Together with Burmese activists around the world, I am so surprised and so happy to read that two days ago the UN Security Council has put Burma on its agenda. The Burmese exiled government and activists around the world have lobbied for this over many years.
I was in Phnom Penh last month for the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) meeting and I met with Hun Sen, the Cambodian PM.
I’ve wanted to blog on this earlier but was unable to until now.
Burma Caucus Formed in Cambodian Parliament
The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) launched the Cambodian Pro-Democracy of Burma Caucus in the Cambodian Parliament on August 25-26.
The launch of the Burma Caucus was very impressive. It was attended by many MPs from three different parties in Cambodia, as well as many diplomats and media at the Cambodian Hotel. The caucus is headed by a MP from Sam Rainsy Party, Son Chhay.
After the launch, we, the MPs in the steering committee of AIPMC, were invited to attend a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen. The steering committee has “challenged” and requested Son Chhay many months earlier to arrange a meeting with the PM.
We were very surprised that it was a rather high-level close-door meeting, where we met with both PM, Deputy PM and Son Chhay. Hun Sen can’t speak in English and can only converse in Khmer, thus the whole meeting was aided by interpretation via headphones.
I was very surprised Hun Sen managed to talk uninterrupted for 1 hour 20 minutes. After that we were given the chance to ask questions and express our views. Hun Sen started to smoke and invited us to smoke (in the air-cond room).
Cambodia will not be ally of Burma over its authoritarianism
Hun Sen told us he had lots of trusts and faith in the Burmese military junta at the initial stage. In 1997 when Burma was admitted into ASEAN, Hun Sen went to Burma and the General of Burma told him that Burma was drafting the Constitution. Two years later the junta continued to tell the Cambodians they were still drafting the Constitution.
In 2003, the junta led by Kyin Nyunt presented a new option, i.e. Road Map to Democracy. His explanation then convinced the ASEAN leaders. But a year later Khint Nyunt was arrested and detained, and a new PM took power in Burma. In the ASEAN Summit that year, the Burmese leader raised the issue of road map again. ASEAN leaders then realised that while the junta was hallucinating on the so-called road map, National Convention was still something new, and Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners were still in prison.
During the ASEAN - Europe (ASEM) meeting at Hanoi in 2004, EU did not want Burma to attend the talks although they agreed to Cambodia and Laos being represented, i.e. ASEAN + 2 and not ASEAN + 3 only. Cambodia argued a case for Burma and the EU relented and allowed Burma to participate. Burma did not send high ranking officers but only an envoy to the meeting where the EU raised the issue of Burma strongly. France and Italy in particular voiced out strongly against Burma.
At the next ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, three issues were raised:
i) The visit of Foreign Minister of ASEAN (Malaysian FM, then followed by Philippine FM) to Burma,
ii) Refer Burma to UN Security Council, and;
iii) Send ASEAN Troika to Burma (raised by Hun Sen).
After that, FM of Malaysia visited Burma but he faced lots of difficulties; Philippine FM then visited Burma but he failed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. Finally, the Thai PM Taksin visited Burma.
Hun Sen said he then allowed the Cambodian Parliament to discuss the issue of Burma, and he even allowed the discussion to include referring Burma to UN Security Council. Hun Sen was of the opinion that referring Burma to UNSC now was not mature at this moment as some countries will oppose it.
Hun Sen said, recently both Thailand and Philippine have declared emergencies, and if the problems in these countries were referred to UNSC, then the role of ASEAN will be reduced. The Cambodian position is that issue in an ASEAN country should be referred to ASEAN chairman first, then by Troika.
He said the concept of Troika was launched in 1999 ASEAN Summit and supported by Ali Alatas from Indonesia, Surin Pitsuwan from Thailand and Ceasar from Philippine.
He said it is if Burmese government was clever, it should accept Troika, to avoid the issue being pushed to UNSC.
Hun Sen said, in the forthcoming ASEM meeting in Finland, if Europe doesn’t give visa to Burma, ASEAN should still proceed with the meeting, because ASEAN 9 should not be hostage of one country. As Burma has such a great impact on ASEAN, Burmese leaders should not just think of their own interests but should also take ASEAN interests into consideration.
He said any meeting that excluded Burma should go ahead so that ASEAN can send a strong message to Rangoon. Meeting without Burma is a process to reprimand Burma.
Hun Sen said he had told the Burmese Junta: “We have no weapon to protect you, road map is not working, the weapon that we need is not too much, it is just a Troika mechanism, let us resolve it within the framework of ASEAN.” However, both former chair of ASEAN (Malaysia) and present chair of ASEAN (Philippine) have tried to go to Burma but it is not working.
The ‘Openness” in Cambodia
Hun Sen then related the situation in Burma to Cambodia. He said using war to end a war was not a solution and there was a need to achieve a political solution. He said, in the past, the Cambodian government refused to allow political parties nor NGOs to be set up, but only allowed fighting in the jungle. That’s why he went into jungle and has been fighting in the jungle since 70s when he was 18 years old. He said, in 1988, there were 58 political parties in Cambodia and there are now more than 60 political parties with some 10,000 reps. There are about 1500 NGOs.
Hun Sen said with the departure of Dr Mahathir from politics, he is now the oldest PM in office in ASEAN. He has been in office since January 1985. He was Foreign Minister when he was 27 years old and he became PM five years later.
He said Cambodia allowed people with duo-citizenship to contest elections. Many cabinet ministers hold duo-citizenship because of tragic events in history. He said they can always enact laws to ban royal families from being involved in politics, like what is happening in Japan and Thailand, but if the people want to elect them, then let them be.
He said despite the bloodshed in 1997, the next year Cambodia held elections despite financial crisis and the Khmer Rouge still controlling parts of the country. At that time, Funcinpec has armed forces at the border and it did not register itself in the elections, but Hun Sen allowed them to participate in the elections because he wanted to unite the country.
Hun Sen said, if they don’t allow political parties to participate in elections, they will go to fight in the jungle, thus, better to prepare them to participate in the elections and letting the dissidents speak in Parliament is the best way.
Hun Sen then mentioned about the relationship of Sam Rainsy and him. He said Sam Rainsy’s problem with him is the issue of defamation. However, in the Cabinet meeting on that morning, the Cabinet decided to take away defamation from Penal Code, defamation will then be a case of civil suit and it will involve fines only.
He also said that in the Parliament, his party CPP controls five committees, Funcinpec controls four and SRP controls none. However, he came out with a new formula:. CPP controls five committees, Funcinpec two and SRP two. The reason he did that was to let the control of committee reflects the elections result. It was better the people in the committee be not pleased with his decision rather than the public being unhappy
He said it is difficult to please all people in politics, just like Buddha and Jesus failed to please all people too.
Hun Sen is Grateful to Opposition Parties
Hun Sen then made a astonishing statement to us when he said, “I am grateful to opposition party, they can help us to improve our management. I as a PM cannot know all things, but opposition parties sometimes can point out problems in the administration.”
MPs Are Surprise
Before we met with Hun Sen, we were told that we would be given 40 minutes for our meeting only. However, we went into the meeting room with Hun Sen at about 6pm and only came out at about 8.30pm.
For most of us, except Senator Kraisak from Thailand, it was our first time to meet with Hun Sen. It was also the first time for AIPMC to meet with a head of state in ASEAN region.
We were very surprised that Hun Sen allowed the Burma Caucus to be formed in the Cambodian Parliament We were also very impressed with the grand opening and number of Cambodian MPs who attended and participated in the Burma Caucus. What impressed us most was the openness shown by Hun Sen during his meeting with us. He did not appear to be the sot of man portrayed by the international media.
After the meeting with Hun Sen, while MPs of AIPMC expressed their views to Hun Sen, an opposition MP who has been quietly listening to our conversation passed a cynical remarks. He said he wished Hun Sen would practise what he said to us. We, the foreigners, smiled to each other, and we said, “I see…”
DSCF 2752 —Congressman Mario Joyo Aguja presented a Burma kit to Hun Sen on behalf of AIPMC
DSCF 2751— AIPMC delegation and Hun Sen after the dialogue. From left to right: Dr Sannaung (Burmese MP from NLD), Teresa Kok, Daw San San (Burmese MP from NLD), Djoko (Indonesian MP), Mario Joyo Aguja (Congressman from Philippine), Sok An (Cambodian DPM), Kraisak (Senator from Thailand), Hun Sen, Aaid Ibrahim (MP from Malaysia), Etta Rozales (Congresswoman from Philippine), Jon Ungphakorn (Senator from Thailand).
DSCF 2749 —Dialogue between AIPMC members and Hun Sen. From Right to left: Hun Sen, Sok An (Cambodian DPM) and Sonn Chhay (MP from Sam Rainsy Party).
DSCF 2733 —AIPMC press conference after the Cambodian Burma Caucus launch.
DSCF 2722 —Datuk Zaid Ibrahim (Chairman of AIPMC) addressed the audience during the Cambodian Burma Caucus launch.
DSCF 2726 —Diplomats, MPs and journalists who attended the Burma Caucus launch in Pnom Penh.
DSCF 2711 —Left to right: Dr. Tint Swe (Burmese MP-elect based in India), Daw Dan San (Burmese MP-elect based in Chiangmai) and me in the launch of Cambodian Parliament Burma Caucus.