Kornelius Purba (The Jakarta Post)
Sat, August 6, 2022
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen deserves a big applause from ASEAN leaders. Thanks to his unexpected denunciation of Myanmar military junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the regional bloc’s foreign ministers managed to unanimously recommend a stringent punishment for the savage Army general, including Myanmar’s temporary expulsion from ASEAN.
I give credit to Hun Sen not because I am an Indonesian or because I am afraid of him. I should point out that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo played a behind-the-scenes role in the tremendous progress ASEAN has made in dealing with the junta. It was Jokowi who proposed the emergency summit in Jakarta to discuss ASEAN’s collective response to Hlaing’s coup against the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. It was also Jokowi who persistently pushed the reluctant Brunei Sultan Hasanal Bolkiah, the ASEAN chair at the time, to get tough with the junta.
In his opening speech at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh on Thursday, Hun Sen said ASEAN would not be held hostage by Myanmar.
“All ASEAN member states are deeply disappointed and disturbed by the execution of those opposition activists despite the appeals from me and others for the death sentence to be reconsidered for the sake of political dialogue, peace and reconciliation,” the Cambodian leader said.
Before the foreign ministers met with their dialogue partners and hosted the ASEAN Regional Forum, they issued a 119-paragraph joint communiqué that included four points on Myanmar. Interestingly, the ministers’ recommendations on Myanmar came in the second-to-last paragraph, as if to limit any dramatic effects.
The ministers refrained from explicitly calling on their leaders to suspend Myanmar’s ASEAN membership. After praising Hun Sen’s initiative on Myanmar, in article 117, the ministers expressed their disappointment with the foot-dragging with regard to Myanmar, and they recommended that their leaders make the final decision on the fate of Gen. Hlaing, who has demonstrated his satisfaction with the execution of the four anti-coup activists.
“We recommend that the ASEAN summit [in Phnom Penh] assess the progress toward the implementation of the five-point consensus by the State Administrative Council to guide the decision on the next stage,” wrote the ministers.
The five-point consensus, agreed upon by the ASEAN leaders and Gen. Hlaing in Jakarta on April 24, 2021, goes as follows:
First, there is to be an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and all parties must exercise the utmost restraint.
Second, constructive dialogue among all parties concerned must commence to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people.
Third, a special envoy of the ASEAN chair must be permitted to help mediate the dialogue process, with the assistance of the secretary-general of ASEAN.
Fourth, ASEAN shall provide humanitarian assistance through the AHA Center.
Fifth, the special envoy and delegation must be able to visit Myanmar and meet with all parties concerned.
The foreign ministers also had intensive discussions on the millions of minority Muslim Rohingya persecuted by the Myanmar regime. The ministers expressed their concerns in three paragraphs of the joint communiqué.
Hun Sen’s turnaround will pave the way for a more unified ASEAN stance on Myanmar. While it will still remain difficult for ASEAN to expect Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to abandon his support for his Myanmar general friend, at least he will be less outspoken against ASEAN’s stronger position. As predominantly Buddhist nations, Vietnam and Laos are emotionally closer to Myanmar, but they will be unlikely to act against ASEAN.
Many, including Indonesian officials, were afraid Hun Sen would simply follow the previous ASEAN chair’s tactic of trying to buy time when the Cambodian leader took over the rotating position last year. The Brunei sultan had sought to let Myanmar “overcome its domestic affairs” even when the junta defied the five-point consensus.
ASEAN was also traumatized by Hun Sen’s maneuvering to remove any criticism of China from the draft of the joint communiqué that ASEAN leaders released during their summit in Phnom Penh in 2013. This time around, Cambodia did not prevent ASEAN foreign ministers from expressing their concern about the situation in the South China Sea.
Hun Sen did initially try his own method of persuading the Myanmar junta to follow his advice, rather than strictly heeding the five-point consensus. But just before his departure to Myanmar to meet the junta leader, President Jokowi phoned the Cambodian leader and reminded him not to compromise the consensus.
ASEAN’s reinforced position against the brutal Myanmar junta will protect the regional bloc from criticism from Western countries during the ASEAN Regional Forum.
Some media organizations have described the Phnom Penh meeting as being overshadowed by the tensions in Taiwan after the visit of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Taipei a few days ago. But the trip was also a blessing in disguise for ASEAN because this week’s forum became an opportunity for conflicting parties to talk with the courtesy of their host, ASEAN.
Whatever the motive behind Hun Sen’s about-face, he has helped ASEAN make a historic step.
ASEAN can now take the opposite position to its 2014 decision on Myanmar. At that time, the bloc awarded Myanmar’s president Gen. Thein Sein the opportunity to host the ASEAN summit for the first time in the 14 years the country had been part of the regional bloc, because of his impressive achievements in leading the country toward democracy.
Now the regional leaders should have the political guts to suspend Myanmar – but not expel it – from ASEAN, as long as Gen. Hlaing is in power. There is no hope that the Army general will suddenly “repent” from his blood-thirsty rule.
Again, thanks to Hun Sen, it will be easier for Jokowi to take ASEAN’s helm next year. Gen. Hlaing will likely choose to let millions of people die of starvation or from military oppression rather than bowing to ASEAN’s demand that he should act as a true Army general and not a monster.
The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.