Cambodia’s Hun Sen names ASEAN envoy to Myanmar

Critics say prime minister’s effort to resolve crisis is undermined by political repression at home.
2021.12.15
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Cambodia’s Hun Sen names ASEAN envoy to Myanmar Prime Minister Hun Sen holds the ceremonial gavel as Cambodia takes over the ASEAN chairmanship from Brunei, Oct. 28, 2021.
Courtesy: Samdech Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister, via Facebook

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday named his country’s top diplomat as special envoy to Myanmar in a move aimed at resolving the political crisis in that country that has seen more than a thousand killed in protests calling for a return to democratic rule.

Prak Sokhonn, now Cambodia’s foreign minister, will represent the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-member regional bloc now chaired by Hun Sen in an annual rotation among ASEAN member states.

Hun Sen announced earlier this month that he will also visit Myanmar from Jan. 7-8, the first foreign leader to make the trip since Myanmar’s military overthrew the democratically elected civilian government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in a Feb. 1 coup.

Speaking at a ceremony inaugurating a new hotel in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen — who has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years while suppressing his own political opposition — asked on Wednesday for time to help resolve the political crisis in Myanmar.

“It is not up to ASEAN to resolve this issue. ASEAN is here to help, but Myanmar needs to solve its own problems by itself,” he said.

“It is important for me to meet Myanmar’s [military] leaders, but under-the-table negotiations are the best and most fruitful approach for us to take. Don’t disturb me, just give me time,” he said.

Kean Ponlok — secretary general of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students — told RFA that Cambodia should offer no support to Myanmar’s military leaders or allow them to return to ASEAN talks, from which they are now excluded.

“Cambodia’s prime minister is biased in favor of Myanmar because it has been condemned by the international community,” Kean Pontok said. “Cambodia is at risk of being sanctioned like Myanmar if it tries to form an alliance with Myanmar’s leaders.”

Political researcher Vann Bunna agreed, saying that to gain trust from the international community, Cambodia should work with former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been sentenced to a four-year prison term by a military court. Cambodia will legitimize Myanmar’s military junta if it works only with its leaders, he said.

'A poor choice'

Um Sam An, a senior official of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, an opposition group dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in 2017, said Hun Sen is a poor choice to push reconciliation in Myanmar. His Cambodian People’s Party won all the seats in Parliament in the last general election, drawing sanctions from the United States and a suspension of trade privileges with the European Union.

“Cambodia’s political crisis has not been resolved, so how can he resolve the crisis in Burma?” Um Sam An asked, referring to Myanmar by its colonial-era name.

“Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will be representing only himself and the vested interests for which he stands when he visits Myanmar in January,” Paris-based CNRP leader Sam Rainsy said, writing in a Dec. 14 statement from exile. “The existence of two Southeast Asian dictatorships which put their own survival at any cost before the well-being of their people risks destabilizing the whole region.”

But Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said that Cambodia can help guide Myanmar through its present crisis, calling the Myanmar issue and the status of the CNRP two separate issues.

“The CNRP doesn’t want Cambodia to succeed in coordinating dialogue between the conflicting sides in Myanmar. They don’t want to help the Burmese people. Do we really want to separate Myanmar from ASEAN? This would be against the ASEAN charter,” he said.

Cambodia must first resolve its own political deadlock before trying to help Myanmar, said Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian rights group Licadho.

“What Cambodia needs most is to begin a dialogue among Cambodian politicians in order to prove to ASEAN and the international community that it can resolve its own political conflicts and that Cambodia upholds human rights and democracy.”

“This would be a step toward resolving other countries’ issues,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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