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How the Cambodian PM’s visit to Myanmar shook ASEAN

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The past few weeks have been busy in Naypyitaw. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen became the first head of government to visit Myanmar after last February’s coup. His visit follows that of Foreign Minister Harsh Vardhan Shringla in December.

Shringlas’ visit was a mission to walk the tightrope between the junta and the democratic forces, both of which found their way into the Foreign Ministry reading. But the Cambodian Prime Minister failed to strike such a delicate balance. He was greeted on the red carpet and did not meet imprisoned State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been incarcerated. This has come under heavy criticism.

As a result, the casualty has been the cancellation of the ASEAN foreign ministers’ conference, the first under the Cambodian presidency, which was to be held next week. A terse statement from Cambodian Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the meeting had been postponed, without announcing another date.

While the official reason, according to the media, was that the foreign ministers would find it difficult to get to the summit, the real reason seems to be the discomfort caused by the visit of the Hun Sens.

In October last year, military junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was not invited to the foreign ministers’ retreat because no progress had been made on the five-point consensus by members of the ASEAN. This time, the Cambodian Prime Minister is said to have invited the military junta to attend again in a post that other members were not happy with.

Indonesian Prime Minister Joko Widodo has made it clear on Twitter that unless progress is made on ASEAN peace points, only non-military official representatives will be allowed in ASEAN meetings.

Hun Sen’s approach of cowboy diplomacy was not well received by the other nine members. With Cambodia currently chairing ASEAN, its high-profile visit used by the military as legitimization has put the other nine members in a difficult position. But he does not hesitate to keep the doors open for Myanmar. During a public appearance in December where he was criticized for his intention to visit Myanmar, Hun Sen was firm.

If this is important to you, then cut your diplomatic relations with Myanmar. If you don’t, then don’t come and try to blame me for trying to help. And if you cut your diplomatic relations with Myanmar, it is your right to do so, but I intend to keep the Cambodian Embassy open there, as it is our right as a State sovereign, he was quoted by the press agencies.

Interestingly, Japan, which has made overtures to Myanmar and China, which has also paid an official visit to the country, welcomed the Hun Sens’ attempts to engage the junta.

“China appreciates Myanmar’s willingness to create favorable conditions for the ASEAN Special Envoy to fulfill his duty and [he] is working for effective alignment between Myanmar’s five-point roadmap and ASEAN’s five-point consensus,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said.

While the Cambodian prime ministers’ visit may have divided ASEAN, it also set the tone for engagement. Unlike in the West, where diplomatic lines are much tougher, for countries in the region, such as India, any dialogue with Myanmar will not be difficult to maintain. Especially since the humanitarian crisis threatens. But diplomats will have to be skilled acrobats.

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