Hopes held for gains from Myanmar trip

Those pushing for ASEAN engagement see value in Cambodian leader's visit

Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen speaks at a new conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on April 7, 2020. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is visiting Myanmar this week in a trip that is raising eyebrows among some, but experts have expressed hope that he may be able to help bring a resolution to the country's crisis a step closer.

Hun Sen's two-day visit, from Friday, will make him the first foreign leader to Myanmar since Feb 1, 2021. Myanmar's Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin extended the invitation on behalf of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of Myanmar's State Administration Council, on Dec 7 during a visit he made to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Kin Phea, director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that now is the right time for Hun Sen to head to Myanmar. He said the Cambodian leader's actions should be consistent with the charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the five-point consensus.

The consensus, which was adopted by the bloc in April, seeks the cessation of all violence and the holding of a constructive dialogue among all the parties to the Myanmar conflict, along with the provision of humanitarian assistance. Additionally, it called for the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy to visit Myanmar and mediate in talks. Cambodia is the ASEAN chair for 2022.

On Tuesday, Hun Sen discussed the Myanmar situation with Indonesian President Joko Widodo by phone.

While reaffirming the support for Cambodia's ASEAN chairmanship, Widodo said on Twitter on Wednesday that he "reiterated clearly Indonesia's position on the importance of the implementation of five-point consensus to bring democracy back in Myanmar through inclusive dialogue".

Kin Phea, stressing the importance of engagement with all stakeholders, said: "If we do not engage with the military leader, we cannot achieve any solution at all." He said all stakeholders need to play a role in easing the tensions in Myanmar.

Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said on Monday that Hun Sen's visit is taking place because of the "deadlock" that arose from the failure to reach an agreement on the implementation of the five-point consensus. Because of this, the minister said, Cambodia "took a little bit (of a) different approach".

Prak Sokhonn was nominated the new ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar by Hun Sen in December, replacing Erywan Yusof, Brunei's second minister for foreign affairs, who was appointed in August. Neither of them has yet visited Myanmar.

'Unilateral act'

However, Hun Sen's visit has drawn opposition from civil society organizations in Myanmar and Cambodia. In a joint statement on Tuesday, they said a plan to "act unilaterally in addressing the multidimensional crisis in Myanmar is utterly insufficient".

Cambodia faces various threats, including an explosion near the Cambodian embassy in Yangon on Dec 31. Still, the foreign minister said it is the duty of the ASEAN chair to play a role and that the country will do what it thinks is best for ASEAN as a whole.

He said the purpose of Hun Sen's visit is to talk directly to the Myanmar military leader and to see what can be done to restore normalcy to the country.

People in Myanmar are facing an "unprecedented" crisis, with about 14.4 million people, or a quarter of the country's population, requiring aid in 2022, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Dec 31.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior fellow with the Institute of Security and International Studies in Thailand, said it is highly unlikely that Hun Sen will return empty-handed from Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar's capital, though critics may remain skeptical about "any trumpeted achievements".