Cambodia prime minister visits Myanmar for talks with junta, sparking protests

FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers a speech during a handover ceremony at Phnom Penh International Airport, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Feb. 7, 2021. Hun Sen begins a visit to strife-torn Myanmar on Friday, Jan. 7, that he hopes will invigorate efforts by Southeast Asian nations to start a peace process, but critics say will legitimize the rule of the military that took power last year and its campaign of violence. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith, File).

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was met by an honor guard and red carpet in Myanmar on Friday, just as protests by coup opponents broke out in other parts of the country over fears his trip will provide more legitimacy to the junta.

His two-day visit for talks with Myanmar’s military rulers was the first by a head of government to Myanmar since the army overthrew the elected administration of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1 last year, sparking months of protests and a bloody crackdown.

Cambodia is current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has been leading diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Myanmar and which adopted a five-point “consensus” peace plan in April.

Some other ASEAN countries including Indonesia have expressed frustration at the junta’s failure to implement the plan.

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In Myanmar, opponents of military rule have said Hun Sen is backing the junta by making the trip.

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In Depayin, about 300 km (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,” photographs on social media showed.

There were also reports of protests in the second city of Mandalay and the Tanintharyi and Monywa regions.

In a speech on Wednesday, Hun Sen called for restraint from all sides in Myanmar and for the peace plan to be followed.

“Brothers in Myanmar, do you want your country to fall into a real civil war or want it solved?” he said.

After a phone call this week with Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in messages on Twitter if there was no significant progress on the peace plan only non-political representatives from Myanmar should be allowed at ASEAN meetings

In October, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was barred from attending an ASEAN summit for his failure to cease hostilities, allow humanitarian access and start dialog, as agreed with ASEAN.

But in a further sign of divisions in the 10-member bloc, Hun Sen last month said junta officials should be allowed to attend ASEAN meetings.

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Min Ko Naing, a leading activist in Myanmar, said in a social media post that Hun Sen would face massive protests over his visit, which would hurt ASEAN.

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Hun Sen is one of the world’s longest serving leaders and Western countries and human rights groups have long condemned him for crackdowns on opponents, civil rights groups and the media in Cambodia.

Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research Emerlynne Gil said the trip risked sending mixed messages to Mynamar’s military leader and Hun Sen should instead lead ASEAN to strong action to address the country’s “dire human rights situation.”

Hun Sen will meet military leader Min Aung Hlaing, but the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia cited a junta spokesman as saying he would not meet Suu Kyi, who has been detained since the coup and is on trial, facing nearly a dozen cases that carry a combined maximum sentences of more than 100 years in prison.

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(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul in PHNOM PENH and Reuters staff; Editing by Ed Davies and Michael Perry)

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