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Myanmar needs new tack: PM

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Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks at the bridge inauguration ceremony in Kratie province on Wednesday. Hong Menea

Myanmar needs new tack: PM

Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned that the crisis in Myanmar could drag on for as long as a decade, should the proposed solutions for peace be too similar to previous ideas – none of which he believed had produced results.

In explosive statements made at the ceremonial inauguration of seven bridges in Kratie and Prey Veng provinces on February 16, Hun Sen lamented the stagnancy of the mediation process, saying: “Peace building is not like going to find it in the morning and bring[ing] the result back in the evening.”

He expressed frustration at the glacial pace of the mediation process, saying it would take five to 10 more years to solve the Myanmar issue if the situation remains the same, referring to approaches that had been used to tackle the issue in previous years.

But he subsequently tempered the Kingdom’s involvement in the situation by qualifying that “I say this on behalf of Cambodia, not as ASEAN chair”.

He offered that he would personally choose a middleground solution rather than one that threatens to either be too lenient or too harsh on the beleaguered nation, while adding that he steps into the Myanmar issue as an observer not intending to exert any political influence – because Cambodia is “too small” to have such an influence on Myanmar.

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn said last week that Cambodia has taken on ASEAN chairmanship in 2022 amid unprecedented challenges in the region and within the bloc itself.

Hun Sen noted that Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship will be over in less than 11 months. During this period, he lamented, Cambodia would be criticised whatever it does – or does not do – about the Myanmar issue.

Nonetheless, he expressed measured optimism, saying: “We will not stop [trying to find a solution]. One day, there will be a breakthrough on how the problem can be solved.”

He also used his speech to dismiss criticisms of his style of mediation being “cowboy diplomacy”, pretending not to know what the term meant: “Some people said I [exercise] cowboy diplomacy. Hey! I want to understand: what did you mean by cowboy diplomacy? What is it? [Could] you explain [it to] me?”

Recalling his experience leading Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and without explicitly naming any of them, Hun Sen said that though his then-government was not accepted by many countries, they could not avoid working with him.

Hun Sen said critics should not look down on the ability and vision of a small country such as Cambodia.

“If we don’t do anything, they would say that the ASEAN chair does nothing. They want us to follow the same [methods as] before, which were not working,” he said, in an apparent reference to criticism made by Singaporean diplomat Ong Ye Kung about his trip to Myanmar last month as being “nothing substantive” in efforts to resolve the crisis.

“I will just explain it like this: please don’t think that the poor country’s vision is weak. It is not certain that the rich country has a smart vision,” Hun Sen continued, making a thinly veiled reference to the island nation from which Ong hails.

He noted that even UN diplomats were not immune to criticism, highlighting the fact that UN special envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer has become a target of backlash within the country for her comments suggesting power sharing as being the way forward.

“Critics only want only to see the [Myanmar] military completely destroyed,” he said.

“Is this the way to reconciliation? I ask: are the military satisfied? They are the ones who have weapons,” he warned, adding that a zero-sum game would not be possible.

Thong Mengdavid, a research fellow at the Asian Vision Institute’s Mekong Centre for Strategic Studies, said the Myanmar issue is complicated by the country’s large population size, which, at 55 million, was on the higher end for countries in the Southeast Asian peninsula.

Even as an internal affair, he said, the crisis has the potential to affect and destabilise the ASEAN region, especially its neighbours Thailand and Laos, by causing a cascade of humanitarian crises.

“The skirmish between Myanmar military and the People’s Defence Force group (PDF) is [causing] Myanmar’s economy and society [to] backslide. It also causes human crises [including] refugees, human trafficking, as well as other crimes such as weapons smuggling and drug trafficking. All of these affect the security and economy of the whole ASEAN [region],” Mengdavid said.

He said that what is happening in Myanmar is an internal issue that Cambodia would otherwise have no reason to wade into. But as a member and especially as the chair of ASEAN, Cambodia will not want to sit idly while conflict continues to escalate – fighting which he said could very well lead to civil war.

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