Opinion: The final straw

Longtime pro-democracy activist Min Ko Naing recently gave an interview where he used the phrase “the final straw,” which in Burmese represents a person’s last chance, when nothing else remains. The image is of a frantic grasp for land by a man drowning.

Less than one month before the February 1 anniversary of a disastrous coup attempt in Myanmar, military chief Min Aung Hlaing is the proverbial drowning man, barely treading water in a country and a world that has scorned him. Now he desperately grasps for help from his personal “final straw,” in the form of fellow autocrat and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

In the Western tradition, there is a similar proverb —”the [final] straw that breaks the camel’s back”—with a slightly different meaning. For Hun Sen, another dictator of ill-repute already burdened by his own political legacy, dealing with Min Aung Hlaing may very well serve to be that proverbial straw.

Hun Sen’s Cambodia is a product of the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, a process hailed for bringing resolution to what was then a decades-long civil war and a proxy invasion by neighbouring Vietnam. 

Perhaps Hun Sen draws inspiration from his role in this process and aspires to play a similar role now in the region.

Residents of Kalay, Sagaing Region, stage a protest on January 5 against Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen who is in Myanmar for a visit to meet with the Myanmar coup leader Min Aung Hlaing (CJ)

But there are large parts of Myanmar where communities suffered the ravages of war even before Cambodia’s own civil war, and still suffer to this day. What causes Hun Sen to insert himself into Myanmar’s crisis now, just as the people of the country are beginning to see the first signs of a long-reviled organisation on the verge of collapse? Whose interest is he here to represent?

If Hun Sen truly seeks to draw from the Cambodian experience and engage in the present-day situation in Myanmar, it is necessary to understand his country’s recent past.

The international commitment that went into keeping the peace process in Cambodia alive after 1991 was unprecedented. The Transitional Authority of Cambodia was a historic instance of the United Nations (UN) playing a direct administrative and peacekeeping role in a member state. The members of the UN Security Council and other nations linked to the different factions in Cambodia in the heady days following the collapse of the Soviet Union at least found common cause in the need to bring about stability and peace in the Southeast Asian nation.

As he flies into Naypyitaw this week, does Hun Sen have the assurance of similar commitments, or will Cambodia—or ASEAN for that matter—be able to play such a role?

Hun Sen himself should be reminded that in the eyes of observers, the Cambodia of today arguably represents a failure of the Paris Peace Accords. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party bullied its way into a joint prime ministership with a rival party, despite losing at the polls.

Yet that was then; there is no joint prime ministership today. Hun Sen’s own 1997 coup has assured him near-monopolistic power, the very kind of autocratic outcome that the people of Myanmar are currently fighting against.

Engagement needs credibility, of both mediators as well as of process. Restoring the primacy of ASEAN’s five-point consensus on Myanmar—the development of which Hun Sen was a part—would be a good starting point: Min Aung Hlaing has so far done everything to resist compliance to a fairly light set of pre-conditions. Why accord him legitimacy with this visit? Keeping channels open are important, but substantive dialogue cannot be pursued without sincerity and willingness on the part of the chief culprit.

Dialogue with a madman unreservedly killing his own countrymen is not only morally despicable, but unproductive in terms of political outcomes. Min Aung Hlaing, grasper of straws, has not demonstrated the rationality or collectedness to be a credible dialogue partner for ASEAN.

As for Hun Sen, he should mind the steps on his way out, lest he should break his back.

Moe Htoo is the pseudonym of a Myanmar analyst on international relations.

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