‘Cowboy Diplomacy’ on Display as Hun Sen Meets Myanmar Official: Analysts

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Wunna Maung Lwin and Hun Sen pose for a photo at Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace on December 7, 2021. (Hun Sen’s Facebook page)

As Prime Minister Hun Sen mounts bilateral talks with the Myanmar junta, analysts are skeptical a so-called “win-win” approach will find any traction amid Myanmar’s post-coup turmoil.

This week marked a new stage of outreach as Hun Sen met on Tuesday morning with Wunna Maung Lwin, the Myanmar junta’s minister of foreign affairs. According to a post on Hun Sen’s Facebook page, he received the military representative at the Peace Palace, where the two men discussed relations between the two countries in the form of bilateral cooperation. Beyond that, the Facebook post stated the pair “discussed Asean issues to find ways to restore good Asean cooperation and solidarity.”

The visit came a day after Myanmar’s courts convicted ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi for inciting dissent and breaking Covid rules.

Wunna Maung Lwin also formally invited Hun Sen to come to Myanmar on January 7-8 to meet with General Min Aung Hlaing. The general, who has assumed the title of prime minister, is the orchestrator of the February coup that toppled the country’s elected civilian government and installed a new military junta known as the State Administration Council.

The invitation made the trip official. But Hun Sen had already publicly discussed his intention to go to Myanmar the day before meeting Wunna Maung Lwin, as part of a Monday speech in Prey Veng at the inauguration ceremony for new road projects.

It was during that address that Hun Sen spoke of his hopes of bringing Myanmar back into the good graces of its fellow Asean members, which had previously approved a resolution to press that country’s military to respect the democratic process and end its ongoing, self-declared “state of emergency.” On October 28, Cambodia officially assumed its role as Asean’s rotating chair, a yearlong responsibility in which the Myanmar crisis will no doubt play a major role.

Asean member states had agreed at an April 24 special summit in Jakarta to a five-point consensus that included broad measures to bring an end to the conflict in Myanmar.

Those points included ending the violence, building a constructive dialogue between stakeholders and facilitating humanitarian aid. The points also include appointing a special envoy from the bloc to mediate dialogue and, finally, for that envoy to meet with the parties vying for leadership of the state.

In August, the bloc appointed the Bruneian second minister for foreign affairs, Erywan Yusof, as its special envoy. Yusof visited Myanmar in that capacity but proved unsuccessful, in large part because Myanmar’s military chiefs blocked access to elected civilian leaders whom they have condemned as part of a terrorist movement.

Hun Sen said on Monday that General Min Aung Hlaing must be part of any negotiated solution.

“If we don’t work with the ruler, whom can we work with?” Hun Sen mused. “They control the country.”

The prime minister also said on Monday that the Myanmar junta cannot be compared to other unrecognized governments, such as the Taliban of Afghanistan, but should be given the right to fully participate in Asean meetings. He also suggested that Asean’s diplomatic pressure on the Myanmar military was influenced by outside powers.

“Let Hun Sen do it,” the prime minister urged, referring to himself. “We shall not bypass the principles and charter of Asean that does not interfere with internal affairs. We cannot cross the line and will not apply the United Nations’ formula for Asean — it is not right.”

Hun Sen also asked whether Asean “should burn our home in order to satisfy other people” and declared that the regional bloc’s charter states that “no one has the right to expel any member” from the regional bloc.

Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the Center of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand, said Hun Sen’s efforts to bring Myanmar back into the fold, despite the ongoing human rights violations there, would weaken the five-point consensus and Asean’s position on the junta’s takeover.

He expected autocratic countries like Laos and Vietnam to support Hun Sen’s overtures to the Myanmar junta, but more democratic countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines would not support it. Hun Sen was likely getting hands-on with Myanmar to distract from Cambodia’s “poor” human rights record, he said.

In April, Hun Sen proposed using his “win-win” policy, which he touts as the framework that got the Khmer Rouge resistance to give up their arms in 1998. He said the policy would fit well into the five-point consensus, which includes negotiations and the use of an envoy to deal with the Myanmar junta.

Chambers was skeptical Hun Sen could reach a similar deal.

“Unlike in Cambodia, there are simply too many diverse ethnic armies. The Tatmadaw is unlikely to defeat the ethnic armies which it has fought any time soon,” Chambers said in an email, referring to the Myanmar military.

Even if the approach feels like a poor fit for the ongoing military conflict, the suggestion from Hun Sen to personally step in to pull together negotiations did not come as a surprise to Hunter Marston, a political researcher with the Australian National University who focuses on Myanmar.

Although Hun Sen “had a pretty tough line” toward Min Aung Hlaing in previous Asean discussions, the Cambodian announcement during the bloc’s October 28 summit — which officially excluded Min Aung Hlaing — to appoint a new envoy appeared to mark a changing strategy, he said.

Now, Marston said, Hun Sen’s latest push to negotiate directly with junta representatives “looks more like an autocrat-to-autocrat approach.”

“There’s some of that cowboy diplomacy, that machismo that he’s the one to do it, he knows the best way,” he said.

It would be noteworthy if the prime minister requests meetings with members of the deposed civilian government, he added.

“That could be a sign he’s not just pandering to the generals but is actually serious about pursuing diplomatic solutions or talks,” Marston said. “But the special envoy from Brunei was not able to do so. It might be that Hun Sen is able to take a different line. He’s a tough guy, maybe builds that trust with the generals.”

However, given the inability of Yusuf to do that in his previous efforts, Marston said that approach was “a risky line to take” — especially given the pressures on Cambodia to perform as Asean chair.

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