Indonesia and Malaysia, two of ASEAN's founders, on Thursday criticized the Cambodian prime minister’s controversial trip to crisis-ridden Myanmar last week, with Kuala Lumpur’s top diplomat saying Hun Sen should have consulted other members of the bloc first.
An official at Indonesia’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, urged Cambodia to stick to what the 10-member regional bloc had agreed to in meetings, including a five-point consensus to put Myanmar on the path to democracy.
The public comments from the officials were the first by ASEAN member-states outside Cambodia and Myanmar after Hun’s Sen’s trip to Naypyidaw on Jan. 7-8.
“Malaysia is of the opinion that [Hun Sen] has the right to visit Myanmar as head of government of Cambodia,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told reporters at a dinner in Kuala Lumpur, when asked about Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar.
“However, we also feel that because he has already assumed the chair of ASEAN, he could have probably consulted if not all, a few other ASEAN leaders and seek their views as what he should do if he were to go to Myanmar,” Saifuddin added, referring to Cambodia’s role as the 2022 holder of the bloc’s rotating chairmanship.
The Southeast Asian bloc took a hard line against Myanmar late last year when it disinvited coup leader Min Aung Hlaing from its top meeting of the year, the ASEAN summit, because the senior general had reneged on the five-point consensus. Similarly, before that, an ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar canceled his trip there after he was told he could not meet all parties in the conflict, including democracy leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi.
Hun Sen, though, upon assuming the chairmanship of ASEAN, promptly said that the junta should be represented at meetings. He then dashed off to Myanmar, met the junta leader and did not meet democracy leaders.
ASEAN members needed to work in concert to achieve progress in hammering out a solution to the situation in Myanmar, Abdul Kadir Jailani, director general for Asia, the Pacific and Africa at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters in Jakarta on Thursday.
“We hope that the Cambodian chairmanship can consistently implement what has been agreed [to] in previous ASEAN meetings – the implementation of the five-point consensus – and make efforts to achieve significant progress,” he said.
“That’s what we have to work on together.”
Noeleen Heyzer, the United Nations special envoy on Myanmar, meanwhile stressed the same point in a conversation with Hun Sen on Thursday.
'No significant progress'
Indonesia, the largest and most populous nation in Southeast Asia, along with Malaysia, were among the five original members of ASEAN when it was born in 1967. The bloc has long operated on the principle of consensus in collective actions and policies.
The Indonesian and Malaysian officials made their comments a day after Cambodia canceled an in-person ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Siem Reap set for Jan. 18-19, citing travel difficulties for regional diplomats. But, according to analysts, the shelving happened likely because several of the bloc’s-member states had decided not to attend the meeting in protest of Hun Sen’s unilateralism on Myanmar.
Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore have previously backed shutting out the military regime’s representatives from these gatherings for their failure to implement ASEAN’s consensus reached last April, two months after the Feb. 1 coup that toppled an elected Burmese government.
When asked which countries this time around had reservations about Hun Sen’s trip, Saifuddin declined to name names, but said there were some which said the Cambodian PM had the right to visit Myanmar.
“There are people who think that he should not have taken the visit because his visit has been construed as some recognition to the military junta of Myanmar,” Saifuddin said.
“But there are also others who feel that, well, as the head of government of Cambodia, he has the liberty to visit Myanmar for what is seen as normal bilateral visit. President Jokowi called him before his visit and I am sure you have read the discussion between Hun Sen and Jokowi.”
Saifuddin was referring to comments made on Twitter by Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo after a phone conversation with Hun Sen.
“Should there be no significant progress on the implementation of 5PCs [five-point consensus], Myanmar should only be represented by non-political level at ASEAN meetings,” Jokowi had said.
And when asked whether Hun Sen’s trip to Myanmar had achieved anything, Saifuddin replied “no.”
Regarding Cambodia’s postponement of the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting, Saifuddin said the Omicron situation and other diplomats’ prior commitments meant that not everyone could attend.
As for Indonesia’s Abdul Kadir, he said that Indonesia understood that the postponement was due to travel restrictions following the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
“But at the same time, we must also admit that within ASEAN there are still many things that we need to iron out in order to come to a common stand on the issue of Myanmar’s representation,” he said.
“We know that there has been no significant progress ... so Indonesia is consistent with the previous decision taken by ASEAN that Myanmar should only be represented by non-political representatives.”
Cambodia did not announce when the foreign ministers meeting would take place, and Indonesia’s Abdul Kadir also said he did not know either.
“What we know is that the physical meeting will be postponed. As for a new date or whether it will be held virtually, we are still communicating,” he said.
United Nations Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer (right, on television screen) speaks to Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia (left, on TV screen) at a virtual meeting, in Phnom Penh, Jan. 13, 2022. [Photo courtesy of Samdech Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister via Facebook]
‘Can’t be at a stalemate’
Muhammad Arif, an international relations professor at the University of Indonesia, said any upcoming ASEAN meeting would be key to determining progress on Myanmar.
“If in the next ASEAN meeting, Myanmar is represented in full official capacity and with full diplomatic credentials, it will clearly be a setback for Indonesia, which rejects the military junta in Myanmar,” he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Divisions within ASEAN will also only embolden the military rulers in Myanmar, he said.
“He [Hun Sen] should speak in his capacity as chairman of ASEAN and his recommendations should be in line with the five-point consensus. The emphasis should be on seeking constructive dialogue involving all parties,” Arif said.
For his part, Cambodia’s PM Hun Sen took to Facebook on Thursday to defend his meeting with Burmese junta chief Min Aung Hlaing.
He said the meeting between him and the Burmese military leader was in line with the ASEAN constitution and the bloc’s five-point consensus.
“Cambodia’s plan over the recent visit to Burma as the ASEAN chair is to seek solutions to end the violence, and [ensure a] ceasefire, which are in line with the five- point consensus. In addition, [the meeting aims] to provide humanitarian aid needed by Myanmar during this transition period,” he wrote.
“We can’t be at a stalemate and we need to seek solutions to resolve this deadlock in order to find an opportunity for negotiation.”
One regional analyst, Derek Grossman, said via Twitter on Thursday that he believes the divisions in ASEAN are stark.
“Hun Sen’s recent Myanmar visit exposes deep ASEAN fissures. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore are against legitimizing the junta. But Cambodia along with Laos, Vietnam and Thailand all likely think there’s no other option,” he said.
“ASEAN is in trouble.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, with additional reporting by RFA's Khmer Service.