Hun Sen wields massive power, yet insists his country is still under constant threat. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

On February 7, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that Myanmar’s junta had released Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi who was arrested days after the military coup of last year. This, Hun Sen claimed, came as a direct result of his own request for Turnell’s release, made during his controversial visit to Naypyidaw early last month.

It quickly turned out not to be true. Myanmar military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said the junta has no plans to release Turnell, whose charges carry a 14-year prison sentence. Hun Sen then backtracked and apologized for the mistake, saying it was due to receiving “wrong information.”

Either he misunderstood what he was told or he naively believed the junta’s lies. Either way, it doesn’t look good for Hun Sen. But it’s just the latest in a string of public embarrassments since he took on the ASEAN chair this year.

In December, the Cambodian leader said he would visit Myanmar to meet personally with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, something no other world leader had done since last February’s coup.

Yet Hun Sen seemed to give away most of his leverage by repeatedly saying before his visit that he wants junta officials to attend ASEAN events again, despite the rest of the Southeast Asian club agreeing last October to exclude the junta until it made progress towards an agreed the Five-Point Consensus to de-escalate the country’s post-coup crisis.

Other ASEAN states reacted angrily after they weren’t even consulted before Hun Sen’s trip to Naypyidaw on January 7. (He only spoke to Indonesian President Joko Widodo beforehand.) This led to what appeared to be their plan to boycott an ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat that Phnom Penh was supposed to host last month.

Hun Sen responded by accusing Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah of being “arrogant” and impolite for critiquing his visit. A call with Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob papered over these cracks, but the rest of the bloc had made their frustration known.

Early this month, Hun Sen finally gave in and said a junta official wouldn’t be welcome at the foreign ministers’ retreat, which was “postponed” in January but was back on for mid-February. Then came Hun Sen’s mistake on Turnell. 

Myanmar is no more peaceful and the junta no less murderous than when Hun Sen visited early last month, a trip that did nothing but to confer a little legitimacy on the Tatmadaw generals.

Myanmar protesters hold a placard condemning Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s February 1, 2021, military coup. Image: Facebook

ASEAN is, however, more divided than last year. What little leverage it had over the junta is now in tatters. How can Hun Sen be expected to lead discussions with Naypyidaw now? One of the world’s longest-serving leaders, he has been left looking like a diplomatic novice, browbeaten by all sides.  

What explains Hun Sen’s failings? One answer is hubris. He went into his ASEAN chairmanship with extreme confidence. At home, Cambodia’s ruling party had just agreed to nominate his eldest son to succeed him as prime minister, a dynastic succession he has long planned.

The country boasted one of the world’s best Covid-19 vaccination rates, he was lauded for his government’s mostly positive handling of the pandemic, and economic recovery for 2022 was looking good.

At the same time, Hun Sen has constructed a mythology for himself as supposedly the person who singlehandedly ended Cambodia’s three-decade civil war when the Khmer Rouge finally gave up arms by 1999. (This is a leader who had taxpayers fund the US$12 million “Win-Win Monument” to celebrate his own apparent accomplishments.)

Yet he has long been denied, but demanded, the sort of international admiration given to other elder Southeast Asian statesmen, such as Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad. 

Hun Sen may have believed his own historical lies; the reality of the Khmer Rouge’s surrender is far more complicated than he frequently portrays, and involved many actors other than himself.

Hun Sen possibly isn’t as quick between the ears as he was in the 1990s, when he was in his 40s, compared with today, now in his late 60s. Maybe he is no longer the Machiavelli of the Mekong he was back then, his political cunning now flabby after decades of uncontested power and weak opposition at home. 

Another answer is that Hun Sen doesn’t properly understand what’s happening in Myanmar. For much of 2020, he publicly said almost nothing about the coup, only that it was an internal matter for Myanmar (a comment he made days after the putsch).

In October, he agreed with ASEAN’s exclusion of Min Aung Hlaing from the bloc’s annual summit that month. But he quickly flip-flopped and said the following month, after taking the ASEAN chair, that he wanted the junta to attend regional events. 

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

If his four-decade rule at home is any measure, Hun Sen is no champion for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. His last tenure as ASEAN chairman, in 2012, was marked by controversy after many accused him of siding with Beijing against his Southeast Asian neighbors over disputes in the South China Sea. So neither is he all too concerned with opprobrium from the rest of the region.

That said, he hasn’t been too enthusiastic about military governments in the past. His personal friendship with ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra meant Cambodia’s relations with Thailand’s military government after the 2006 coup were frosty.

He had also built up some affinity with the now-deposed Suu Kyi when she was state counselor of Myanmar. Cambodia’s “ironclad friend,” China, has mixed feelings about the Myanmar coup. 

The answer is a combination of all of the above. Hun Sen, like others in the world, wants Myanmar off the agenda as soon as possible. And he wants ASEAN to return to what it’s good at: talking trade and business.

Hasty and overconfident, Hun Sen wrongly thought he could force the junta to return quickly to the negotiating table. Similarly, he believed even limited concessions from the Tatmadaw would be accepted by others in ASEAN as progress, not sensing how much the bloc had been changed by its stance against the junta last year.

He misread all sides. He didn’t fully understand the gravity of the problem. And he believed his own propaganda. 

The Cambodian leader now needs to show some humility and introspection to prevent his next 10 months as ASEAN chairman aren’t as woeful as his first two months. Perhaps the silver lining to all of this is that Hun Sen now realizes Myanmar’s junta cannot be trusted. But his failure so far has no doubt come as a surprise for a leader so accustomed to getting his own way. 

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain and regular contributor to Asia Times. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno