BANGKOK - Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen began his two-day trip to Myanmar on Friday (Jan 7), becoming the first government leader to visit the country since the Feb 1 coup last year.
While there were concerns that the visit, as well as his meeting with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, would legitimise the junta leader who was shut out of recent Asean summits, Mr Hun Sen said he wanted to help Myanmar avoid a civil war.
Cambodia is Asean chair this year under the grouping’s rotating arrangement.
On arrival in Naypyitaw on Friday, the Cambodian Prime Minister, who was accompanied by Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and other senior officials, presided over the donation of masks, ventilators, oxygen concentrators and other medical equipment to help Myanmar combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
He later traded a fist bump with Gen Min Aung Hlaing, as both of them sat down for talks. According to Myanmar state television, the junta leader thanked Mr Hun Sen for supporting peace efforts in Myanmar.
According to a press release issued by the junta’s foreign ministry late on Friday night, Gen Min Aung Hlaing referred to an earlier ceasefire his administration had declared with all ethnic armed groups during discussions with Mr Hun Sen.
The general “called on all parties concerned to accept the ceasefire in the interest of the country and people, end all acts of violence and exercise utmost restraint”, it said.
Gen Min Aung Hlaing reportedly welcomed the participation of Asean’s special envoy on Myanmar – Cambodian foreign minister Prak Sokhonn – to join ceasefire talks with Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups.
Both leaders said they would support convening a meeting involving the special envoy, the Asean secretary-general, relevant United Nations agencies and Myanmar organisations like the Myanmar Red Cross Society to make the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Myanmar people more efficient.
Protests have broken out in Myanmar against Mr Hun Sen since he announced the trip last month. Myanmar social media users have also slammed him on his Facebook page.
“We don’t need you. Shame on you,” wrote Facebook user Tain Tha Khin on Friday (Jan 7).
The military junta has justified its power grab by alleging that the November 2020 election won by the National League for Democracy party was fraudulent. It has pledged to hold fresh elections in 2023.
Months after violently putting down peaceful protests against the coup, the regime is now grappling with an armed insurgency by “people’s defence forces” in various parts of Myanmar.
More than 220,000 people have been displaced by armed conflict and unrest since the coup, according to the United Nations.
Mr Hun Sen made the visit without setting preconditions, drawing criticism that he was scuttling Asean’s hard-won agreement to exclude the junta from its high-level meetings if it did not make any progress on the bloc’s “five-point consensus”.
This blueprint called for an immediate cessation of violence, humanitarian aid to Myanmar and constructive dialogue among all parties that a special Asean envoy would help facilitate. It also agreed that the envoy would visit Myanmar to meet all stakeholders concerned.
The first such envoy, Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, did not visit Myanmar as the junta would not grant him access to deposed political leaders such as state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
She is currently serving a two-year jail sentence for inciting dissent and breaching pandemic restrictions, and faces several other charges brought against her by the regime after the coup.
During the meeting with Mr Hun Sen, Gen Min Aung Hlaing stressed that the implementation of Asean’s five-point consensus should be complementary to the junta’s own political road map.
In the online Regional Outlook Forum 2022 held by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on Friday (Jan 7), Myanmar analyst Min Zin questioned whether the junta would be able to fulfil its pledge to hold fresh elections in 2023 in light of the escalating insurgency.
It would likely “double down” on its tough response, he said.
The majority of people in Myanmar was also sceptical about Mr Hun Sen’s intervention, said Mr Min Zin, who is the executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy.
“They are very worried that Asean is giving an exit to the military, not to the country’s crisis,” he said.
He also urged Cambodia to consult broadly with stakeholders such as the rival National Unity Government, as well as coordinate its actions with envoys like those from the UN, China and Japan.
“It’s quite important to pay attention to coordination and listening, rather than trying to show off with their solo diplomatic championship. Otherwise that will be unsuccessful or at worst be seen as co-opted,” he said.
In a message on New Year’s Eve, the newly appointed UN special envoy on Myanmar, Dr Noeleen Heyzer, said: “Any solution for the current crisis needs to be a Myanmar-led process, reflective of the will of the people and honour the principles cherished by the founding leaders.”