Hun Sen and Min Aung Hlaing: A new challenge for ASEAN

Hun Sen and Min Aung Hlaing: A new challenge for ASEAN

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s latest move to normalize relations with Myanmar’s military junta raises questions as to which diplomatic course of action the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will pursue this year as Cambodia assumes chairmanship of the organization.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s latest move to normalize relations with Myanmar’s military junta raises questions as to which diplomatic course of action the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will pursue this year as Cambodia assumes chairmanship of the organization.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Cambodia is unlikely to push for junta chief Min Aung Hlaing to negotiate with the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar.
– The other ASEAN member-states are unlikely to break ranks and pressure the junta. If they do, the organization could potentially be faced with an irremediable fracture.
– ASEAN is likely to give up the issue altogether in favor of associational consensus, focusing instead on the “ASEAN way” of non-interference.

HU SEN AND THE NEW ASEAN PARADIGM

In the aftermath of the February 2021 coup d’etat in Myanmar, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last December his intention to normalize relations with the Tatmadaw — the Burmese military junta — led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. This decision came as Cambodia assumed chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2022. In this position, Cambodia has the opportunity to promote policy initiatives, coordination, and cooperation within the association, thereby opening up options for Hun Sen to re-establish diplomatic relations between ASEAN and Myanmar. This would reverse the Association’s previous decision to sideline Min Aung Hlaing over his failure to implement the negotiated Five-Point Consensus that sought to end hostilities in the country. Hun Sen’s diplomatic plan was implemented on December 7 when he met with the Tatmadaw-appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs Wunna Maung Lwin in Phnom Penh. This was followed by a formal visit with Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar earlier this year.

Hun Sen’s decision to normalize relations with Min Aung Hlaing’s regime sparked widespread controversy in Southeast Asia, with Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah expressing concerns over human rights abuses committed by the junta in Myanmar. The treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority is especially important to Malaysia in light of recent plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees, whose security remains at risk under the Tatmadaw in Myanmar. Similar concerns were echoed by former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya — who accused Hun Sen of undermining ASEAN’s diplomatic progress — as well as Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Indonesian President Joko Widodo. In the face of disagreement over the Myanmar issue, ASEAN postponed its Foreign Minister Summit originally scheduled for last month.

OSCILLATING DIPLOMACY WITH MYANMAR

Amid strong opposition from ASEAN and Western countries alike, Hun Sen’s first diplomatic visit to the Tatmadaw took place in early January. The visit was the first from a foreign leader since the Tatmadaw deposed democratically-elected State Counsellor Aung San Suu Ky. The visit also marked Cambodia’s first attempt at thawing relations with Myanmar, which had been dealt a blow months earlier when ASEAN decided not to invite Myanmar to the Association’s emergency summit. Several weeks later, ASEAN chaired a meeting with China, once again without inviting the Tatmadaw. Many countries beyond Southeast Asia — including the US and the European Union — had welcomed ASEAN’s decision to sideline Min Aung Hlaing. For many, the decision stood out from the signature “ASEAN Way” of dispute settlement: a mechanism centered around the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs and which typically involves informal discussions among political leaders. Scholars also highlighted the significance of this move considering the region’s complicated commitment to democracy. In this sense, the new paradigm signaled a potential for ASEAN to shift from bystander to active mediator in the crisis.

While Hun Sen’s decision to travel to Myanmar to meet with Min Aung Hlaing re-aligns with the ASEAN Way of dispute settlement, it also marks an abrupt end to the regional organization’s first breakthrough diplomatic action. Opposition to Hun Sen’s rapprochement strategy was particularly strong amid activists from the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) — Myanmar’s largest pro-democracy activist group — which was spearheaded by medical workers at the onset of the coup. Many have warned that normalizing relations with the Tatmadaw would benefit the military regime to the detriment of the people. 

BLEAK PROSPECTS FOR DEMOCRACY IN MYANMAR

With Cambodia assuming chairmanship of ASEAN for 2022, an end to the political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar seems unlikely, particularly when ASEAN’s earlier decisions to hold several summits without the Tatmadaw were praised as setting a precedent for collective action in the region.

While the “ASEAN Way” of dispute settlement usually seeks to avoid direct confrontation between member-states, holding the two summits without Min Aung Hlaing showcased ASEAN’s potential to take stronger action in response to a regime whose legitimacy is increasingly questioned by protesters in Myanmar. Hun Sen’s visit and rapprochement strategy will effectively undermine the prospect of ASEAN taking action if they normalize Min Aung Hlaing’s status as the legitimate political leader of Myanmar, leaving the future of the Burmese pro-democracy movement uncertain.

Following his meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, Hun Sen released a statement announcing a special envoy to Myanmar, in accordance with the Five-Point Consensus negotiated between ASEAN and the Tatmadaw leadership in April 2021. However, questions arise as to whether Cambodia — and ASEAN more broadly — will enforce the cessation of violence in Myanmar, the first point listed in the consensus. Burmese pro-democracy activists fear that the normalization of relations with Myanmar will only embolden the junta in its violent campaigns against the CDM, an important point that Hun Sen failed to adequately address during his visit.

Cambodia’s diplomatic rapprochement with Myanmar comes at a time when Hun Sen is paving the way for his son, Hun Manet, to assume leadership of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and become the country’s next Prime Minister. Scholars generally agree that Cambodia under Hun Sen is not aligned with democratic principles, and his lineup for succession is further evidence of this argument. Given that the CDM’s demands focus on democratic, multi-party negotiations to settle the issue with the Tatmadaw, and in light of Hun Sen’s lack of commitment to democracy at home, activists’ fears are far from unfounded. Cambodia’s current strategy of negotiating directly with Min Aung Hlaing — rather than listening to the voices of Burmese activists denouncing the hardship of the military junta on the ground — leaves poor prospects for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar to receive substantive support from ASEAN this year.

Internally, it remains unclear what this new course of action will entail for ASEAN. While the diplomatic boycott was acclaimed internationally, experts still consider it to be an unprecedented step for ASEAN. The existing fracture among ASEAN states would also worsen in the face of strong, continued resistance to Hun Sen’s rapprochement project. Speaking to the press shortly after announcing his visit early last December, the Cambodian leader clearly warned his critics to not “bother [him],” implying he would be willing to retaliate against ASEAN states that attempt to maintain the diplomatic embargo with the Tatmadaw. Given his lack of commitment to democratic institutions at home, it seems likely he would also be willing to override the ASEAN consensus on Myanmar to further rapprochement with Min Aung Hlaing.

Undoubtedly, the course of action followed by the association in the past year has set a number of new precedents — from sidelining the Tatmadaw to postponing a summit over such disagreements — leaving many doors open with regards to what the future will look like. Ultimately, these latest developments raise the question of how far ASEAN states are willing to go to defend the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar. In light of a constituent body, whose regimes vary from flawed democracies to outright authoritarianism, it is unlikely the ASEAN will keep pushing for Min Aung Hlaing to give in to the demands of the CDM. Such a break in ASEAN’s ranks — that is, to ignore the lead of the chair country — would provoke tensions and promote fractures in the collective decision-making process which could lead to the split of ASEAN. 

The more likely outcome will test the extent to which ASEAN countries are willing to compromise the organization’s integrity in the name of unity. The group is likely to eventually give in to Cambodia’s demands to re-establish diplomatic relations with the Tatmadaw. This alternative would likely entail a non-confrontational approach in line with Hun Sen’s plan for Myanmar, not only reversing ASEAN’s groundbreaking diplomatic advances in the region but also jeopardizing the future of the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar.