Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to step down in July. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Even before Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives in Naypyidaw on Friday for talks with Myanmar’s junta, the first formal visit by a foreign leader since last year’s February 1 democracy-suspending coup, most observers of the situation have already made up their minds on the likely outcome and upshots.

Cambodia’s embassy in Yangon was attacked by two explosions last week, suspected of being carried out by anti-junta resistance forces. According to many analysts, Hun Sen is about to sacrifice the tough stance ASEAN took last year by effectively disinviting coup leader Min Aung Hlaing to the bloc’s annual summit by conferring a certain measure of international legitimacy on the junta. 

For Hun Sen’s critics, the scheduled two-day talks with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing are merely an ego-boosting exercise for Cambodia’s long-ruling premier, who wants to get the Myanmar crisis off the top of the region’s agenda even if it means legitimizing a regime whose security forces have killed an estimated 1,400 civilians since February.

Hun Sen’s defenders, however, contend he has been dealt a bad hand after taking over as ASEAN’s rotational chair this year. The bloc’s policy on Myanmar clearly wasn’t working last year, they say, and the Myanmar crisis is getting worse with destabilizing spillover effects on the rest of the region. If the status quo isn’t working, it’s sensible to take a new approach, they say.

Myanmar has “all the ingredients for civil war,” Hun Sen warned on January 5, a comment that belies the fact that civil wars have been raging in the country for decades and have spread from mostly ethnic hinterlands to key central regions since the coup.

In October Hun Sen went along with the ASEAN decision to bar Min Aung Hlaing from its annual summit that month to protest the junta’s failure to respect the “five-point consensus” it had agreed with the bloc last April, a broken promise not to continue the slaughter of civilians.

A soldier stands next to a detained man during a demonstration against the military coup in Mandalay on March 3, 2021. Photo: AFP/Stringer

The move also came after an ASEAN special envoy was forced to postpone his visit to Myanmar after the junta refused to allow him to meet with ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to several years in prison last month on what many see as bogus, politicized charges.

The non-invitation earned ASEAN some credit from its critics, who accused the bloc of doing very little during the previous months to push back against the junta’s violence.

However, when Hun Sen announced his upcoming visit to Naypyidaw last month he intimated that he thought junta officials should be allowed to attend ASEAN meetings, including the annual summit at the end of this year to be held in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.  

“We cannot call ourselves ASEAN if we only have nine of our members,” he said last month. “We have to rescue ASEAN by bringing it up from just nine back to 10 full members. That is the highest priority for ASEAN.” 

Hun Sen’s announcement of his visit was made on December 6, the day after the junta’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin was in Phnom Penh for a visit.

His visit date is also symbolic: Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge defector, returned with Vietnamese forces to overthrow the genocidal regime on January 7, 1979, a date now celebrated locally as “Victory Day.” 

The problem isn’t necessarily the visit – although many pundits and Myanmar people oppose it on principle – but how Hun Sen has gone about it. 

“The rushed trip is more reflective of Hun Sen’s do-it-myself attitude, consequences be damned, than a proactive response to ASEAN’s failure to bring about a diplomatic solution to the crisis,” said Hunter Marston, a researcher on Southeast Asia at the Australian National University.

“What’s wrong,” he added, “is the way Hun Sen has gone about the proposed visit: without conditions and with statements that overwhelmingly give the junta carte blanche to reset the terms of engagement with a friendly autocrat and – through him – with ASEAN.”

For starters, it’s difficult to know who exactly Hun Sen will be representing when in Naypyidaw: Cambodia or ASEAN. And, indeed, who Min Aung Hlaing thinks Hun Sen is representing. 

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has vast economic resources at his disposal. Photo: AFP/ Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency

On January 4, Hun Sen held a phone call with Indonesia President Joko Widodo to discuss his visit, and last week Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn spoke with Noeleen Heyzer, the UN’s Special Envoy on Myanmar. 

However, Hun Sen has not held direct talks with the leaders of any other ASEAN member, nor conferred a special meeting of regional representatives to agree on what terms he should discuss with the junta leader. 

Neither has he invited other Southeast Asian leaders or foreign ministers to accompany him, which would have made clear his visit is ASEAN-related and whatever promises or concessions he extracts from the junta would be agreeable to the rest of the bloc. 

Marston suggested that Hun Sen could have invited along ASEAN officials more critical of the junta, such as the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Singapore, Retno Marsudi and Vivian Balakrishnan, respectively.  

Last year, Brunei attempted to respond to the Myanmar crisis through consensus, making sure to find common ground with at least Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore and occasionally Thailand, which shares a long and increasingly volatile border with Myanmar. 

Hun Sen, who is used to dictatorial rule at home, where he has been in charge since 1985, has flipped ASEAN’s usual dynamic and will chair the bloc this year in a personalist fashion, evidenced by his Naypyidaw sojourn on Friday, analysts say. 

There is speculation among observers and analysts that Hun Sen, perhaps out of some sort of authoritarian solidarity, is rushing off to Naypyidaw because he wants the junta to succeed – and, therefore, for the civil disobedience movement backed by a government-in-exile to fail. 

“Hun Sen is authoritarian himself, just as Min Aung Hlaing, so I think that the meeting between the two in Naypyidaw will be productive in boosting joint policy efforts between two authoritarian regimes, as well as enhancing legitimacy for the Burmese junta,” said Paul Chambers, an academic at the center of ASEAN Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand. 

There is also a perception that this visit has much to do with swelling Hun Sen’s ego, motivated in part by the hubris that he could replicate in Myanmar what he achieved in Cambodia in the 1990s when his government helped bring an end to a three-decade civil war. 

Despite now being one of the world’s longest-ruling leaders, Hun Sen isn’t regarded internationally as a political figure of repute. His name is rarely mentioned in the same laudatory breath as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew or Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, for instance.

And this may be his last chance for Hun Sen to shine on an international stage. On December 24, Hun Sen pressured the Central Committee of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party to accept his eldest son, Hun Manet, as the country’s next prime ministerial candidate, a dynastic succession he has been planning for years.

Hun Manet, the prime minister’s eldest son, is poised to become the nation’s next leader. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

With Hun Sen likely to step down by 2028, if not before, this will be his last time as ASEAN chair. 

The bigger problem, analysts say, is that Hun Sen’s visit could end up with a double loss: the first visit by another country’s leader will confer some legitimacy on the junta, even if Hun Sen makes no formal statement about recognizing the junta as the legitimate government of Myanmar. 

And any concessions Hun Sen extracts from Min Aung Hlaing would not only be difficult to enforce, much like the current five-point consensus but they may not even be accepted by the rest of ASEAN.    

No other regional official will be present during Hun Sen’s one-on-one with Min Aung Hlaing, so other Southeast Asian governments will have to trust what he says publicly after the meeting what was said during the talks.  

There are already signs of intra-bloc discord. While Hun Sen suggested last month that he is in favor of Myanmar’s generals attending this year’s ASEAN Summit, Indonesian President Widodo rebuffed the idea earlier this week. 

After talking with Hun Sen on Tuesday, Widodo tweeted: “Should there be no significant progress on the implementation of [five-point consensus], Myanmar should only be represented by non-political level at ASEAN meetings.”

According to commentators who spoke to Asia Times, Hun Sen’s visit could further divide the bloc. If it creates a narrative that ASEAN is legitimizing the junta, the region’s other authoritarian states are likely to agree but it would be opposed by Indonesia, Singapore and possibly Malaysia. 

Hun Sen, however, argues that his stance is the one that properly reflects ASEAN traditions, chiefly non-interference in the affairs of another member state, a tenet that appeared to be threatened by the bloc’s response to the Myanmar crisis last year.

When announcing his visit last month, Hun Sen sought to portray his move as one forced upon him because of the lack of any resolution to the crisis last year. 

“If I don’t work with the leadership, whom can I work with?” he said last month, a comment that many commentators saw as conveying legitimacy upon the junta. 

His defenders also claim hypocrisy and unfair attacks, with some justification. For instance, there was much opprobrium when Hun Sen announced last month that Cambodia’s foreign minister, Prak Sokhonn, will take on the role of the ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar, a position previously occupied by Brunei’s second foreign minister, Erywan Yusof. 

Myanmar protesters carry signs calling on ASEAN not to endorse the junta’s new election plan. Picture: APHR

“By appointing a new ASEAN special envoy for Myanmar, Hun Sen has effectively reset the clock in the junta’s favor,” said Marston. 

No ASEAN leader has visited Myanmar since the coup, although Thailand’s foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, who also serves as a Deputy prime minister, visited Naypyidaw and met with Min Aung Hlaing in November.

Meanwhile, Western democracies including the US have imposed some sanctions on the junta, its top members and business interests, but none have recognized the National Unity Government (NUG), the government-in-exile. The UN has repeatedly postponed any decision on who should occupy Myanmar’s seats on international bodies. 

“Have your countries cut off diplomatic relations with Myanmar? This is the question to be answered. No country so far [has] cut off relations with Myanmar. Why can’t Hun Sen visit Myanmar?” the Cambodian Prime Minister said on December 23.

Some analysts contend Cambodia plans to do China’s bidding as ASEAN’s chair. Yet it’s difficult to say that Hun Sen would then take an overtly pro-junta approach in Myanmar to please China since Beijing has been keen to maintain ties with the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) and certainly doesn’t want the Tatmadaw to gain complete control over the country. Significantly, Suu Kyi’s government was also forming close ties to China.

At the same time, Western democracies are clearly losing faith in ASEAN’s capability to sort out the Myanmar situation. Despite the junta’s dis-invitation by ASEAN in October, Myanmar’s situation clearly hasn’t improved with military violence continuing unabated. 

No ASEAN state – not least Cambodia, now engaged in a spiraling spat with the United States – wants to see greater Western intervention in Myanmar.

“Almost every day some massacre or outrage demonstrates how far the junta is willing to go to cling on to power,” said Bill Hayton, associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House. 

“There is a lot of fanciful talk about peoples’ militias overthrowing the junta and bringing democracy to Myanmar. It seems much more likely that Myanmar will face a decade of increasingly bloody violence without resolution,” he added. 

Hayton says the only way to end the impasse remains a deal with the military. “This has been obvious since the coup last February. No one likes the idea but it’s better than the alternative,” he said. 

Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno