New ASEAN chair Cambodia urged to maintain bloc’s firm stance on Myanmar

Cambodia’s unusually firm rebuke of the Myanmar military regime this week, ahead of assuming leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2022 raises pressure on Phnom Penh to maintain the firm stance the bloc has taken against the junta in recent months, analysts say.

With Brunei the rotating leader for 2021 as host, ASEAN leaders opened the regional bloc’s annual summit online on Tuesday without Myanmar, which stayed away to protest its junta chief Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing being barred from the meeting.

In an unprecedented move earlier this month, ASEAN foreign ministers barred the coup leader from the summit, saying he backtracked on agreements on accepting a special envoy and talking with opponents during an emergency meeting of ASEAN leaders about Myanmar’s political crisis in Jakarta in April.

During the summit on Tuesday, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke critically of Myanmar, according to Reuters news agency, saying that ASEAN had not expelled the country from the gathering, but that the Naypyidaw junta had “abandoned its right.”

“Now we are in the situation of ASEAN minus one,” he said. “It is not because of ASEAN, but because of Myanmar,” said the strongman who has ruled Cambodia since 1985 and led it into the bloc in 1999.

Hun Sen was handed the ceremonial gavel from Brunei appointing Cambodia on Thursday, the same day his office shared a twitter commentary that pointed to a softer line toward Myanmar by ASEAN, a 10-nation group with a reputation for placing internal comity and unity over discussing the internal affairs even of errant member states.

“Cambodia should set up an ad hoc taskforce to work with Myanmar’s conflicting parties quietly or through back-door diplomacy to share lessons and experiences of peacebuilding and win-win policy implementation for Myanmar,” said the commentary by the government affiliated Agence Kampuchea Presse (AKP).

“Helping to resolve the political crisis in Myanmar is not an interference in the internal affairs of the country, but an expression of ASEAN solidarity and mutual assistance based on mutual respect for sovereignty,” it said.

When asked by RFA’s Khmer Service about why the Office of the Cambodian Prime Minister had linked to the AKP commentary, government spokesman Phay Siphan said the piece was “purely the personal view” of an official from the Royal Academy of Cambodia and does not reflect the government’s position.

It is “too early to say anything,” the spokesman said, adding: “Hun Sen will try his best to resolve Myanmar’s crisis.”

Phay Siphan’s comments followed a Reuters report that Cambodian Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn said that Cambodia would keep up pressure on Myanmar’s junta to open dialogue with its opponents.

Nine months after the military’s Feb. 1 coup, security forces have killed 1,220 civilians and arrested at least 7,049, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.

Myanmar's military ruler Min Aung Hlaing presides over an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021. Reuters
Myanmar’s military ruler Min Aung Hlaing presides over an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021. Reuters

‘Constructive engagement’

ASEAN’s principle of non-interference in the affairs of its members allows the bloc to turn a blind eye to abuses committed by its member states, who can act with relative impunity, critics have long held.

The group is no stranger to troubled dealings with Myanmar’s military, or with coups among members, including in Cambodia.

Myanmar was admitted to ASEAN along with Laos in an expansion of the group in 1997 that was supposed to include Cambodia, but Phnom Penh’s accession was derailed by Hun Sen’s coup against his partner in the country’s shaky coalition government formed after decades of war.

ASEAN’s approach to the military regime in Myanmar in the 1990s and the first decade of this century — a period of overturned elections, atrocities, and economic mismanagement — was known as “constructive engagement” and was widely criticized as enabling the generals to prolong their destructive rule.

Some analysts are confident that Cambodia can maintain the uncharacteristically strong stance ASEAN took in barring Min Aung Hlaing from the 2021 summit.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the former permanent secretary of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a webinar on “Thailand and the Myanmar Crisis” on Wednesday that he is “very optimistic that Cambodia will continue, what … ASEAN has been doing … and I’m sure that we’ll see more activism on the part of Cambodia.”

“[I]f Myanmar decides to turn their back on ASEAN, and we’ll have a situation like we had at the summit, where … we will be missing a very important member of the ASEAN family,” Sihasak, who is also the former Thai ambassador to Japan, told the gathering, hosted by the ISEAS Yushof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“In the end, there’s only so much that we can help with Myanmar unless Myanmar decides to help itself first.”

Sihasak said he believes that ASEAN was too complacent about developments in Myanmar, and even “defended” the country “for quite a long time.”

“And I think it’s difficult for us to continue defending Myanmar at all costs, really,” he said.

Cambodian political analyst Seng Sary told RFA that Cambodia must ensure that it has the backing of all ASEAN members as it seeks a resolution to the situation in Myanmar.

“ASEAN members think of different benefits [to membership] and have different political agendas. The bloc must resolve the issues through mutual respect,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service with contributions by Subel Rai Bhandari and Shailaja Neelakantan for BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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