Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s time as the ASEAN chair is running out. In a way, 2022 has been much like the previous year–particularly in the maddening context of Myanmar, where Brunei, the previous chair stumbled to the finish line after largely failed diplomacy after the February 2021 coup. In other ways, Brunei’s shepherding of the ill-fated Five-Point Consensus (FPC) and the creation of the ASEAN Special Envoy wasn’t Cambodia’s fault; Hun Sen inherited the mess. And the Security Council, already negligent on its normative duties, punted to ASEAN as early as March of 2021.
Even if Hun Sen relished the international spotlight, Cambodia wasn’t exactly ready to shine. While most ASEAN states were leaning toward condemnation of the coup and essentially blocked Myanmar’s presence at the ASEAN Summit in October 2021, Hun Sen tried to bring the military junta’s leadership back into the ASEAN circle by directly engaging the junta’s appointed minister of foreign affairs, Wunna Maung Lwin, back in December. He next announced that he would personally visit Myanmar to meet with coup leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, giving Myanmar a thin layer of legitimacy. An already frustrated and persecuted Burmese public protested, torching images of Hun Sen, and chanting vulgar slogans in anger. All the while, Hun Sen bristled at criticism, telling critics, “Please do not bother me. Give me a chance to solve the issue.” He did no such thing.
Hun Sen is not a patient man, nor has Cambodia’s tenure as ASEAN chair engendered any of that virtue. Critics have long seen the Tatmadaw’s brutality used on its own people, and the execution of four democratic activists, including an ex-Member of Parliament gave Hun Sen no clue. His pleas for their lives, calling it a “great concern among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its external partners,” fell on deaf ears. Hun Sen’s own mass trials of activists accused of treason for allegedly attempting to overthrow his government are just a stone’s throw away from the same arbitrary tactics employed by Myanmar’s junta.
His personal brand of diplomacy hasn’t moved events in any direction, despite sending his own special envoy to Myanmar twice. In the March 2022 meeting, the special envoy, Prak Sokhonn, aimed to smooth humanitarian cooperation, but that too ended in failure. Instead, again, the meeting was extensively covered by the local Global Light of Myanmar propaganda paper, giving Min Aung Hlaing another layer of legitimacy.
Even when there was some agreement there was doubt about the end result or the prospect of any success. In October, Cambodia announced that junta leader Min Aung Hlaing would not be invited to the ASEAN Summit held in Phnom Penh. Instead, a “non-political representative” would be invited because of Myanmar’s failure to implement any of the FPC that had been negotiated many months earlier back in April of 2021. But even that rejection was bittersweet, as it revealed indecisiveness among ASEAN members, with more aggressive members like Malaysia and Singapore supporting exclusion, while other states held their cards close. Further, while there were calls to reject the junta from meetings, Cambodia has shown little regard for working with the National Unity Government (NUG).
Most recently, as violence in Myanmar continues unabated, where a deadly air strike on a civilian gathering in Kachin State killed as many as 50 innocent people, Hun Sen found yet another way to set the wrong tone. As chair, Cambodia sent out a statement “calling for utmost restraint,” but found a way to avoid mentioning the junta by name, instead signaling out “one in particular with significant power on the ground” to find a peaceful solution. The statement drew significant criticism from the international community.
Cambodia’s failure likely puts ASEAN’s beleaguered diplomacy into the hands of Indonesia, which takes the reins next year. The feeling that joint diplomacy isn’t working and a divided ASEAN will only prolong the grip of Min Aung Hlaing on power has grown significantly. Indonesia and Singapore have pushed in the past to block Myanmar from all forms of participation, while those with special relationships with Myanmar’s generals, like Thailand, have been largely silent.
With the G20 and APEC on the horizon in November, Myanmar will again be jolted from the headlines, as the Ukraine war will likely be on the agenda at both gatherings. Inattention, a tone-deaf approach, failed diplomacy, and the temerity to think that a regional crisis could be solved by Hun Sen alone, have sealed Cambodia’s 2022 ASEAN chairmanship as a complete and unmitigated failure.
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