Cambodia’s PM Hun Sen Acknowledges Myanmar Junta Chief Min Aung Hlaing as Head of State

Analysts say the prime minister hopes to establish a ‘debt of gratitude’ with Myanmar’s military leader.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has acknowledged Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as the head of state in Myanmar in an open letter sent to the junta chief pledging to help control a deadly third wave of the coronavirus that has ravaged the country amid the political unrest of a coup d’état.

In the missive, dated Aug. 17 and addressed to “His Excellency Senior General Min Aung Hlaing” from Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hun Sen says that he has “closely observed your country’s effort to fight against the outbreak” and offers U.S. $200,000 in cash to the regime leader “in the spirit of friendship and solidarity between our two countries.”

He also announces plans to donate medical equipment, including face masks, rapid COVID-19 tests, personal protective equipment (PPE), oxygen supplies, and ventilators.

Minister of Health and chair of the Inter-Ministerial Committee to Combat COVID-19 Mam Bunheng will lead a delegation to deliver the donations by a special flight arranged to Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw “soon,” the letter says.

“I am firmly convinced that with our joint efforts, we will overcome this global pandemic in one piece,” Hun Sen writes, offering “the assurances of my highest consideration and wishes.”

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017 and barred its members from taking part in political activities, two months after the arrest of party president Kem Sokha for his role in an alleged scheme to topple Hun Sen’s government.

The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s 2018 general election. The strongman has ruled Cambodia for some 36 years, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.

Hun Sen’s letter comes nearly six months after Min Aung Hlaing led Myanmar’s military in a Feb. 1 coup d’état, claiming that Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) won the country’s November 2020 election by rigging the ballot. The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has brutally repressed anti-coup protests, killing at least 1,006 people and arresting 5,730, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Rights groups have condemned the junta for cracking down on protesters, while Western governments have leveled sanctions against the military and demanded that it end its campaign of violence and release all political prisoners.

Efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus in Myanmar were dealt a serious blow when the military seized power in February. The country’s healthcare system is now at the brink of collapse due to a poorly managed third wave of COVID-19 that has killed more than 8,600 people in the past month.

The official number of infections rose Wednesday to a total of 360,291 since Myanmar’s first recorded case in March last year, with at least 13,623 dead, although the actual numbers are believed to be substantially higher, based on reports by aid groups.

The country’s public hospitals are operating at maximum capacity and have been turning away all but the most seriously ill. Other patients are being forced to settle for treatment at home amid shortages of basic medical necessities, including oxygen supplies critical to mitigating hypoxia, when oxygen fails to reach bodily tissues.

Tens of thousands of people, including many healthcare professionals, have left their jobs to join a nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in opposition to junta rule. Many have faced arrest for voicing criticism of the regime.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives to receive a shipment of 600,000 doses of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines donated by China from ambassador Wang Wentian, at the Phnom Penh International Airport, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia February 7, 2021. Reuters
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives to receive a shipment of 600,000 doses of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines donated by China from ambassador Wang Wentian, at the Phnom Penh International Airport, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia February 7, 2021. Reuters
‘No reason to boast’

Dr. Seng Sary, a Cambodian political commentator, told RFA’s Khmer Service Wednesday that Hun Sen’s gesture was appropriate “from a humanitarian perspective,” but noted that the reason the aid is needed is because Myanmar’s government is “incapable of effectively containing the virus amid economic sanctions and a deteriorating political crisis.”

“The Burmese people no longer respect their government since the leader grabbed power via a coup,” he said.

“There is no reason that the Cambodian government should boast about supporting the Burmese government in combating COVID-19.”

Seng Sary went on to note that Hun Sen’s government has failed to control the coronavirus in its own country and should be spending its time supporting Cambodians who face food shortages and unemployment because of the pandemic.

Dr. Sophal Ear, associate dean at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, told RFA that Hun Sen may have sought to instill a debt of gratitude in Min Aung Hlaing and his embattled government.

“On the surface, it appears philanthropic. Underneath, it’s about creating links. But this amount, especially for a country the size of Myanmar, is not much,” he said.

Sophal Ear agreed that Hun Sen was wrong to assist the junta at a time when the citizens of his country are still suffering from his inability to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. 

“Of course, rural Cambodians and migrant workers are not high priority for the authorities, so while Myanmar’s junta gets these donations, rural Cambodians and migrant workers suffer,” he said.

“It’s about power and who is useful. One day, the Myanmar junta will be useful to Phnom Penh. Rural Cambodians and migrant workers do not have the influence or the power to do much for Phnom Penh. However, we know that they number millions. If democracy prevailed in Cambodia, they would have real power at the ballot box.”

Attempts to reach Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Myanmar junta spokesperson Maj. Gen. Zaw Tun and officials with Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) for comment on Hun Sen’s letter went unanswered Wednesday.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.


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