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Hun Set Visits Myanmar

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On 7 January, Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, landed in Naypyitaw and became the first head of state of any country to make an official visit to Myanmar since the military coup on 1 February 2021.

As expected, he received a red carpet welcome at the airport, with the junta foreign minister, U Wunna Maung Lwin, personally present to receive him. Subsequently, Sen met coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing (MAH), at the regal Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw. This was followed by a delegation-level bilateral meeting or ‘summit’.

There was some epic bromance on display, complete with fist bumps and gleaning faces. It looked nothing short of a warm and fuzzy meeting of two old buddies.

And of course, the whole thing got premium front-page coverage in the junta mouthpiece, The Global New Light of Myanmar.

It was projected by both parties as a two-day visit, but Hun Sen flew back to Phnom Penh after a very short daytime itinerary on the second day itself.

Notably, Cambodia recently took on the mantle of the ASEAN Chair from Brunei. So, Sen’s visit, although technically bilateral in nature, involved a lot of ASEAN talk, given that the organisation is currently engaged in an internal negotiation process with Myanmar over the coup. This process – underpinned by a ‘Five-Point Consensus’ and a Chair-appointed ‘Special Envoy’ mechanism agreed upon by ASEAN last April – hit choppy waters soon after its inception, with the junta dragging its feet over it.

So far, Myanmar was facing the heat from ASEAN under the Chairmanship of Brunei, which had taken a considerably firm position on the junta. The organisation, which usually works on the norm of non-interference in the “internal affairs” of its member states, barred the junta from attending crucial meetings – a historic snub by ASEAN standards. Last October, the outgoing (and first) Special Envoy, Bruneian Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, cancelled his visit to Myanmar after being informed that he wouldn’t be allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest.

But, Sen, even before his visit, had made it clear that he would be doing things differently – speaking in favour of directly engaging with, not boycotting, the junta and asserting the latter’s rights to attend ASEAN meetings. His visit, which received widespread flak on social media, only confirmed this.

This brings us to the joint press release put out by both parties after the visit, which wrapped up early on 8 January (Sen had earlier talked about the possibility of extending it, but he didn’t). Of other things, the presser announces the appointment of Prak Sokhonn, Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia, as the ASEAN Chair’s Special Envoy on Myanmar.

Does Hun Sen know what’s going in Myanmar?

One of the first substantive points in the presser is the junta announcing an extension to a unilateral five-month “goodwill ceasefire” with all Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) that it had announced on 27 September 2021 (effective from 1 October). Slated to lapse on 28 February, the junta revealed that it would now be extended “until the end of 2022”.

MAH, who has silently watched over his troops use lethal violence, torture and scorched-earth tactics against peaceful dissenters and ordinary civilians across Myanmar since February last year, “called on all parties concerned to accept the ceasefire in the interest of the country and people, end all acts of violence and exercise utmost restraint.” The irony here is rich. Richer than the richest cronies in the junta ecosystem.

According to the joint statement, the move was “strongly supported” by the Cambodian PM “with the view to deescalating tension and enable constructive dialogues among relevant stakeholders to achieve enduring peace and national development.” It also says that the Special Envoy would be joining the ceasefire talks “with and among” the EAOs, which it claims is an “important step [that] is embodied in the ASEAN five-point consensus.”

Hun Sen then pulled out his favourite catchphrase, one that he hasn’t stopped talking about since the late 1990s – ‘Win Win Policy’. The statement said that he shared the policy’s “success in achieving national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability, development and prosperity” and “stressed that based on the experiences and lessons learned from Cambodia’s peace process, complete peace and national reconciliation cannot be achieved without participation and agreement from all parties involved.”

Oodles of pontification and vacuous lessons there.

Later, on his return to Phnom Penh, Hun Sen patted his own back for what he clearly thinks was a job well done. He pronounced on his official Facebook page that he visited Myanmar to prevent the country from slipping into violence and civil war and that those opposing the ceasefire want “people to be killed and wounded by war” (rough English translation).

Those like Hun Sen and MAH like their horses high, and once they mount them, they don’t want to come down. Even if they do, it is only to…play golf.

The Cambodian PM is clearly under an illusion that he has successfully set the ground for some kind of historic ceasefire agreement with the EAOs, which would instantly bring peace to Myanmar. He seems to believe that his great ‘Win Win Policy’, which he used to broker an agreement with former Khmer Rouge cadres in 1998 and has since repeatedly used for personal political gains, can be transplanted onto Myanmar and all will be well.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Even as Hun Sen was writing his shoddy utopian fiction of peace and rambling on about his ‘Win Win Policy’, the military raided the Kayah State capital of Loikaw, burning houses and conducting airstrikes. During the same time, the military also conducted airstrikes against the Karenni Army (KA), the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), along the Thai border, sending 200 people across the international border.

As obvious as this might be to most, it certainly eluded the Cambodian PM and hence, needs to be stated for posterity – the ongoing armed conflict in Myanmar isn’t just a simple “military versus EAO” fight that is restricted to the ethnic regions. It is a much more complex, multi-front, multi-layered battle between the military and several armed militias – or People’s Defence Forces (PDF) – spread out across the whole country (including major urban centres).

In fact, the PDF-led armed movement against the military is the dominant conflict trend in the country right now, with most of the EAOs playing a secondary and arguably muted role in pushing back against the coup regime. So if any effective ceasefire in Myanmar needs to include the PDFs.

But, a reality that even MAH knows too well is that the PDFs don’t want a ceasefire. They have a far more revolutionary goal – to defeat the military for good. That is why MAH summarily proscribed them as ‘terrorist organisations’ early on into the fight so that his troops have broad leeway to use brute force against them. But, that hasn’t stopped the PDFs, who are now present in every state and region of Myanmar, from constantly attacking the military using a range of locally-made, improvised and imported weapons.

None of these found mention the joint press statement. So, either Hun Sen really has no idea about what’s happening in Myanmar or he is deliberately looking away to stay in line with MAH. In all likelihood, MAH managed to successfully convince him that Myanmar is facing a coordinated assault by “foreign-funded PDF terrorists” and Hun Sen, being the status quoist, ivory tower Southeast Asian elite that he is, quickly bought into it.

Why does the junta want to make peace with EAOs?

If you think the junta is offering and extending unilateral ceasefires to the EAOs simply out of goodwill or some altruistic desire for peace and harmony in Myanmar, you are wrong.

The fundamental reason why the junta is doing is because it wants to weaken the anti-military armed movement by splitting it from the middle.

Currently, both EAOs and PDFs are fighting the military throughout the country. While not all EAOs are doing so, out of those involved in combat, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Karenni Army (KA) are the most active at the moment. All of them are heavily-armed and highly-experienced armed groups.

In fact, EAOs and PDFs have often joined hands to attack junta forces – such as the recent (KIA)-PDF joint operations in Sagaing Region; the potent alliance between the KA and the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) [a coalition of PDFs] in Kayah/Karenni State; and links between the Chin National Front (CNF) [an EAO] and the Chinland Defence Forces (CDF) [a PDF]. The junta fears this formidable unity, mostly because the battle-hardened and well-resourced EAOs could help the PDFs strengthen their tactical capabilities and also beef up their armouries. This could make it much harder for the military to defeat the PDFs.

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