Cambodia’s ‘cowboy diplomacy’ in Myanmar

As Cambodia prepares to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year, Prime Minister Hun Sen is splitting with most of the bloc by looking to bring Myanmar’s military leadership into the fold.

Since the military coup on February 1 in Myanmar, most ASEAN states have condemned the new government, notably blocking its attendance at both the ASEAN Summit in October and the ASEAN-China Summit in November due to the leadership’s “insufficient progress” on carrying out a peace plan agreed with the regional bloc earlier this year.

But, despite concerns expressed by other ASEAN states, Hun Sen is now touting engagement with the military, also known in Myanmar as the Tatmadaw, as the best way forward.

As the first step in his engagement efforts, Hun Sen met with the military-appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wunna Maung Lwin, in Phnom Penh on December 7.

He also announced that he would be visiting Myanmar in 2022 to meet with the military’s senior leadership, including commander-in-chief and coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, in what will be the first state visit by a foreign leader since the coup.

Charles Santiago, the chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), a network of parliamentarians advocating for human rights in the region, said ASEAN’s approach towards Myanmar this year may not have been a “phenomenal success”, but “there have been small successes, and one was to limit Myanmar’s participation at the ASEAN meetings”.

And “now Hun Sen is trying to undermine [that approach]”.

Aside from greater engagement with the Tatmadaw, it’s unclear what the future ASEAN chair has in store for Myanmar. Few ASEAN observers believe that complete disengagement with the military government is likely or practical, and ASEAN as a bloc has also made it clear that, while it opposes the military’s involvement, it is open to engagement with Myanmar in other ways, such as through a “non-political representative.”

However, Hun Sen’s recent adoption of “cowboy diplomacy”, a term referring to risky and harsh diplomatic tactics, has worried many of his regional partners in ASEAN.

Cowboy diplomacy

In justifying his new engagement approach, the Cambodian Prime Minister said that Myanmar is a “family member of ASEAN” and “if we do not work with the authorities in Myanmar, who do we have to work with?”

He also snapped at critics who questioned his decision to meet with the military, telling them “Please do not bother me. Give me a chance to solve the issue.”

While Hun Sen’s recent overtures to the Tatmadaw were a departure from previous comments he had made and go against the positions of other ASEAN states, they are not necessarily surprising, given the Cambodian prime minister’s grandstanding attitude towards his peace-building capabilities.

“[Hun Sen] believes he’s a peacemaker; he has repeatedly emphasized his experience in post-war Cambodia to make this point,” said Charles Dunst, a fellow with the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), referring to Hun Sen’s role in negotiating the final surrender of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1990s.

Although the Khmer Rouge regime, responsible for a genocide of about 2 million people, was officially toppled in 1978 with the invasion of Vietnamese forces, the regime retained strongholds in certain parts of the country. Hun Sen has long claimed that it was his “win-win” policy, a tactic he developed to encourage defections from the Khmer Rouge, that finally put an end to the fighting.

“His only way to potentially prevent [a failed state in Myanmar] is by engaging the junta, rather than isolating them. [But] there is the potential for him to make unpredictable, “shoot from the hip” type decisions that risk worsening the situation within Myanmar,” Dunst said.

Since the coup, the military has killed more than 1,340 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, with the regime continuing to crack down on protesters and clash with the growing armed resistance movement.

However, this “cowboy diplomacy” has troubled many within ASEAN, who claim that the Cambodian leader is acting out on his own without listening to others in the regional bloc.

Santiago is particularly concerned by the lack of transparency surrounding Hun Sen’s motives and the capacity in which he is operating, especially as he prepares for an official state visit.

“[Hun Sen] is doing this very unilaterally. Who gave him the authority? Is he [visiting Myanmar] as the Prime Minister of Cambodia, in a personal capacity, or is he representing ASEAN? His position has to be clarified and he has to say publicly before he goes that he has the support of ASEAN for the meeting otherwise this is asking for trouble,” said Santiago.

“The person who should be going is not him – the person who should be going is the special envoy.”

Cambodia announced on December 15 that it would be appointing Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn as the new ASEAN Special Envoy to Myanmar, in what appears to be a unilateral decision. Sokhonn has followed Hun Sen’s lead on Myanmar from the start, most recently raving about the success of his own “honest and candid” meeting with Wunna Maung Lwin.

External influences

Cambodia’s deviation from the rest of ASEAN has also sparked concern over whether the Kingdom will uphold the five-point peace plan that was developed at the ASEAN Leaders Meeting in April.

The fifth point of the consensus stipulates that a “special envoy and delegation will meet with all parties concerned”. So far, Cambodia has only initiated outreach with the military, neglecting the National Unity Government, a civilian group working to gain recognition as Myanmar’s legitimate government.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s commander-in-chief of the armed forces, General Vong Pisen, held talks with Min Aung Hlaing on December 8 over video call, during which Pisen invited the coup leader to take part in the 19th ASEAN Chiefs of Defence Forces meeting in March 2022.

“Already we can see that [Hun Sen] is keen to have Myanmar involved in every [ASEAN] meeting and Cambodia can engage very well with the military – they have a lot of common understanding – but this is really not what ASEAN is looking for,” said Joanne Lin, the lead researcher in political-security affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Cambodia’s decisions on Myanmar has also prompted questions on whether the Kingdom is being influenced by external actors.

When he first announced his intent to visit Myanmar, Hun Sen mentioned that he had discussed the decision with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi, implying that the state visit may be part of a greater multilateral effort.

But experts are doubtful that either country, especially Indonesia, which has been particularly vocal in its opposition to the military, holds any influence over Hun Sen’s decision-making or the Myanmar military in general.

“The reality is that no foreign power has the tools to bring Myanmar’s military and opposition [and armed organizations] to the table,” Dunst told Al Jazeera.

“I don’t think there’s much, or anything, frankly, Phnom Penh, [Tokyo] or Jakarta can do to change that right now. No multilateral effort in Myanmar will find success unless China and Russia are included, as these two powers are most supportive of the Tatmadaw.”

Both Russia and China have become the military’s standout allies since the coup, notably undermining any international efforts, especially through the UN Security Council, to take action against the military.

But interestingly, Hun Sen’s about-face happened at approximately the same time as Chinese special envoy Sun Guoxiang travelled to Singapore and Brunei to lobby for the Tatmadaw’s inclusion at the China-ASEAN summit in November, suggesting that longstanding allies Cambodia and China could be colluding once again.

“While China is currently backing the junta to protect Chinese investments, it’s certainly possible that China pushed Cambodia to change course, as engagement does serve China’s interests. But I haven’t seen confirmation one way or another,” said Dunst.

Regardless of whether China is flexing its diplomatic muscle to put pressure on Cambodia, the one thing that is for certain, according to Lin, is that the crisis in Myanmar will remain at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

“There are a lot of things on Cambodia’s plate but really what everyone is looking at right now that will determine the success of their chairmanship is the Myanmar issue.”



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