The 24th annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Myanmar concluded yesterday with a declaration – initiated by Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official – urging “full respect of democratic principles” in resolving Thailand’s ongoing political crisis.
The premier enjoys cordial relations with both ousted Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother Thaksin, whose own reign as Thailand’s leader ended in a 2006 coup.
Analysts yesterday said Yingluck’s removal last week at the hands of the country’s constitutional court for abuse of power presented “gross uncertainties” for Hun Sen and the Cambodian government.
“ASEAN Member States continue to follow closely the recent developments in the Kingdom of Thailand and emphasise their full support for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing challenge in the country through dialogue and in full respect of democratic principles and rule of law,” the regional bloc’s statement reads.
Despite the statement, ASEAN is largely powerless to deal with Thailand’s political crisis. But Hun Sen may also have domestic motivations for initiating it, Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert and professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales, said.
By pushing forward an ASEAN declaration emphasising democratic procedures, it may give the premier an easy counterpoint to Cambodia’s own opposition, who would like to see Hun Sen similarly removed from power, Thayer added.
“There must be gross uncertainties for Cambodia in all of this,” he said. “Hun Sen has survived a challenge, but he’s not home free just yet.”
Political analyst Chea Vannath, meanwhile, said that despite its oft-fluctuating political scene, Thailand still enjoys greater social and economic stability than Cambodia.
“I think they know what they are doing,” she said. “They certainly don’t need a lesson from Cambodia.”
While the passage of the declaration was ostensibly a victory for Hun Sen, another declaration issued on Saturday by the ASEAN foreign ministers expressing “their serious concerns over the ongoing developments in the South China Sea” indirectly raised the spectre of Cambodia’s much-maligned turn as ASEAN chair two years ago.
In 2012, Cambodia was accused of blocking a similar declaration at China’s behest, and Saturday’s statement comes at a time of renewed tensions between Beijing and Hanoi – two of Cambodia’s biggest trade partners – over China’s deployment of an oil rig within Vietnam’s economic zone.
In Vietnam’s own strongly worded statement, it yesterday called on its neighbours to support its claims, and called Beijing’s actions in the sea “extremely dangerous”.
Thayer said yesterday that Cambodia had been quiet on the issue of the South China Sea since the “backlash” against its chairmanship, but had the luxury this time around of blending in with the unified front represented by a typically nonconfrontational ASEAN declaration.
“In Cambodia’s case, it doesn’t have to pick and choose between China [and Vietnam], it just has to go with the consensus,” he said, adding that “no doubt [China] has lobbied behind the
scenes with everybody”.
Vannath similarly hypothesised that Cambodia would seek to maintain friendly ties with both China and Vietnam, and “distance [itself] from the South China Sea as much as possible”.
“Everybody wants to be comfortable with China as much as they can,” she said. “I am sure that maybe [Cambodia] will try to stay out of the South China Sea issue.”
Speaking at the Phnom Penh airport last night, Kao Kim Hourn, minister delegate attached to the prime minister, urged restraint by the two claimants without choosing sides in the disagreement.
“Vietnam has reported to the meeting about the current situation, that Vietnam was challenged in the South China Sea,” he said. “Our position, based on the principle of international law, is that the issue should be resolved by peaceful means.”