BANGKOK -- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is experiencing an embarrassing internal rift over the first big event on its diplomatic calendar of the year.
Cambodia's Foreign Ministry had scheduled an ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia, known as the gateway to Angkor Wat, for Jan. 18-19. But just a few days before the meeting, the ministry said it had been postponed. It did not initially say when the meeting would be held, but finally announced on Saturday that it had been rescheduled for Feb. 16-17.
The omicron wave breaking over the region was cited as the reason for the abrupt decision to put off the meeting. But the conference could have been held online if that had been the issue. The real problem was Cambodia's decision to invite Wunna Maung Lwin, the Myanmar military-appointed foreign minister, to the meeting. That caused a backlash from other ASEAN members.
If Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen continues pushing to bring Myanmar back into the diplomatic fold without support from other ASEAN members, he could find himself isolated within the bloc and Cambodia might even be expelled from the group. Hun Sen, who has cast himself as the savior of ASEAN, is playing a dangerous game.
In defiance of ASEAN's earlier resolution barring Myanmar's political representatives from its meetings, Cambodia pressed ahead with its engagement of Myanmar. Declaring the time had come to restore ASEAN to its full membership, Hun Sen spent Jan. 7-8 in Myanmar, holding talks with military leader Min Aung Hlaing. It was the first visit by a foreign leader since Myanmar's military seized power from the democratically elected government in February last year. Hun Sen had hoped to use the foreign ministers meeting in Siem Reap to cement Myanmar's return to ASEAN's good graces.
Other members of the group, including Malaysia and Indonesia, were not amused. Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah took Hun Sen to task, saying, "Normally, the ASEAN chair consults with others anytime they want to do something that is considered significant."
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Hun Sen over the phone that Myanmar's military leaders and senior government officials should not be invited to ASEAN's official meetings unless the country implements the five-point consensus peace plan agreed by the bloc's leaders last April. And a group of regional lawmakers, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), slammed Hun Sen's overture to Min Aung Hlaing in a statement saying, "These two coup-makers are conducting another coup within ASEAN that threatens to split the organization itself."
The five-point plan calls for an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all parties, appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue, provision of humanitarian assistance and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.
Min Aung Hlaing was present at the special ASEAN summit where the consensus was reached and agreed to the proposal. But Myanmar has yet to accept an ASEAN envoy. Frustrated by Myanmar's intransigence, ASEAN in October decided to exclude the regime's leaders from its meetings.
Meanwhile, Hun Sen isolated by his fellow leaders, received support from an unexpected quarter: Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary at Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and an opinion leader in the country.
Referring to the five-point consensus, Bilahari wrote in a recent column in a Singaporean newspaper: "The other two points -- cessation of violence and conducting a dialogue with the opposition -- are better understood as ASEAN seeking to occupy the moral high ground ... rather than realistic goals."
In defending Hun Sen's approach, he said, "Diplomatic posturing is, however, not to be confused with practical diplomacy."
Bilahari's support for Hun Sen was all the more surprising given his denunciation of the pro-China stances of Cambodia and Laos in a speech he delivered in 2020. On that occasion, he said, "[I]f they should make the wrong choices, they will confront ASEAN as a whole with difficult choices. We may have to cut loose the two to save the eight."
Emboldened by Bilahari's endorsement, Hun Sen fired back at the Malaysian foreign minister, calling him "arrogant."
The Cambodian leader announced, a bit prematurely, his intention to broker a truce within Myanmar in cooperation with Brunei, which held ASEAN's chairmanship last year, and Indonesia, which will take over next year.
During his previous stint as ASEAN's chairman a decade ago, Hun Sen blocked a joint communique by ASEAN foreign ministers for the first time in the group's history, refusing to mention in the statement ASEAN members' territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. Hun Sen seems to be trying to make amends for his earlier diplomatic blunder by playing a key role in ending the crisis in Myanmar.
Why is he so keen? Chheang Vannarith, president of the Asian Vision Institute, an independent think tank based in Cambodia, points to the pivotal role Hun Sen played in the Paris Peace Agreements in October 1991, which formally ended the Cambodian civil war. That was the moment when Cambodia created a unified government, assured its territorial integrity and wrote a constitution for the first time in its modern history. Hun Sen thinks he can apply the negotiating skills he honed then to the current situation in Myanmar, according to Chheang.
In the 1980s, the government of the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP) now the Cambodian People's Party, led by Hun Sen, was locked in a civil war with an alliance of three groups opposed to the Vietnamese-backed regime in Phnom Penh. The alliance was led by Pol Pot, former Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann. The two camps both claimed to be the country's legitimate government.
The KPRP toppled the Pol Pot government in 1979, with the help of Vietnam, and effectively ruled most of the country. But the government was not internationally recognized, as it was seen as Vietnam's puppet. With aid from the Soviet Union drying up following the end of Cold War, the KPRP government was under pressure to bring the country out of its international isolation.
Hun Sen used a multinational framework to strike a deal with the alliance. The Paris Peace Agreements were signed by 19 countries. The accords laid out a blueprint for Cambodia's transition to democracy through an interim period of rule by the U.N., followed by a general election. The grueling negotiations over these agreements would never have succeeded without concessions from Hun Sen, who effectively controlled the nation.
Former Japanese diplomat Masaharu Kono, in his book on the peace talks, recounts an episode involving the young Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Hun Sen secretly visited Japan in April 1991 to treat a health problem. As he underwent comprehensive testing, he said he would retire from politics and spend the rest of his life writing novels if he was diagnosed with a serious disease. Hun Sen also said he had never wanted to become a politician; he aspired to be a writer, according to Kono's book.
As it turned out, Hun Sen was given a clean bill of health and six months after returning to office, he successfully concluded the peace accords.
Hun Sen seems to be driven by a desire to coach Myanmar's Min Aung Hlaing on how to make a strategic compromise to bring Myanmar back into the international community.
But Cambodia's position in the world back then was more like that of Myanmar before the transfer of power from the military to the new civilian government in 2011. Myanmar's current military regime, which has rolled back democratization through its putsch last year, is more like Hun Sen's regime in the years after the peace accords were signed.
There are parallels between the way Min Aung Hlaing seized control in Myanmar and Hun Sen's power grab following the general election in 1993. In the years since, Hun Sen has ruled as an autocrat, forcing the dissolution of the largest opposition party and enabling his own party to take all the seats in Cambodia's lower house election in 2018.
After Cambodia marked the 30th anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements in October last year, Prince Norodom Ranariddh died. While memories of how Cambodia struck the peace deal are fading, Hun Sen, once a young lover of literature, has lost none of his political shrewdness, as shown by the current state of Cambodia, which is far from the democratic nation envisioned when the peace deal was engineered.
Hun Sen's claim to leadership is at least bolstered by the fact that he liberated his country from the nightmare of the Pol Pot regime, which committed genocide on an unprecedented scale. By contrast, Min Aung Hlaing has not only used the army to seize power but also killed nearly 1,500 citizens of Myanmar in a brutal crackdown on protesters. Hun Sen's attempt to embrace the military regime as a member of the ASEAN "family" is unlikely to lead either Myanmar or ASEAN toward a better future.