was also made on Tuesday when the junta’s representative extended an invitation to Hun Sen, news wires reported.

On Monday, the Cambodian leader said his nation wanted to have all Asean members represented in its meetings next year, as he signalled a willingness to reason with Myanmar’s coup leader Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

“If I don’t work with the leadership, whom can I work with?" Hun Sen said, as quoted by Reuters. Analysts predict that Hun Sen’s visit is likely to drastically change the tone of Asean's response to the coup.

The group has struggled to engage the military junta, which has mostly displayed noncompliance with the consensus demands that Asean leaders agreed to in Jakarta in April. Crucial time for negotiations was lost over the drawn-out nomination process of a special envoy to mediate talks, with observers convinced that the eventual appointee would not extend his work beyond Brunei’s chairmanship.

Faced with resistance from the Myanmar military regime, Asean barred Min Aung Hlaing from representing the country at the Asean Summit in October, as well as at a subsequent Asean-China summit in November.

The option of sending a “nonpolitical” representative, tabled by Asean, was also blocked by the junta.

Indonesia itself, considered the de facto leader of Asean, has pushed for a “Myanmar-led and Myanmar-owned” solution, which observes the organisation’s principle of non-interference while also allowing room to engage prodemocracy groups in addition to the junta.

When asked to comment on Hun Sen’s impending visit to Myanmar, the Foreign Ministry’s lead Asean official, Sidharto Suryodipuro said, “The Asean chair would and ought to reflect Asean’s position in its entirety.”

Sidharto, the ministry’s director general for Asean affairs, previously said that Myanmar’s representation in Asean had yet to be further discussed among member states.

Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi visited Phnom Penh last week to meet her counterpart Prak Sokhon and Hun Sen, during which they discussed Asean affairs, including the Myanmar debacle.

Experts have suggested that Hun Sen’s approach could sow more division among Asean member states.

Aleksius Jemadu, an international relations professor from Pelita Harapan University, said that Cambodia’s potential move to work closely with the junta would be a blow to Asean’s credibility moving forward.

“I believe Asean will struggle to do more than what it has already done thus far,” he told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.

Aleksius even argued that inviting a nonpolitical representative was just enough of a solution that merely gave the impression that the Asean-10 still existed.

“The fact is the Myanmar regime is ignoring the ‘punishment’ from Asean. Asean has been made a victim of its own rigid noninterference principle,” the scholar said.

Indonesia, he continued, should have been more active in finding a face-saving solution rather than letting different stakeholders pursue their own interests. Separately, Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) senior researcher Rizal Sukma said Indonesia should not give in to any pressure that would allow the junta to attend Asean meetings.

“If Hun Sen wants to visit Myanmar, that should be done on behalf of his own country, not Asean,” he said.

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