New Straits Times

Cambodia’s way

How to break ranks with Asean


ASEAN is just 54 years old, but cracks in the regional bloc are beginning to come into public view. The biggest of the fissures is caused by Cambodia, the last Southeast Asian country to embrace the regional bloc. On Monday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen shocked fellow Asean leaders with his announceme­nt of wanting to work with Myanmar’s coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, who is implicated in the ethnic cleansing of his fellow men and women. What is worse, Hun Sen thinks the junta leader has the right to attend Asean summits. “If there is a meeting, we have to invite all. If it is the meeting of the leaders, we invite a leader,” he was quoted by AFP as having said in a speech in Phnom Penh. True, Mr Prime Minister, but first the leader must be elected, especially in a nation that has opted to choose its government by ballots and not bullets. Min Aung Hlaing has chosen bullets. Besides, he is being accused of genocides by no less than the United Nations. This must amount to something. Genocides aren’t petty crimes, especially when they are committed by leaders. Plus, as recently as last week the UN refused a seat in the world body to the military regime led by Min Aung Hlaing, thereby denying legitimacy of his government. Hun Sen must surely know this.

It will be a shame to invite one as tainted as Min Aung Hlaing to Asean’s summits. Hun Sen is sending all the wrong signals to the murderous general. Nay, the premier is encouragin­g him to continue in his wayward ways. A better thing to do is for Hun Sen to get the Internatio­nal Criminal Court to investigat­e the allegation­s of genocide and other war crimes that are piling up against him and the Tatmadaw. Anyway, Asean has already taken a decision to bar Min Aung Hlaing from its summits. Cambodia should respect this, especially when the general has refused to cooperate with Asean. Be that as it may, difficult days are ahead for Asean next year when Cambodia chairs the regional bloc. How difficult it would be for the region was shown by Cambodia when it last chaired Asean in 2012. For the first time in the 45-year history of the organisati­on, Asean failed to issue a joint statement. If the Australia-based digital platform East Asia Forum is right, Cambodia reportedly refused to include language criticisin­g China’s growing assertiven­ess in the South China Sea. Small wonder, Cambodia is seen as an overly China-friendly state.

If Myanmar is a hot potato for Asean, the equally anticipate­d Code of Conduct for the South China Sea will be worse under the chair of Cambodia. Interestin­gly, Phnom Penh isn’t involved in the conflictin­g territoria­l claims, but it pushes for a bilateral approach to the disputes, one favoured by China. Claimant nations, if not all, prefer an Asean multilater­al approach. Expect another failure of Asean diplomacy if Cambodia can’t reconcile the diverse interests of the 10 member states, writes Kimkong Heng, a research fellow at the Cambodia Developmen­t Centre, in the East Asia Forum. This issue, he says, could cause divisions between Asean members and potentiall­y undermine the bloc’s centrality, unity and relevance to Asia-Pacific governance more broadly. Or at best Asean will earn the reputation of being “habitually timid”, as

The Guardian puts it. With or without Cambodia’s chairmansh­ip, that is.

Hun Sen is sending all the wrong signals to the murderous general.

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