OPINION: Setting the Agenda for Cambodia’s Peace Efforts for Myanmar

Cambodia again is in the spotlight of international media attention. A lot has been written about Cambodia’s approach towards Myanmar. Unfortunately, several media outlets and analysts tend to build an agenda that Cambodia is the spoiler of ASEAN. That invites the question relating to the ethic of journalism: which news stories are based on reality of the moment and which news stories are driven by political agenda-setting.

Most foreign analysts and commentators see Cambodia from their worldview, premised on prejudice. And they tend to reinforce each other’s standpoints without consulting local stakeholders. It needs to note that the ethic of journalism is to promote public interest. Journalists should perform as faithful, independent watchdogs.

Hun Sen’s high-profile visit to Myanmar on January 7-8 was a critical ice-breaking moment in ASEAN’s engagement with Myanmar- this is the fact. Cambodia neither has hidden geopolitical nor economic interests. It does not have any ambition to impose its views on Myanmar but just share its experiences with Myanmar regarding peace-making and peacebuilding process.

Regardless of such good faith, Cambodia has come under fire. It is an uphill battle for Cambodia to promote its legitimate narrative about its role in Myanmar crisis because of its limited resources.

Here are the facts. First, Cambodia has suffered from the prolonged civil war for almost three decades and does not wish to see any country go through such pain and suffering. Cambodia is willing to help the people of Myanmar live in peace.

Second, as the rotating Chair of ASEAN, Cambodia is obliged to address issues facing the region. Myanmar crisis is on top of the agenda. If it chooses to play low and not to act, Cambodia would be blamed for not being a responsible Chair. Hence better act than do nothing. Helping Myanmar means helping ASEAN.

Third, Cambodia is a small and open country in Southeast Asia and always regards ASEAN as the cornerstone of its foreign policy. Like other members, Cambodia views ASEAN as the shield to protect and advance its national interests. Therefore, there is no reason for Cambodia to weaken or split ASEAN.

It is worth noting that right after the military coup in February 2021, Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly stated that it was an internal affair of Myanmar and Cambodia would never interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Non-interference is the core guiding principle of Cambodia’s foreign policy.

However, regional circumstances have forced Cambodia to play a proactive role in the Myanmar issue because ASEAN’s credibility and relevance hang in the balance. Myanmar issue is truly litmus test for ASEAN. As violence continues and people still suffer, ASEAN is compelled to respond at least to deliver its moral responsibility.

Cambodia has taken a bold, decisive step with the hope to make a breakthrough on the Myanmar issue with a carefully crafted engagement strategy.

Learning from the past shortcomings of ASEAN’s engagement in Myanmar, Cambodia decided to adopt a new approach by visiting Myanmar without preconditions. The main objective of the visit is crystal clear: to open the gate for future dialogue and action-oriented engagement.

The engagement strategy with Myanmar is based on the five-point consensus adopted by the ASEAN leaders in April 2021 and the ASEAN Charter. Four practical steps being implemented are the followings.

First, ending violence and enforcing a ceasefire. Meaningful dialogue and negotiation would be impossible unless ceasefire and non-violence are observed by all parties concerned. This is the most critical step in the peace negotiation process.

Second, protecting people’s lives and livelihoods. The right to life and livelihoods is the most important human right. Therefore, it is necessary to coordinate and facilitate humanitarian assistance programmes so that aids can reach those in need without discrimination or disruptions.

Third, facilitating inclusive political dialogues. The ASEAN Special envoy plays a critical role in promoting mutual understanding and trust between and among different stakeholders in Myanmar based on which meaningful and substantial dialogue and negotiation can occur.

Fourth, ensuring a peaceful and democratic power transition. A free and fair election with the participation of all political parties is the means towards a peaceful transition. The State Administration Council (SAC) announced its plan to hold an election in August 2023. Therefore, ASEAN needs to monitor the election process closely to ensure it is acceptable to all parties.

To effectively realise this endeavour, Cambodia has proposed forming an ASEAN Troika, consisting of former, current, and future ASEAN Chair plus the Secretary-General of ASEAN to work as a close-knit team to implement, monitor, and evaluate the progress of implementing the five-point consensus.

Myanmar people themselves will define their future. Therefore, the peace-making and peacebuilding process must be led and owned by Myanmar. At best, the Cambodia ASEAN Chair can do for the people of Myanmar is to enforce a ceasefire and end all acts of violence, facilitate humanitarian assistance, and create a conducive environment for inclusive political dialogues among all parties concerned.

The media has a critical role to play in the peace progress in Myanmar. It should be less partisan and polarised and free of bias driven by vested interests. The media should give a chance to proactive peace process taken by Cambodia as it is too early to judge the outcome of Cambodia’s engagement strategy as the ASEAN Chair and avoid building an agenda that is based on prejudice.

Source: Agency Kampuchea Press