On Jan. 7, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen arrived in Myanmar for a two-day visit, making him the first Southeast Asian leader to travel there since the February 2021 military coup that overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The Myanmar opposition, which is engaged in a bitter struggle with the military regime, harshly criticized the Cambodian leader for legitimizing the ruling junta.
Hun Sen wasn’t acting out of altruism. He clearly expected the leaders of Myanmar to return the favor by supporting his own authoritarian regime. Unfortunately, such behavior is becoming the norm around the region. The elaborate network of mutual dependence among Southeast Asian autocrats is accelerating the steady decline of democracy.
The 2014 coup in Thailand established an ominous pattern. After the toppling of the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Myanmar swiftly dispatched a representative to legitimize the Thai military’s unlawful intervention in politics. As the first Association of Southeast Asian Nations leader to visit Bangkok, Myanmar’s commander in chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, praised the Thai military for “doing the right thing” in seizing power. Last year, finally, he followed the Thai example by staging his own coup.