President shores up support on three-nation regional tour

By Vong Sokheng and Shane Worrell
Volume 31, No. 620
March 26 - April 1, 2012

President U Thein Sein at the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh.
Pic: Kaung Htet

PHNOM PENH – Cambodia, as ASEAN chair, could play a vital role in strengthening the international community’s perception that Myanmar has reformed and sanctions need to be lifted, independent observers said last week.

Prime Minister Hun Sen described President U Thein Sein’s March 21 visit to Phnom Penh as something that would boost the two countries’ relations but observers said U Thein Sein was more focused on exporting a message of radical transformation to the world via ASEAN, which will hold its summit in Cambodia on April 3 and 4.

Information Minister Mr Khieu Kanharith said U Thein Sein had promised Mr Hun Sen that the April 1 by-elections would be fair.

“The president has expressed his will to do whatever it takes to have a transparent, acceptable election,” he said.

U Thein Sein praised Cambodia for its enduring support and Mr Hun Sen had said the Myanmar leader’s visit would strengthen the relationship of the two countries, Mr Khieu Kanharith said, but little else was revealed about the meeting.

Mr Chheang Vanarith, director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said U Thein Sein’s visit was aimed at shoring up support from ASEAN nations in its bid to have international sanctions dropped.

“I think the visit is aimed at delivering the diplomatic message to Cambodia, as the chair of ASEAN and a good friend of Myanmar, that it will need to play an important role in convincing the ASEAN nations to lift sanctions on Myanmar,” he said, adding those nations might then speak to the US and Europe.

“We will wait to see after the election next month … if Myanmar can keep building the trust of the international community.”

“ASEAN has put pressure on Myanmar to do good … and it’s continuing to get ASEAN to look at the kind of reform it’s trying to carry out,” said Professor Carlyle Thayer from the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

“Myanmar is also adopting different policies externally. This is about ASEAN. Bilaterally, there is not much to exchange between Cambodia and Myanmar,” he said.

Mr Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said ASEAN, which Myanmar will chair in 2014, was “a huge public relations opportunity for the Burmese government”.

“I don’t think Burma will need to claim Cambodia as an ally – since the international community has largely agreed to ASEAN’s decision to permit Burma to take the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014,” he said.

“What we think President Thein Sein should be talking to the Cambodian government about is how to ensure that both countries met their obligations under the ASEAN Charter to respect international human rights standards.”

U Thein Sein began a three-ASEAN member state tour on March 20 in Vietnam and headed to Laos on March 22.

– Phnom Penh Post