PM Hun Sen Excels in Global Politics
By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor: Who could have imagined that Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen, or Prime Minister Hun Sen as he is more commonly known, would stand in the front row defending Ukraine against Russia as the biggest European war since WWII continues to rage.
Lest we forget, he still has to juggle the Myanmar quagmire, the 17th East Asia Summit, not to mention domestic politics in between.
This will be Mr Hun Sen’s third summit in Cambodia, and presumably his last, a rare act for any Asean leader to follow. Apart from the meeting with his colleagues on November 11, he will have two full and tightly scheduled days on November 12 and 13, with the eyes of the whole world on him and his country.
Truth be told, his international profile has been the subject of foreign scrutiny and analysis, especially this year when Cambodia serves as the Asean chair. This time around Mr Hun Sen has a bigger fish to fry, so has to deploy all his political and diplomatic finesse with the leaders from the US, China and Russia among others, who will shape the region and global trajectory in years to come.
Thanks to the war in Ukraine, Mr Hun Sen has been quick to seize the issue and wisely taken advantage of the conflict to demonstrate to the world that this once war-torn country’s independence must not be taken for granted.
Most importantly, Phnom Penh’s strong support for the respect of national sovereignty, especially of a smaller nation bordering bigger countries, rests on its fresh history. It was interesting the way Cambodia’s positioned itself on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its votes at the United Nations.
Mr Hun Sen’s country’s votes favouring the liberal West, albeit without calling for political sanctions, were praised by the global community much to the chagrin of its former Indochinese members and Russia, the former patron prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
To up his ante on Ukraine, he and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky had a telephone conversation last week. He expressed concern over the recent attack on Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine.
He said: “Cambodia is against the aggression, the threat of or use of force over sovereignty and the territory of an independent state, and does not support the succession or the annexation of territory by other countries.”
The whole conversation was released and printed in the media. The message was clear and simple: Ukraine, for the time being, we are with you all the way.
Doubtless, Mr Hun Sen was invited by Zelensky to visit Ukraine in the future. In return, Zelensky requested to be allowed to give a video speech to the Asean summit.
Under the Cambodian chairmanship, Asean issued three joint statements in support of Ukraine. A week after Russia’s invasion, the chair wanted to issue a joint statement but the Asean members turned it down because the conflict was still being assessed by the members.
In addition, the chair encouraged Ukraine to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). The regional code of conduct with 51 signatories from all corners of the world. This is an important move to show Ukraine as a sovereign state within the Asean Community.
For this purpose, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba visited Phnom Penh to sign the TAC along with Spain. Kyiv also has expressed the desire to become the bloc’s sectoral dialogue partner. An Asean consensus is needed for admission.
Of late, it has been clear that Mr Hun Sen has shifted his focus to Ukraine and an immediate Asean-related summit instead of Myanmar.
In the beginning, he was so confident that he could make a difference in Myanmar with the military junta, or Tatmadaw given his sincerity and experience in the 13-year Cambodian conflict. But it was found to be a bit unrealistic as he has found out later as the junta leaders in Nay Pyi Taw have not only ignored his pragmatic advice but also repeatedly rejected his special envoy, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Addairs Minister Prak Sokhonn’s requests to meet with all stakeholders including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and release of some political prisoners.
At the first Asean special meeting on Myanmar last April in Jakarta, Mr Hun Sen was the only Asean leader who spoke out, telling his Myanmar colleague empathically that Asean could help end the conflict and bring normalcy back to the besieged country in much the same way as Asean assisted Cambodia back then. He also reminded Myanmar that at that time Cambodia was not even a member of Asean. Phnom Penh joined Asean in October 1997, the latest member.
In August, he gave another strong push by writing to Myanmer junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing asking for an amnesty for four activists sentenced to death. The senior general went ahead anyway.
Unfazed, on 19 August, Mr Hun Sen again penned a long personal letter to the junta leader urging him to respond to the Five-point Consensus (5PC), which the senior general agreed to with the Asean members.
If he fails to do so, Mr Hun Sen warned, his Asean colleagues might ban Myanmar from all meetings and recognise the National Unity government. He called the senior general “brother” and the letter’s tone was friendly. He made clear that before Sokhonn’s third scheduled visit, there needed to be some substantial progress that would warrant bringing Myanmar back into the Asean family again.
But his letter was once again ignored. So, Sokhonn’s trip was further postponed. Under the media’s radar, the chair’s task force team has visited Myanmar five times but returned with the report of no-progress.
Personally, Mr Hun Sen has been quite intrigued by the political developments in Myanmar due to the long military conflict there. No wonder, he was very enthusiastic to help end the quagmire. Seven days after assuming the Asean chair, Mr Hun Sen went to Nay Pyi Taw and sincerely hoped that his experience in the Cambodian conflict would serve as valuable lessons as well as a rough roadmap for the junta leaders in Myanmar to pursue regarding conflict prevention and a peace process.
With the chairmanship of Asean coming to an end, he has now realized that the Myanmar situation is a different ballgame. Throughout the past 314 days, Mr Hun Sen has been patient and waited for breakthroughs in Myanmar. It was like waiting for Godot.
Most importantly, Mr Hun Sen’s trust for the SAF disappeared after the appeal to save the four activities was bypassed.
At the end of October, during the special foreign ministerial meeting in Jakarta and subsequent consultation, quite a few Asean members wanted to ban Myanmar from all meetings. Indeed, Cambodia has tried in vain to ensure that Myanmar would not be isolated further, except for some key ministerial meetings. However, other hardline Asean members insisted on a big stick hitting Myanmar.
Worse, two members called for a complete suspension of Myanmar’s membership. That helps explain why the ministers were unable to get consensus on a series of measures to reprimand Myanmar.
When the Asean leaders meet for this time, they might agree to ban Myanmar from all meetings, short of a complete suspension, and leave it open for individual members to initiate contact with the National Unity Government.
Malaysia has been quite open about meetings with the representatives of NUG while others have done the same but so far have kept them quiet.
Finally, as the chair for the two-hour East Asia Summit on Nov 13, Mr Hun Sen must demonstrate his diplomatic finesse in engaging all the EAS leaders, especially the US and Russian leaders. He must navigate the discussion in ways that will not disrupt the integrity and centrality of Asean.
Given the polarization that has plagued the international community since the war in Ukraine started, there will be walkouts and statements of condemnation from Ukraine’s supporters. Mr Hun Sen must walk a fine line stressing the desire of Asean to see peace prevail and humanitarian assistance be quickly delivered to the Ukrainian people. That has been the grouping’s positions all along.
For Mr Hun Sen, the Asean chair and the Asean-related summit has been a good political distraction and a great opportunity to show his other side – playing with the Big League.
This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Senior Communications Advisor, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, and has been published in Khmer Times. Click here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.