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SUNDAY, September 25, 2022
ASEAN and the art of saving face in diplomacy

ASEAN and the art of saving face in diplomacy

SUNDAY, January 30, 2022

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been on “cloud diplomacy” with several Asean leaders these past weeks about the situation in Myanmar

Hun Sen, in his capacity as Asean chairman this year, was on separate phone calls with Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong, Indonesia’s Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and video conference with Malaysia’s Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob. (The chairmanship is rotated among the 10 member countries annually.)

Uppermost on the mind of these leaders is the situation in Myanmar after the military seized control on Feb 1 last year. Mass protests followed and hundreds of people have been killed while elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi was recently sentenced to four more years in prison, in the latest of a series of trials. According to news reports, she was convicted for the illegal possession and import of walkie-talkies, and breaking Covid-19 rules.

Asean leaders met in Jakarta two months after the coup to bring an end to the violence and instability in Myanmar and adopted a five-point consensus which called for:

– immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and all parties shall exercise utmost restraint,

– constructive dialogue among all parties concerned shall commence to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people,

– a special envoy of the Asean Chair shall facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, with the assistance of the secretary general of Asean,

– Asean shall provide humanitarian assistance through the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance, and

– the special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.

Despite this deal, Myanmar’s military government failed to adhere to the consensus and junta ruler Min Aung Hlaing was excluded from the Asean summit chaired by Brunei last October in a rare reprimand against a member by the regional grouping.

Early this month, Hun Sen decided to visit Myanmar and held a meeting with Min Aung Hlaing. Some quarters are concerned that his trip, the first by a foreign leader since the coup, will provide more legitimacy to the junta.

After their talk with Hun Sen, the three Asean founding members – Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia – made it clear that any discussion to revise the consensus agreed by the leaders last April has to be based on new facts.

Lee, the most senior Asean leader, noted there is no significant progress on the five-point consensus, and any proposal from the Asean chair to coordinate a ceasefire and deliver humanitarian assistance should be further discussed by Asean foreign ministers and senior officials.

Jokowi, in a statement released after the phone call, expressed regret that Myanmar military did not commit to implementing the consensus despite the junta leader meeting Hun Sen.

Malaysia’s Ismail Sabri emphasised Asean’s position on Myanmar, including the bloc’s decision to invite non-political representative from the country to high level Asean meetings.

If the tone of these Asean leaders were careful but firm in driving the message across to Myanmar via Cambodia, Malaysia’s foreign minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah has unfortunately incurred the wrath of Hun Sen. It is unclear if the Cambodian leader had complained to Ismail Sabri about Saifuddin but he did just that during his call to the Indonesian President last week.

Various media reported that Hun Sen defended his visit and rebuked Saifuddin.

“Samdech (Hun Sen) said that the Malaysian foreign minister should not be too arrogant with inappropriate remarks to Asean leaders, especially the chair. And he lacks politeness,” according to a readout of the conversation provided to media by state broadcaster TVK, which was picked up by various media outlets.

Phnom Penh Post reported during the call with Jokowi, Hun Sen also requested Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi to relay his message to her Malaysian counterpart – Saifuddin’s remarks “were not right within the Asean framework”.

Saifuddin was earlier asked to comment on Hun Sen’s trip to Myanmar and was quoted as saying “We would expect that he could have at least consult – if not all – a few of his brother leaders as to what he should say. Not that we are trying to teach him, but normally the Asean chairs consult with the others anytime you want to do something that is considered significant.”

He must have touched a raw nerve of the Cambodian leader. True, the sentiment on Hun Sen’s visit is not Saifuddin’s alone and those who have been following the turmoil in Myanmar, would understand why he said what he said the way he did.

“As Chair of Asean, you cannot simply go to Myanmar when you know there is a very serious issue that needs to be sorted out among Asean. Cambodia should take any remarks as constructive, not criticism but some kind of advice,” said a diplomat.

But it is best to remember that in Asean, as in Asian culture, face saving is everything.

“We must give respect and not to “drop the face” of seniors, what more if he is the head of government.

“I think there is nothing wrong with commenting but the language could have been different. Remember that he has been head of government for more than 30 years. Agree or disagree we must show respect,” said an Asean observer.

The chairmanship of Cambodia has already started with a “bang” and it will be an interesting development to watch what the chair will bring this year and not just on Myanmar.

Ten years ago when Cambodia was chair, Asean foreign ministers ended a meeting – for the first time in history – without issuing the customary joint communique, following disagreement over the growing assertiveness of China in the South China Sea.

So get ready and fasten your seat belts.