Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has landed in Myanmar ahead of a meeting with coup leader Min Aung Hlaing amid protests in Myanmar and criticism from civil rights groups over the trip, the first by a foreign leader since the military seized power almost a year ago.
Hun Sen, who has all but wiped out political opposition in Cambodia, arrived in Naypyidaw shortly before 04:00 GMT and was pictured being greeted by the military’s foreign minister Wunna Maung. He later walked down a red carpet flanked on either side by an honour guard of soldiers dressed in pale blue tunics and white trousers.
The Myanmar military seized power on February 1 last year, on the morning the country’s newly elected parliament had been supposed to convene, arresting civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her government.
Cambodia is the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which last year refused to allow Min Aung Hlaing to attend the group’s annual summit because of his failure to make progress on an April “consensus” to promote dialogue and end violence.
Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research Emerlynne Gil said Hun Sen’s “rogue diplomacy” could do more harm than good.
“If Hun Sen truly wants to help, he should cancel this trip and lead ASEAN to strong action to address the country’s dire human rights situation rather than indulge in empty gestures that will likely result in little more than a self-congratulatory photo op,” she said in a statement.
Nearly 1,500 people have been killed since the coup and nearly 11,500 arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which has been monitoring the situation.
Last month, security forces were accused of killing and burning more than 30 civilians, including two members of staff from Save the Children, an aid group.
Protests took place in various parts of the country ahead of Hun Sen’s arrival.
In Depayin, about 300km (186 miles) north of the capital, Naypyidaw, protesters burned a poster of the Cambodian prime minister and chanted “Hun Sen don’t come to Myanmar. We don’t want dictator Hun Sen”, Reuters news agency reported, citing photographs on social media.
There were also reports of protests in Mandalay, and the Tanintharyi and Monywa regions.
A spokesman for the Dawei District Democracy Movement Strike Committee told Radio Free Asia (RFA), that Hun Sen’s visit would give legitimacy to a regime that had failed to make progress on resolving the political crisis.
“He is the dictator of Cambodia,” the spokesman told RFA. “It is completely impossible for someone like him to mediate on our country’s affairs.”
Hun Sen’s visit has also caused ructions within ASEAN, which operates on the basis of consensus and has long prided itself on the principle of non-interference.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo held a phone call with the Cambodian leader on Wednesday and said he had stressed the need for progress on the April consensus.
“Should there be no significant progress on the implementation of the 5PCs (five point consensus), Myanmar should only be presented (at the) non-political level at ASEAN meetings,” he tweeted afterwards.
Cambodia has said Hun Sen will meet Min Aung Hlaing, but reports say he will not be allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi.
A planned visit by an ASEAN envoy last year did not happen because the military refused him access to the detained leader who is currently on trial on a variety of charges.
The United Nations has not recognised the generals as Myanmar’s rulers and Kyaw Moe Tun, who was appointed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, remains in his post.
“The people of Myanmar want their democracy restored and their rights respected, and they will not accept any shortcuts coming from Hun Sen,” Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement. “The other eight ASEAN countries should publicly demand an explanation from Hun Sen, and make it clear that the majority of ASEAN states favor an approach that requires negotiations with all parties to the Myanmar conflict, not just the generals who launched the coup and led Myanmar into this unmitigated disaster of continuous conflict, violence, and rights abuses.