Handling Myanmar While Keeping ASEAN United: A Cambodian Perspective

Vann Bunna | 29 April 2022 |
FILE PHOTO: A worker adjusts an ASEAN flag at a meeting hall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, October 28, 2021. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng/File Photo (FILE PHOTO: A worker adjusts an ASEAN flag at a meeting hall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, October 28, 2021. REUTE
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Cambodia recently took a surprising turn on Myanmar. It invited Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin to pay a working visit in early December 2021. A day after Wunna visit, Royal Cambodian Armed Force Commander-in-Chief General Vong Pisen held a virtual meeting with Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing. More notably, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen paid an official visit to Myanmar for talks with Ming Aung Hlaing in early January 2022, making him the first government leader to visit this Southeast Asian country since the coup. On top of that, Cambodia has significantly shown its political willingness to include military junta regime leaders in regional diplomatic summits when the Kingdom assumes the annually rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year. At the invitation of Cambodia, Min Aung Hlaing is expected to join the ASEAN Chiefs of Defence Forces Meeting in Phnom Penh in March 2022.


The Cambodian government provided several reasons to justify its engagement approach with Myanmar’s military regime. The world’s longest-serving prime minister, Hun Sen, stated that a better way to start solving the Myanmar crisis is to engage with military junta leaders. As he mentioned, “If I don’t work with (a country’s) current leaders, then with whom should I be working?” Moreover, in response to the blowback, the Cambodian government released a statement stating that Cambodia is “strongly hopeful that a diplomatic solution will take place for the benefits of all parties and all political ideologies in a direction toward genuine peace, political stability, and development of our Myanmar friends.” Furthermore, in the press release of the outcomes of ASEAN foreign ministers and G7 foreign and development ministers meeting, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia explained Hun Sen’s plan to visit Myanmar as “to pave the way for progress on the ASEAN Five-point consensus” that aims to “create conducive environment for inclusive dialogue and political trust among all parties concerned, achieving common ground on a process towards ending violence and obtaining concurrence among relevant stakeholders on expediting humanitarian relief to reach those most in need.”


Nonetheless, despite Cambodia’s justification for engagement with the junta regime as a diplomatic effort and practical strategy to address the crisis, the Kingdom’s approach to Myanmar has caused concerns that this approach may affect ASEAN’s tough stance on the military regime and divide ASEAN. Former Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya stated that Cambodia’s new approach to Myanmar risked wasting ASEAN’s hard-won diplomatic progress on the military junta regime since the coup happened. More significantly, the Asian Vision Institute President, Chheang Vannarith, argued that Cambodia’s strategy toward Myanmar could challenge the unity of ASEAN. He stated that “There will be many challenges going forward. There can be misunderstandings among ASEAN family members. For that, if we do not manage to carefully walk the line, there will be risks of cracks among ASEAN member states.” In this regard, it is crucial to find a sound engagement strategy for Cambodia to address the Myanmar crisis effectively while maintaining ASEAN unity and cohesiveness.


ASEAN’s Stance on Myanmar

Two months after the coup took place, ASEAN’s special leader summit was held as a regional diplomatic effort to find the common ground on the possible solutions to the political crisis in Myanmar. As a result, the first-ever ASEAN’s physical meeting since the Covid-19 outbreak reached a five-point consensus as ASEAN’s first diplomatic solution to return Myanmar to normalcy. Nonetheless, the Myanmar junta regime failed to honor its commitment to ASEAN’s five-point consensus as it did not allow ASEAN chair special envoy to meet civil leader Aung San Suu Kyi.  The military-run State Administration Council (SAC) has attempted different strategies to throw out its obligation in implementing the five-point consensus of ASEAN by stressing the importance of its own Five-Point National Roadmap instead. After tough talks on 15 October 2021 at the Emergency ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting (AMM), ASEAN decided not to include General Min Aung Hlaing in the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits and Related Summits.


Nonetheless, it is worth noting that prior to this decision, ASEAN member states were not on the same page and divided when it came to the Myanmar issue. ASEAN’s mainland countries such as Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam pursued a remarkably different stance from ASEAN’s maritime countries such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore towards junta’s irresponsible acts on ASEAN’s five-point consensus. Notably, the mainland countries are partly satisfied with what the junta regime has offered, and the ASEAN special envoy ought to acknowledge the proposals to speed up his visit to Myanmar, with the condition that there would  be extra toppings on their menu for the following visit by the regime. Moreover, the mainland states understand that that would be time-consuming for national reconciliation, peace and stability in Myanmar; therefore, ASEAN should not discuss Myanmar’s credentials that might negatively affect the ASEAN process. In this regard, ASEAN should continue to engage with the junta.


Notwithstanding the stance of the mainland countries, the ASEAN’s maritime countries pursued a harder stance on the military regime. They highly demanded the junta’s regime leader fully implement ASEAN’s five-point consensus, especially by allowing ASEAN chair special envoy to have full access to all parties concerned in Myanmar. If the junta regime is unwilling to honor it, Myanmar’s credentials should be put on the discussion table. In this regard, the maritime states of ASEAN gave no choice to the junta regime, only to allow special envoy to fully access all parties concerned otherwise Myanmar’s credentials should be raised.


Facing the divided stance on Myanmar, three approaches were introduced before ASEAN – keeping the status quo, keeping Myanmar’s seat vacant and waiting for the UN’s official recognition of the credentials of Myanmar, and allowing the non-political figure of Myanmar to participate in the ASEAN Summit and related meetings. As the first choice was no longer workable and the second was supreme to “ASEAN-X” format that violates ASEAN’s Charter principle of equal sovereignty or ASEAN’s core value of “One Country, One Voice,” ASEAN finally adopted the third option to only invite a non-political representative from Myanmar, excluding junta top leaders from ASEAN Summit and related meetings. In this regard, ASEAN under Brunei chairmanship excluded junta leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, from the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits and the ASEAN-China special meeting respectively.


Cambodia’s Engagement Approach on Myanmar and its Possible Implications on ASEAN Unity

Cambodia has been trying to pursue a greater engagement with Myanmar’s junta regime despite pushback. It is worth noting that Hun Sen has already appointed Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn as the ASEAN chair special envoy to carry out the task on the Myanmar issue.  The new move of Phnom Penh seems likely to include Naypyidaw’s junta back to the 2022 ASEAN Summit to ensure that the “10-member ASEAN” format is secured as Hun Sen stressed that, “We cannot call ourselves ASEAN if we only have nine of our members. We have to rescue ASEAN by bringing it up from just nine back to 10 full members. That is the highest priority of ASEAN.” In so doing, it is understandable that Phnom Penh hopes to have a 10-member ASEAN for the sake of being able to reach the consensus of ASEAN on the Code of Conduct (COC) of the South China Sea, which is be expectedly concluded in 2022.


More significantly, Phnom Penh is highly expected to use “backdoor diplomacy”, a term referring to the diplomatic tactic of conducting politics or dealing things out of the public view, as its strategic engagement pathway to address the crisis in Myanmar. The negotiation under the table, Hen Sen stated, would be the most fruitful mechanism in dealing with the junta leaders. In this engagement approach, it is highly expected that Hun Sen’s experience in implementing a win-win policy that handled the Cambodian civil war would help address Myanmar’s current issue. More significantly, Cambodia’s changing stance on the Myanmar crisis has been seen as a strategy of pragmatic engagement to pave the way for the progress of ASEAN’s five-point consensus.  Despite the criticism of Phnom Penh’s engagement with Naypyidaw which may politically legitimize the regime, it is understandable that Phnom Penh’s new approach to Naypyidaw is its regional diplomatic effort to try to find solutions to the Myanmar crisis.


Nonetheless, Cambodia may have a good intention on Myanmar but its engagement tactics with the military regime may backfire. Even Cambodia as ASEAN chair has a special privilege in agenda-setting, the Kingdom’s engagement mechanism with the junta may put ASEAN unity at the crossroad. It is important to recognize that ASEAN member states have already been divided on the Myanmar crisis before ASEAN could find common agreement to exclude Min Aung Hlaing from ASEAN meetings. By trying to include the military leader back into the club, Cambodia is pursuing risky and harsh diplomatic tactics, which have concerned many within ASEAN, who viewed Cambodia as acting out on its own without consultation with others in the regional bloc. Another significant issue is that Cambodia’s plan to include Myanmar’s military leader in ASEAN meetings seems likely to discourage other international leaders and partners from participating in ASEAN-led meetings, especially the East Asia Summit. It is important to recognize that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has postponed its meeting with ASEAN Foreign Ministers to avoid being in the same online room as Min Aung Hlaing. In this regard, if the military leaders involve in the bloc’s summit in Phnom Penh, it would be very hard for ASEAN’s partners, especially the western countries, to join ASEAN’s meetings. In the worst-case scenario, if Cambodia as ASEAN chair engages the military leaders at the summit and there is no progress on the ground and the partners of ASEAN not much involve in ASEAN-led meetings, ASEAN unity and credibility are more likely to further divide and damage and the Kingdom’s regional role and credibility are questionable.


Policy Recommendations

By all accounts, the Myanmar crisis is a major regional issue that Cambodia as ASEAN chair needs to constructively and inclusively deal with. As a small state, Cambodia has limited leverage and power to address this critical regional issue; however, there is still room for the Kingdom to maneuver it. Cambodia’s engagement approach to Myanmar is a pragmatic strategy in line with  ASEAN’s long-standing practice of constructive engagement for political dialogue in the solution of regional issues in the context of realpolitik. However, the Kingdom’s decision on Myanmar would put the country in a hard position and if it is mismanaged, it will further harm ASEAN’s credibility and unity.


To handle Myanmar while keeping ASEAN united, Cambodia should:

  • Make consultation with all ASEAN member states to get a major supported voice before giving any concession to the military regime. By so doing, what Cambodia offers on the table would largely represent ASEAN’s inclusive voice on the issue, not only the unilateral decision of Cambodia; therefore, Cambodia as ASEAN chair would be able to maintain ASEAN unity.  
  • Ensure Cambodia’s approach to Myanmar would not exclusively serve and favor any great power’s geopolitical interest. Given Cambodia’s changing stance on Myanmar, somehow, has been already viewed as serving China’s interests, the Kingdom should carefully deal with the junta not in the interest of China or the US but only for the sake of the people of Myanmar and ASEAN as a whole. In this regard, Cambodia’s position on Myanmar would earn truth from its ASEAN pairs.
  • Being able to bring Myanmar’s all conflicting parties to the negation table would be a major success for Cambodia as ASEAN chair. Cambodia should considerably limit its engagement position on Myanmar to only play the role of a facilitator among the conflicting parties to bring them to the negotiation table. Moreover, Cambodia should not be deeply involved in the agenda-setting of the negotiation process. In so doing, Cambodia’s engagement stance on Myanmar would not violate ASEAN’s non-interference principle in the internal affairs of member states.
  • Make consultation with regional powers such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and India for inputs in addressing the issue. Given Cambodia’s limited leverage and power to address this major regional issue, making consultation with regional powers would give Cambodia more options to deal with the issue. Moreover, with support from these regional powers on Cambodia’s engagement approach to Myanmar, it is likely to build a sound truth and confidence of Cambodia within ASEAN.

Mr. Vann Bunna is the President of The Thinker Cambodia and Research Fellow of Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace (CICP).

This article was originally published in Politikofeee.