BANGKOK – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar seeking to revive peace efforts after last year's military takeover has provoked an angry backlash among critics, who say he is legitimizing the army’s seizure of power.
Hun Sen is the first head of government to visit Myanmar since the military takeover last February. The authoritarian Cambodian leader has held power for 36 years and keeps a tight leash on political activity at home.
In his role as the current chairperson of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he met with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, plunging Myanmar into violent conflict and economic disaster.
In their meeting, Min Aung Hlaing told Hun Sen that Myanmar had extended a ceasefire with all ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in the country that was originally set to expire at the end of February through the end of the year, according to a joint statement released late Friday by the two leaders.
Min Aung Hlaing said he “welcomed the participation of the special envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar to join the ceasefire talks with and among the EAOs,” the statement added. “This important step is embodied in the ASEAN five-point consensus.”
Last April, ASEAN leaders, including Min Aung Hlaing, agreed on a five-point roadmap toward a peaceful settlement of the Myanmar crisis, including an end to violence and a political dialogue between all stakeholders.
Myanmar’s leader on Friday “pledged support (to the ASEAN special envoy) ... in fulfilling his mandate to implement the five-point consensus in accordance with the ASEAN charter,” the statement said.
Hun Sen was accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn, the current ASEAN special envoy, and other top Cambodian leaders.
Photos posted by a military-related publication, the Popular News Journal, showed Min Aung Hlaing and Hun Sen standing side by side in face masks, bumping forearms and seated on ornate gilt chairs before an elaborate golden screen.
Protests and rallies were held in some parts of Myanmar as people expressed anger over Hun Sen's visit.
Hundreds of protesters burned portraits of the Cambodian prime minister and chanted, “Torch inhumane Hun Sen. People who engage with Min Aung Hlaing should die horrible deaths," videos of the protest posted online showed.
The Myanmar leader was barred in October from attending ASEAN meetings after the group's special envoy was prevented from meeting with Suu Kyi and other political detainees, which was one of the stipulations of the agreement.
Hun Sen said on Wednesday before leaving Cambodia that he had not set any preconditions for his visit.
“What I would like to bring to the talks is nothing besides the five points, consensus points that were agreed upon by all ASEAN member states," he said.
Myanmar’s military has said Hun Sen will not be allowed to meet with Suu Kyi, who was convicted in December on charges of incitement and violating coronavirus restrictions and sentenced to four years in prison — a sentence that Min Aung Hlaing then cut in half.
A legal official familiar with Suu Kyi's legal proceedings said she appeared at a special court in Naypyitaw, Myanmar's capital, on Friday for hearings in three corruption cases against her that include allegations she diverted charitable donations to build a residence and abused her authority.
The army's takeover prevented Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party from beginning a second term in office. It won a landslide victory in national elections in November 2020 and independent election observers did not find any major irregularities.
Min Aung Hlaing's move undid 10 years of progress toward democracy as the army loosened its grip on power after decades of repressive military rule.
The Myanmar military has a history of bloodshed, including a brutal campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Its seizure of power provoked nationwide nonviolent demonstrations, which security forces have quashed with deadly force.
The military has recently engaged in violent suppression of all dissent, disappearances, torture and extra-judicial killings. It has also launched air strikes and ground offensives against ethnic armed rebel groups.
Security forces have killed about 1,443 civilians, according to a detailed tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. As the crackdown has become more severe, an armed resistance has grown inside the country.
The visit by Hun Sen drew international criticism.
His decision to meet with Min Aung Hlaing was “an affront to the people of Myanmar who strongly oppose the visit," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“The visit is a slap in the face of the other ASEAN member states who had no say in the matter" even after they limited Min Aung Hlaing's participation in the 10-nation regional group, he said.
Having retained power by exiling or imprisoning the Cambodian opposition, Hun Sen may be hoping his visit will burnish his own tarnished international image.
The National Unity Government, an underground Myanmar opposition group and parallel administration, urged Hun Sen to stay away.
“Meeting Min Aung Hlaing, shaking blood-stained hands. It’s not going to be acceptable,” said Dr. Sasa, a spokesman for the group who uses one name.
Associated Press journalists Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Kiko Rosario in Manila, Philippines, and Jerry Harmer in Bangkok contributed to this report.