The Costs of Hun Sen’s Doomed Myanmar Policy

Hun Sen thinks he is a peacemaker. Cambodia’s longtime prime minister takes credit for bringing peace to his country, saying that his 1998 “win-win” policy—which allowed many Khmer Rouge fighters to join the government in exchange for giving up their fight—brought the country’s decades-long civil war to a close. Indeed it did, but Hun Sen is better known for carrying out a bloody coup the year before and cracking down on civil society since, with some government critics ending up dead.

Nonetheless, he built a monument to himself: the $12 million Win-Win Monument, inaugurated in 2018, celebrates the eponymous policy. It is constructed out of the same stone used to build Angkor Wat and bears carvings not of religious significance, like the temple, but of the prime minister’s most important political victories, of which peacemaking is one.

It is with this self-congratulatory attitude that Hun Sen has approached Myanmar since Cambodia began its 2022 term as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Since Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, ousted the quasi-civilian government in a February 2021 coup, the country has been in crisis. And while ASEAN previously barred the junta from attending high-level meetings and invited a non-political representative instead, Hun Sen has actively engaged the Tatmadaw. He even promised that the junta can represent Myanmar at ASEAN meetings if its leaders make some progress, such as allowing humanitarian aid access and a visit by ASEAN’s special envoy, Cambodian foreign minister Prak Sokhonn.

But what Hun Sen has in confidence, he lacks in substance. His approach to Myanmar will not bring peace to the country; instead, it will worsen the situation within Myanmar, augment intra-ASEAN tensions, and undermine the grouping’s relationship with the United States, ultimately weakening ASEAN’s claims to regional centrality. The question, then, is not if Hun Sen’s Myanmar policy will succeed, but just how badly it will fail.

History and Hun Sen’s Decisionmaking

Hun Sen remembers Cambodia’s civil war, having fought for the Khmer Rouge before defecting to Vietnam and eventually ousting his former Maoist allies in 1979. He remembers when Hanoi placed him in its puppet Cambodian regime and elevated him to prime minister in 1985. He remembers how the West isolated war-torn, impoverished Cambodia because Vietnam, a recent U.S. foe, occupied the country. And, most importantly, he remembers that when the West did finally come to Cambodia—in 1992 under UN auspices—the Americans and Europeans did not help him consolidate his regime but instead pushed for democracy.

After years of conflict and Western rebukes, Hun Sen believed that Cambodia did not need democracy, but stability. So, he resisted elections run by the United Nations, maneuvered his way into power despite losing the contest, and then violently ousted his co-prime minister in 1997, believing that he alone could preserve Cambodia’s precarious peace. Hun Sen’s history has thus led him to consider democracy a cause of turmoil, not a means of deliverance from it—a view not so dissimilar from that of his benefactors in Beijing.

This is the attitude with which Hun Sen has approached Myanmar.

While ASEAN countries like Indonesia and Malaysia (along with the West) press for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar to achieve peace, Hun Sen has taken the opposite tack. He believes that he can personally solve the situation by bolstering the junta’s grip on power.

To this end, Hun Sen traveled to Myanmar for an official state visit in early January, becoming the first foreign head of government to visit since the coup. He met with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing; and while the pair discussed ASEAN’s “five-point” consensus on how to address the country’s crisis, they made no meaningful progress. Instead, Hun Sen’s visit served only to legitimize the junta, which has killed over 1,500 civilians since seizing power. The trip unsurprisingly prompted outcry both within Myanmar and abroad.

Just days before Hun Sen touched down in Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw, two bombs exploded near the Cambodian embassy in an obvious warning by anti-junta forces. When he actually visited, protests erupted around the country, from Depayin—where protestors burned a poster of him, chanting “Hun Sen don’t come to Myanmar” and “We don’t want dictator Hun Sen”—to Mandalay and beyond. 

Malaysian foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah also criticized Hun Sen, saying the visit did no good, that it risked giving the wrong impression that ASEAN recognized the military regime, and that Cambodia should have consulted with other ASEAN leaders before going to Myanmar. Hun Sen promptly lashed out by calling Saifuddin “arrogant” and accusing him of “disrespect[ing] the ASEAN Chair.”

In justifying the visit, Hun Sen made his overall purpose clear with a clumsy if revealing metaphor, saying that he went “to plant trees, not to cut down trees.” The message is obvious: whereas Indonesia, Malaysia, and others seek to remove—or “cut down”—the junta, Hun Sen will water and tend to the Tatmadaw’s roots, believing that, like in Cambodia, the autocratic regime is the best chance for national peace. But Myanmar is not Cambodia and the 2020s are not the 1990s.

A Strategy Destined to Fail

After nearly a decade of opening and quasi-democracy, Myanmar’s people are digitally connected to the world and fundamentally unwilling to accept military rule. The Tatmadaw may not realize it yet, but the military will not be able to effectively govern Myanmar. This is not the same country it was when the Tatmadaw last governed. The upshot is that eventual negotiations between the military and opposition are the only way out of this crisis (even though talks are far from imminent).

Hun Sen’s backing will only augment the Tatmadaw’s delusions of grandeur, specifically the junta’s belief that it can control the country and achieve the legitimacy needed to represent Myanmar abroad. This scenario is concerning, because Myanmar’s opposition remains unwilling to compromise, and the country remains awash in weapons and marred by ethnic and religious resentment. Myanmar is ripe to descend into further chaos.

Hun Sen’s misguided approach will also continue fragmenting what was once a fragile ASEAN consensus on Myanmar. In contrast to Cambodia’s position, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are fundamentally opposed to bringing Myanmar back into the fold yet. Malaysian prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob made this position plain on January 25, when he told Hun Sen that Kuala Lumpur remains committed to inviting only a nonpolitical representative unless the junta makes “real progress” and fully implements the five-point consensus. Hun Sen has already opened a schism in ASEAN that is primed to worsen moving forward.

Moreover, Hun Sen’s approach risks undermining ASEAN’s strategic position vis-à-vis the United States. President Joe Biden is planning to host ASEAN heads of state for an in-person summit sometime before the summer, likely in late March, but policymakers in Washington were hoping to do so before ASEAN—now led by Cambodia—changed its position on Myanmar’s representation. Hun Sen’s actions, along with tacit consent from other ASEAN autocracies like Thailand and Vietnam, have already diluted this principle. And while Biden’s secretaries of state and defense, Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, have begrudgingly taken part in virtual ASEAN events at which Tatmadaw officials represented Myanmar, Biden has not allowed himself to be in the junta’s presence. He will not soon change his mind on this front, given the precedent set by President George W. Bush, who protested the previous Tatmadaw junta by refusing to sit at the same table as its leaders and sending lower-level officials to ASEAN meetings.

If Hun Sen presses the United States to invite the junta—or even refuses to attend unless the Tatmadaw is invited—Cambodia could derail the summit, which Washington believes will signal the United States’ strong commitment to ASEAN following a rocky few years (and despite lacking an economic plan for the region). Such an outcome would certainly please Hun Sen’s ardent backers in Beijing.

Ultimately, Hun Sen’s approach poses problems both for Myanmar and for ASEAN. Barring an unlikely course correction, the legacy of his chairmanship will be to further undermine ASEAN’s legitimacy, both in Myanmar and beyond.

Charles Dunst is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Charles Dunst
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program