Cambodia’s Hun Sen Hits Back at Malaysian FM for Criticizing Myanmar Strategy

Shailaja Neelakantan
Cambodia’s Hun Sen Hits Back at Malaysian FM for Criticizing Myanmar Strategy Burmese coup architect Min Aung Hlaing greets Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (right), in Naypyidaw, Jan. 8, 2022.
[Handout from National Television of Cambodia (TVK) via AFP]

Cambodian Prime Minister and ASEAN chair Hun Sen, in a phone call with Indonesia’s president on Friday, lashed out at Malaysia’s foreign minister for being “arrogant” by criticizing Phnom Penh’s strategy to deal with Myanmar.

Malaysia’s top diplomat, Saifuddin Abdullah, told reporters last week that Hun Sen should have consulted with other leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations before going to Myanmar on Jan. 7-8 to meet with Burmese junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in an attempt to solve that country’s post-coup crisis.

Hun Sen told President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo that Saifuddin had disrespected the role of the ASEAN chair, which rotates every year among the regional bloc’s 10 members.

Jakarta’s top diplomat should convey this message to Saifuddin, Hun Sen told Jokowi.

“The intended message: Hun Sen asked Malaysian Foreign Minister not to be arrogant with inappropriate statements, and disrespect the ASEAN Chair by using undiplomatic language and [showing] a lack of courtesy,” Hun Sen said on Facebook about the phone call.

Saifuddin’s comments were “not right in the ASEAN context” and Indonesia’s foreign minister should tell Saifuddin to not be “rude,” the Cambodian PM said.

Hun Sen said he went to Myanmar “to plant trees, not to cut down trees.”

“Those who didn’t support him, they only wanted a quick result,” he added.

During a dinner with reporters in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 13, Saifuddin acknowledged that some in ASEAN felt that Hun Sen “has the liberty to visit Myanmar for what is seen as normal bilateral visit.”

“Malaysia is of the opinion that [Hun Sen] has the right to visit Myanmar as head of government of Cambodia,” Saifuddin said. 

“However we also feel that because he has already assumed the chair of ASEAN, he could have probably consulted if not all, a few other ASEAN leaders and seek their views as what he should do if he were to go to Myanmar,” he added.

When reporters asked whether Hun Sen’s trip to Myanmar had achieved anything, Saifuddin replied “no.”

In fact, even Indonesia had criticized Hun Sen’s trip, stating that he needed to stick to what the regional bloc had agreed to in meetings, including a five-point consensus to put Myanmar on the path to democracy.

“PM Hun Sen did ask for a phone call and the purpose of the call was to convey the results of his recent visit to Myanmar,” Teuku Faizasyah, spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry confirmed to BenarNews on Friday, when asked about Friday’s telephone call between the Cambodian and Indonesian leaders.

Faizasyah did not elaborate.

‘ASEAN fissures’

Commenting on Hun’s Sen’s statements about Saifuddin, Southeast Asia expert Michael Vatikiotis said on Twitter that he saw an ASEAN spat in the making.

“Remarkable and regrettable that Cambodian PM Hun Sen attacks Malaysia FM in a conversation with Indonesian President Jokowi. This is becoming unseemly and needs fixing,” Vatikiotos tweeted.

Another analyst echoed these comments.

“ASEAN fissures getting increasingly uncomfortable over the Myanmar crisis,” Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said via Twitter.

Even before Hun Sen went to Myanmar, analysts were warning that Cambodia’s strategy would divide ASEAN, a grouping where countries are bound by geography rather than ideology or political systems.

For instance, of the bloc’s member-states, Brunei is an absolutist monarchy; Laos and Vietnam are Communist-ruled; Cambodia is nominally a democracy but one where the ruling party holds all the parliamentary seats; the Thai government has its roots in a military coup; and Singapore has been dominated by a single party since independence.

So there would be states that would be divided over the wisdom of Hun Sen’s trip, analysts said.

During his visit to Naypyidaw, Hun Sen met with the military coup leader who toppled the elected National League for Democracy government on Feb. 1 last year. The Cambodian PM did not meet with any democracy leaders, and the Burmese junta spokesman said Hun Sen had not asked to meet them either.

Regional analysts and parliamentarians had criticized Hun Sen before and after the trip for not insisting on a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders who were thrown in prison. They said his trip – the first by a foreign leader after the coup – would be seen as legitimizing the Burmese junta.

Hun Sen has said that he achieved three successes during his trip to Myanmar, an assertion he repeated to Indonesia’s Jokowi on Friday.

These successes, according to the Cambodian PM, were – a ceasefire between the military armed ethnic groups in the country’s border regions, allowing the ASEAN envoy to join these ceasefire talks, and an agreement with the junta to provide humanitarian assistance to the Burmese people.

Tria Dianti in Jakarta and Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report. The Khmer Service of Radio Free Asia contributed to this report. BenarNews is a unit of RFA.


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