Phnom Penh (FN), Jan. 13 – Last year April, Indonesian foreign minister Retno made a covert attempt to visit Myanmar, but ended up meeting with Myanmar foreign minister Wunna at Bangkok airport with the support of Thai foreign minister Don Pramudwinai. She could not even reach Myanmar’s border. She called for early re-election as a means for early return to democracy, but her solution was slammed by the anti-coup group stating that electoral result in November 2020 must be respected. Indonesia had to backtrack its position on that matter.

Later on, Indonesia proposed former foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda to be one of the candidates for the special envoy of the ASEAN chair on Myanmar just to be outrightly rejected by Myanmar military authority. Knowing the complexities of Myanmar’s issues, Brunei chair had never had any intention to nominate its own special envoy until everyone was exhausted and consensus cannot be reached due to the existence of many proposed candidates. Then ASEAN put the load back to Brunei. It took four months for ASEAN to nominate a special envoy of the Chair, which the chair is entitled to nominate, in August 2021 after the adoption of the ASEAN leaders’ five-point consensus in April 2021.

But still the Brunei’s hands were tied. Brunei was bombarded by many pre-conditions and pressures imposed by Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, and it did not have much room to maneuver. It opted for a path less criticised, which was to set heavy pre-conditions before any possible visits, namely the meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi and former president Win Myint, and the release of foreign prisoners and bring them back on the plane back to Brunei. The Myanmar authorities of course rejected, and the special envoy could not set foot in Myanmar until his term ended four months later.

When Cambodia started to change the approach by trying to restore ASEAN-10, and adopted action-oriented approach, it was equally criticised. Cambodia scored one point in terms of “foot on the ground” but was heavily criticised by public opinion, saying that prime minister Hun Sen is lending legitimacy to the junta government, and that the outcome was full of words without any concrete positive outcomes from Myanmar military.

Compared to Retno’s visit attempt, Cambodia was much more criticised because of the high profiled visit that drew more media attention. Retno’s attempt was a secret visit. She did not inform other member states of her visit and she was not even the chair. Prime minister Hun Sen declared his visit publicly.

Process is as important as outcomes. Cambodia has done its best trying to perform her duty as ASEAN Chair on Myanmar issues, the duty that is not appreciated by some ASEAN member states.

So, the problem is even Indonesia’s engagement was wrong; Brunei’s inactive engagement was also wrong; and Cambodia’s proactive engagement was also wrong.

This is called the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

Cambodia can withdraw from its proactive approach, sit back and relax. Looking at Cambodia’s lesson, it is very hard to imagine which country wants to take the Myanmar poisonous pill.

Myanmar military was not helpful either. Just days after prime minister Hun Sen’s visit, airstrikes were conducted, trial against Aung San Suu Kyi was held, undermining the ceasefire process, and trust and confidence on Myanmar military’s commitment to the five-point consensus.

No one has the best formula in handling Myanmar issues. One option is to stick to values and preconditions without engagement. Another option is to adopt pragmatic engagement without preconditions. Both options are unsuccessful, considering Indonesia, Brunei and Cambodia’s past lessons.

It is highly likely that Cambodia will never accept any possible extension of the mandate of the special envoy, and considering Indonesia’s harsh approach, no one really knows how the next special envoy will perform the duty without any visit and direct talk with the military government. Will it be one-year mandate without a visit? Will it be one-year full of statements? Will it be one-year of ASEAN-9?

We are only talking about ASEAN process as above. It is extremely complicated and painful.

But at the end of the day, Cambodia seems to focus too much on achieving its duties as ASEAN Chair by forgetting about what Myanmar should do to help Cambodia help Myanmar.

Cambodia is taking the poisonous pill and it seems the experience is rather unpleasant.

Indeed, Cambodia scored a point in making the visit. If they don’t think Cambodia is doing important works, countries would not have lined up to request meetings with Cambodia, one after another. These countries know the reality that Cambodia can be helpful in conveying their messages to the top leadership of the Myanmar military authority. Prime minister Hun Sen even requested directly to senior general Min Aung Hlaing to release an Australian prisoner as he received such a request from Australia.

Japan knows very well the hardship of engagement in peace process, owing to its first pro-active peace diplomacy in Cambodia. The Japanese foreign minister expressed public appreciation of Cambodia’s actions on Myanmar. China also supports Cambodia but the perception of Cambodia being China’s puppet and of China being an authoritarian state, cannot counter the media perception that is strongly against the authoritarian military coup. Australia should have expressed public support for Cambodia for what the latter has done towards its request.

But again, everyone’s hands are tied. No one has an easy solution for Myanmar.

The easiest solution is to issue statement. It can be done by everyone, from New York to Washington, from Brussels to Canberra. It is the easiest way to express to the world that we are concerned about Myanmar and that we are doing something on Myanmar, which is issuing statements.

Leap Chanthavy is a Cambodian analyst based in Phnom Penh