August 15, 2022
JAKARTA – 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.
In his opening speech at the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh last 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,” he 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 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 Asean leaders and 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.
Hun Sen’s turnaround will pave the way for a more unified stance on Myanmar. 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 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.
Hlaing will likely choose to let millions of people die of starvation or from military oppression rather than bowing to Asean demand that he should act as a true army general and not a monster.
Kornelius Purba is senior editor at The Jakarta Post.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 media titles in the region.