The recent visit of the current ASEAN chair, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, to Myanmar has sparked anew debate about the role of the bloc. Despite a wave of condemnation of the visit, Hun Sen met with junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. As expected, Hun Sen was welcomed by Myanmar officials, including Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, and was given a guard of honor. Accompanying Hun Sen were donations of medical equipment to fight COVID-19, comprising three million face masks, 200,000 N95 masks, 100,000 goggles, 30,000 personal protective equipment suits, 30,000 face shields, 3,000 plastic boots, 50 ICU-appropriate ventilators, 50 patient monitors, and 50 oxygen concentrators.
Hun Sen was the first foreign leader to visit the country since the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, overthrew the democratically elected government and jailed its leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1 of last year. Since then at least 1,435 people have been killed by the Tatmadaw in ruthless crackdowns on democracy protests. Conflict has also escalated in the nation’s border zones, creating a humanitarian disaster where tens of thousands of people have been displaced.
Following its adoption of a Five-Point Consensus on the Myanmar crisis in April 2021, ASEAN has taken a proactive role in regard to a Myanmar bedeviled by brutal suppression of the democracy movement, insurgency, and the Rohingya crisis. Particularly, the refusal of ASEAN leaders to meet Min Aung Hlaing at the group’s annual summit raised new hopes about the organization’s unity and determination. Regional and global powers applauded the role of ASEAN and supported its diplomacy as a credible platform.
But as 2022 dawns, ASEAN, now under its new chair – Cambodia – looks to be losing its path and old divisions appear to be resurfacing, rendering the bloc ineffective and ceremonial once again. Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for more than 36 years and is widely regarded as an autocratic ruler. After assuming the role of ASEAN chair, Hun Sen did not hide his own view of dealing with the Myanmar crisis. Prompted by Myanmar’s exclusion from the bloc’s summit in 2021, the prime minister repeatedly signaled his intent to bring the country back into the ASEAN fold, arguing that the economic union was “incomplete” without it.
What impact does his visit have for ASEAN?
First of all, the visit is a reflection of Cambodia’s own views about Myanmar, which are deeply pro-junta. The Cambodia leader believes that ASEAN did not operate very smoothly in 2021 on the Myanmar issue. As the ASEAN chair, Hun Sen declared that he couldn’t stand by passively while Myanmar fell apart and that the group must find a way to resolve the stand-off between the opposing sides there and take advantage of all opportunities to pursue negotiations.
Second, although the Cambodian leader has focused on the political crisis in Myanmar, he seems to be less concerned about democracy, human rights, and the brutality of the military regime. Cambodia has launched a diplomatic blitz to rehabilitate the junta first in ASEAN and then at the global level. Before taking over the revolving annual chairmanship of ASEAN, Hun Sen declared that he wanted the Myanmar junta to be represented at the bloc’s meetings.
Third, critics also suggest that Hun Sen is trying to use his personal influence as one of the oldest leaders in the region in order to benefit himself. His own leadership in Cambodia is deeply criticized abroad. Hence, an active diplomatic role can also help him legitimize his own power.
Fourth, Hun Sen’s visit reflected evident divisions within ASEAN. Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah criticized Hun Sen for taking unilateral action in meeting the leader of Myanmar’s junta. He reiterated that ASEAN’s position would not change that until there is clear progress on the Five-Point Consensus. Indonesia is another powerful member of ASEAN and also criticized the visit. Singapore differs from Hun Sen’s overenthusiasm about the junta and also opposes any political representation from Myanmar at this time. Indonesia and Malaysia led the process in 2021 to keep Min Aung Hlaing out of ASEAN summits for his blatant breach of the Five-Point Consensus to which he was also a party.
On the other hand, Hun Sen’s visit enjoys support from some members of ASEAN and some countries outside the bloc. Cambodia received a strong endorsement from two powerful regional ASEAN partners and members of the ASEAN Plus Three, China and Japan. In a statement from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tokyo welcomed Cambodia’s active engagement as ASEAN chair on the situation in Myanmar, and both ministers shared the view to coordinate closely. Another close ally of Myanmar, China, is strongly in favor of Hun Sen and Cambodia’s approach. Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, all ASEAN members, also supported Hun Sen’s visit.
Fifth, rights groups are calling the visit a charade. They argue that by failing to insist that he would meet with all parties to the conflict, including imprisoned political leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, Hun Sen demonstrated a clear authoritarian orientation that all issues can be sorted out in closed door talks between dictators. Anti-coup activists and leading members of Myanmar’s shadow government, the National Unity Government, condemned the visit. Activists argue that the visit could generate false confidence and undermine the progress ASEAN has achieved in recent months.
Finally, it is Myanmar’s military junta which has gained exclusively from the visit, orchestrated by pro-junta members in and outside of ASEAN. Myanmar and Cambodia are particularly happy with the outcomes of the visit. The Myanmar military has achieved a huge diplomatic win with Hun Sen’s visit. To Myanmar, there were “good results” from the Cambodian leader’s visit that boosted the military leadership.
Although Myanmar’s present rulers rejoiced over the visit, ASEAN seems to be moving in disarray on the issue. One immediate outcome of the visit was the postponement of this year’s first ASEAN meeting, known as the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat, initially scheduled to be held in Siem Reap on January 18-19. Discord within ASEAN over Hun Sen’s trip to Naypyidaw and a potential invitation to the Myanmar junta’s foreign minister to attend the retreat might explain why some ASEAN members chose not to attend the meeting. This issue has created an impasse within the bloc. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore had backed shutting out the coup leader from the regional bloc’s top summit in 2021, when Brunei was the chair of the bloc. They are clearly sticking to that position. Analysts fear that the postponement effectively delays the official endorsement of Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn as ASEAN’s new special envoy for Myanmar.
By visiting Myanmar and meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, Hun Sen legitimized him and at the same time put ASEAN in a deadlock over its role in the Myanmar crisis. The Cambodian leader has reversed the stance of the previous ASEAN chair, Brunei, which had created positive pressure on the Myanmar regime. Hun Sen’s visit questions the credibility and limit of ASEAN to continue its constructive and effective diplomatic role in mitigating the crisis in Myanmar, which has had an adverse impact on the future of the democracy movement and the future resolution of the Rohingya crisis.