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Myanmar Crisis to Pose Challenges for Cambodia’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2022

Written byVann Bunna, a Master Student of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, India, and a Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. All views expressed are his own. 

Edited by: Heng Kimkong, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Cambodia Development Center and a PhD Candidate in Education at The University of Queensland, Australia

Credit: "The ASEAN Agenda: Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen" by World Economic Forum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Credit: "The ASEAN Agenda: Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen" by World Economic Forum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Cambodia is expected to assume the annually rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2022 for the third time since it joined the regional bloc in 1999. The political crisis in Myanmar will pose great challenges for Cambodia as an ASEAN chair in 2022 if the issue cannot be solved timely under Brunei’s ASEAN chairmanship this year.

Myanmar military staged a coup and seized power from the democratically elected government on February 1, 2021. It detained the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD).

A few ASEAN countries have expressed their concerns on the military coup. However, Cambodia has yet to express a clear position on the Myanmar issue. Cambodia’s stance on the crisis has swayed remarkably. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen previously declined to comment on the Myanmar military coup as he considered it as an “internal affair” of Myanmar. The Cambodian government has also asked civil society not to interfere with Myanmar’s affairs as Cambodia adheres to ASEAN’s non-interference principle.

Nevertheless, given the increase of violence on anti-coup protesters, sanctions from the international community on the military regime, and China’s support of the ASEAN role in addressing the issue, Cambodia has changed its position on Myanmar. Cambodia has expressed its concern on the escalation of violence and demonstrated its willingness to put Myanmar on a path to normalcy through the ASEAN framework.

Moreover, given that the Myanmar issue may place a considerable burden on Cambodia’s ASEAN Chairmanship in 2022, Hun Sen recently joined ASEAN’s special meeting alongside several other ASEAN leaders to discuss solutions to the crisis. He also shared his experience in implementing the win-win policy to successfully end a prolonged civil war in Cambodia with military junta leader Ming Aung Hlaing.

Remarkably, ASEAN reached a five-point consensus on the situation of the Myanmar crisis in last weekend’s summit. The consensus included (a) the immediate cessation of violence; (b) the commencement of constructive dialogue among all parties concerned; (c) the appointment of ASEAN special envoy; (d) the provision of humanitarian assistance; and (e) a visit by the special envoy and delegation to Myanmar to address the issue.

Even though ASEAN could conclude the consensus with the junta, Myanmar’s political crisis may not end easily. ASEAN’s solutions on Myanmar may not be a success unless the junta commit to honour the agreements. However, the junta’s political will to implement the ASEAN five-point consensus on Myanmar seems low. For instance, in a statement after the ASEAN’s Myanmar crisis talk, the junta said that it would consider the ASEAN’s proposals “after stabilising the country” and their priority at the moment was to “maintain law and order” and “restore community peace and tranquillity”.

This shows that the junta is unwilling to honour the ASEAN’s five-point agreements. In this regard, Myanmar’s political crisis is likely to continue for a long period of time, which will threaten regional peace and stability in general and give burdens to Cambodia as the next ASEAN chair in particular.

Myanmar’s political crisis may give Cambodia a tough assignment in its role as an ASEAN chair in 2022.  Sustaining peace and stability in the bloc will be one of the most important priorities for Cambodia in 2022. However, political instability in Myanmar would be a major barrier to Cambodia’s performance as an ASEAN chair and its diplomatic bid to become an important player in promoting peace and stability in the region.

In the worst-case scenario, the crisis would plunge Myanmar into a civil war, providing a great opportunity for great powers to advance their geopolitical interests. If this is the case, Myanmar will suffer a proxy war of great power rivalry, potentially putting the whole Southeast Asia region into their battlefield. All of these will weaken ASEAN centrality, especially in terms of addressing the regional challenges, and make ASEAN less relevant to international politics. Considering these challenges, it seems that Cambodia will have little room to make itself proud as a 2022 ASEAN chair.

Another significant factor is that the crisis in Myanmar would add to the existing challenges that Cambodia needs to handle in 2022. Given the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) has yet to be signed,  it will be passed to Cambodia as ASEAN chair, giving the Kingdom more headache to facilitate ASEAN and China to reach an agreement.

With failure to reach a consensus on COC under its ASEAN chairmanship, the Kingdom may once again be in trouble of losing face and credibility as it experienced in 2012 when it was an ASEAN chair. At the time, Cambodia was strongly blamed for failing to issue an ASEAN’s communiqué for the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history. Amid this unfortunate scenario, the political crisis in Myanmar would be another heavy storm for Cambodia as it takes the helm of the ASEAN ship in 2022.

To minimize the challenges, Cambodia needs to play an active and constructive role as much as possible to help Myanmar through the ASEAN mechanism and other regional and international diplomatic platforms. The Kingdom should play a role as a facilitator and mediator to the conflict in Myanmar and help its ASEAN peer to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

Even though the military junta seems unwilling to solve the ongoing issue for the time being, and Cambodia does not have much leverage over Myanmar, there will still be a room for the Cambodia to act. Cambodia needs to try its best to continue to constructively and actively engage with all relevant stakeholders in solving the crisis in Myanmar. Cambodia needs to demonstrate to ASEAN and the world that it has played its part as a responsible ASEAN member. This will help advance its image as “a small country with a big heart”.