By Prak Chan Thul
– Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen met Myanmar’s military ruler Min Aung Hlaing on Friday amid criticism of the first visit by a head of government since the army seized power from an elected government last year.
Hun Sen was greeted by an honour guard and red carpet when he arrived on Friday, just as protests by coup opponents broke out in other parts of the country over fears his trip will provide more legitimacy to the ruling junta.
Myanmar state television later showed images of the two leaders bumping elbows and sitting down for talks in gilded chairs.
Hun Sen’s two-day visit was the first by a head of government since the army overthrew the civilian administration of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1 last year, sparking months of protests and a bloody crackdown.
The Cambodian leader, who has been criticised over crackdowns on his political opponents at home, has said he was making the visit to press a Myanmar peace plan sponsored by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Cambodia is current chair of the 10-member ASEAN, which adopted a five-point “consensus” peace plan in April.
Some other ASEAN countries including Indonesia have expressed frustration at the junta’s failure to implement the plan, including allowing an envoy to meet Suu Kyi, who has been in detention since the coup.
In Myanmar, opponents of military rule have said Hun Sen, who seized power in Phnom Penh in a 1997 coup, is backing the junta by making the trip.
In Depayin, about 300 km (186 miles) north of the capital, Naypyidaw, protesters burned a poster of the Cambodian prime minister and chanted “Hun Sen don’t come to Myanmar. We don’t want dictator Hun Sen”, photographs on social media showed.
There were also reports of protests in the second city of Mandalay and the Tanintharyi and Monywa regions.
In a speech on Wednesday before his trip, Hun Sen called for restraint from all sides in Myanmar and for the peace plan to be followed.
“Brothers in Myanmar, do you want your country to fall into a real civil war or want it solved?” he said.
After a phone call this week with Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in messages on Twitter if there was no significant progress on the peace plan, then only non-political representatives from Myanmar should be allowed at ASEAN meetings.
In October, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was barred from attending an ASEAN summit for his failure to cease hostilities, allow humanitarian access and start dialogue, as agreed with ASEAN.
But in a further sign of divisions in the 10-member bloc, Hun Sen last month said junta officials should be allowed to attend ASEAN meetings.
Min Ko Naing, a leading activist in Myanmar, said in a social media post that Hun Sen would face massive protests over his visit, which would hurt ASEAN.
Hun Sen is one of the world’s longest serving leaders and Western countries and human rights groups have long condemned him for crackdowns on opponents, civil rights groups and the media in Cambodia. His party now holds all seats in parliament after a court banned the main opposition party ahead of a 2018 election.
Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research Emerlynne Gil said the trip risked sending mixed messages to Mynamar’s military leader and Hun Sen should instead lead ASEAN to strong action to address the country’s “dire human rights situation”.
U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia cited a junta spokesman as saying Hun Sen would not meet Suu Kyi, who has been detained since the coup and is on trial, facing nearly a dozen cases that carry a combined maximum sentence of more than 100 years in prison.