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In Myanmar, military leaders will meet with visiting Cambodian prime minister


Today the prime minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, is in Myanmar. It's the first visit by a foreign leader since last February's coup. It's a diplomatic gesture. He says that it's aimed at helping end the violence that's claimed more than 1,400 lives. But critics argue the visit only legitimizes the military's rule. Michael Sullivan reports from neighboring Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Here's a blunt message for the Cambodian prime minister from Khin Ohmar of the civil society group Progressive Voice.


KHIN OHMAR: Mr. Hun Sen, you are not welcome. Myanmar people do not welcome you to enter their country and shake hands with the murderer of their people.

SULLIVAN: Bo Hla Tint, a representative of the elected government deposed by the military, emphatically agrees.


BO HLA TINT: It is undeniably legitimizing the chief of the junta, who has been an internationally wanted criminal for the genocidal war crimes as well as crime against humanity since 2017 and what is going on in Myanmar committed by his security forces.

SULLIVAN: Both were speaking at a news conference called Hun Sen Going Rogue: A Threat to Myanmar's Future (ph). But not everyone thinks what some call his cowboy diplomacy, taken without consulting his colleagues and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is inherently bad.

BILAHARI KAUSIKAN: You know, it's OK. You have to make a gesture at some point, right?

SULLIVAN: Analyst Bilahari Kausikan is a retired diplomat from Singapore, a country with a long history of engagement with the military in Myanmar.

KAUSIKAN: If you really want to play a role, who else are you going to talk to? You have to talk to the military. They are the power in being, whether you like them or not, you know?

SULLIVAN: Back in April, Myanmar's military agreed to a five-point ASEAN consensus aimed at ending the violence. It included appointing a special representative to mediate a dialogue between the military and the opposition and a request for the representative to meet with deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, currently in detention. That didn't happen. And ASEAN responded by shunning the junta in regional forums. But Bilahari Kausikan argues the Cambodian strongman, himself no stranger to coups, could help break that deadlock.

KAUSIKAN: Yeah, he is a perfect person because he can say, I've been there, done that just like you, you know? I am not into this democracy [expletive], so don't worry. But you need to be - you need to get along with your neighbors, and I show you how.

SULLIVAN: Public opposition to Hun Sen's visit is already widespread. Two improvised explosive devices went off outside the Cambodian Embassy last week. Khin Ohmar of Progressive Voice says she doesn't expect much from a visit she thinks is more about Hun Sen's ambition than brokering peace.

OHMAR: It's very clear to us that he's acting on his own ego. And in fact, that is, again, you know it's very clear to us. So I just want to say that. I mean, yes, we all will see more and more of Myanmar people's public reaction against him in the next coming days.

SULLIVAN: Which could easily provoke yet another bloody crackdown by the military. But analyst Bilahari Kausikan says the wily Cambodian strongman's visit shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

KAUSIKAN: The worst that could happen to him is what has happened to everybody else, which is to be ignored. So you know, it's no great cost to him. The upside is, you know, if they give him a little bit, he can say, see, my way is better.

SULLIVAN: Hun Sen's visit is scheduled to last two days. He says he'll stay longer if he thinks he's making progress.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "7TH SEVENS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.