Is Cambodia supporting Myanmar’s dictatorship?

What does Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit in January tell us?

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In the complex political and security crisis following the February 1 coup of last year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen came to Myanmar on a two-day visit earlier in January. Despite the fact that the junta-backed State Administration Council (SAC) is represented at Myanmar embassies in approximately 40 countries, this is the first visit by a head of state to Myanmar since the military seized power. 

Another reason for the enhanced focus was that Cambodia is chairing ASEAN this year. Myanmar was barred from attending the 36th Asean Summit after the junta failed to implement the five-point accord issued by Asean last year. Now, sidelining the Asean's unanimity, Hun Sen's bilateral meeting with Min Aung Hlaing naturally raises the question of whether Hun Sen is the Myanmar people's saviour or the Myanmar dictatorship's. 

It is believed that his visit is part of a backdoor diplomacy to relieve mounting regional and international pressure on the junta, or to thaw the icy relationship between the organization and the junta regime and restore peace and stability .

With an increasingly tumultuous domestic scenario, Tatmadaw is establishing fresh examples of ruthlessness in the ongoing armed conflict. By doing so, the junta administration is sending a clear message that any protest would be violently suppressed. 

On December 24 last year, Tatmadaw slaughtered 35 demonstrators, including women and children, in Kayah State, 60 miles east of Naypyidaw, and burned their remains. This was widely reported in the international media as the "Christmas Eve massacre." 

Human Rights Watch estimates that 264,000 individuals have been displaced due to the junta's scorched-earth policy. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), security forces have killed over 1,500 and imprisoned close to 12,000 over the last one year.

The junta was dealt the harshest blow when it was denied permission to represent Myanmar at the Asean meeting in Brunei last year. It was also barred from attending the China-Asean Summit, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and international climate and disaster conference. Aung Thurein, the junta's UN ambassador, was also denied by the UN Credentials Committee. On December 10, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada jointly imposed sanctions on four departments affiliated with the Myanmar military.

The Cambodian delegation led by Hun Sen and representatives of the military government led by Hlaing held a 140-minute discussion on bilateral and regional issues of mutual interest and concern. Both sides issued a joint statement which represents three concrete outcomes: One, the existing truce would be extended from February to December this year. Two, allowing meetings with all parties involved to expedite humanitarian relief and immunization initiatives. Three, including the Asean Special Envoy in Myanmar peace talks.

is not the people's saviour

Over the last few months, the junta has become known for making spectacular choices and then altering them quickly. Similarly, since there is no legal obligation to implement these decisions, it is self-evident that the junta will change its position in any situation that is contrary to its interests. Furthermore, the public's skepticism of the Hun Sen-Hlaing meeting's outcome is based on a few factors:

First, though the junta is currently at war with the People's Defense Force (PDF), backed by the National Unity Government (NUG) and other ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the promised truce applies only to a limited number of EAOs. Thus, the war in Myanmar will continue. 

No representative of the NUG attended the discussion, and armed groups like the Kachin Independence Army, Karen National Liberation Army, and Arakan Army refused to accept the junta's truce in advance.

Second, while the Asean calls for constructive dialogue with all parties to find a way out of the crisis, Hun Sen has given no indication that he will engage in dialogue with other democratic parties, including the NLD, which is critical to ensuring that all parties participate in the 2023 elections to restore democracy in Myanmar. Hun Sen also avoided discussing democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi or the end of the war with the NUG.

Third, such unilateral negotiations would split Asean's unified stance on Myanmar and thwart a concerted diplomatic effort to put the five-point plan into effect. The Asean Foreign Ministers' Conference, which was scheduled for January 18-19 in Cambodia, had been canceled due to a dispute over Myanmar's junta's representation.

Fourth, Hun Sen also sidelined the Rohingya crisis, another key issue in Myanmar's real political crisis. Only hours before Hun Sen's arrival, Myanmar made a dramatic offer to hold bilateral talks with Bangladesh to begin the Rohingya repatriation. Bringing up the Rohingya card by the junta to relieve stress and kill time is, however, nothing new. 

General Naing, the head of the Arakan Army recently in an interview claimed that the Arakan Army has established a strong position in Rakhine through the introduction of justice, tax, and police administration. As a result, any talks on the Rohingya crisis without the group would fail, and will only deepen and prolong the crisis.

To summarize, amid a variety of challenges faced by the junta, including internal pressure due to growing anti-junta armed movement as well as increased international isolation, Hun Sen has emerged as a rescuer for the junta in Myanmar. He has created a new context through this visit for gaining regional recognition by allowing the junta at the Asean Summit in 2022.  

Diplomatic analysts believe that China and Japan are the two key actors in this backdoor diplomacy and Hun Sen is in the forefront in the role of villain in its implementation. In this case, Hun Sen's tactic is to divert public attention away from Cambodia's internal politics, which is also suffering from an image crisis due to US sanctions and human rights violations.

Parvej Siddique Bhuiyan is a development worker and geo-strategic analyst.

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