HUN Sen has been Cambodia’s prime minister for almost 35 years. He came to power in 1985 following a victory in parliamentary elections. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and Vietnam’s invasion of his country were way behind him.
One of the first things he did was to restore democracy. He brought in foreign investment, restored the monarchy and gave amnesty to thousands of the Khmer Rouge guerillas.
In 1998, the party that he heads — the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) — won the elections again and he formed a coalition government with the royalist Funcinpec party.
From guest to observer, Cambodia became a full member of Asean in 1999. In 2004, Hun Sen’s party won the parliamentary elections again, and the victory was repeated in 2008, in 2013 and last year. How the CPP managed to continuously win, only its people can tell — just as how the Malaysian ruling party never lost until after six decades in power.
At the opposite spectrum, Sam Rainsy was leading the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).
He was convicted in absentia for defaming Hun Sen but was given a royal pardon to return home, only to be sentenced again in absentia for 10 years for treason. In 2017, the Cambodian parliament stripped him of his immunity and the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP.
Living in exile and holding a non-Cambodian international passport, Sam Rainsy was allowed entry into Malaysia when his alleged attempt to enter Cambodia via Thailand was blocked.
In today’s Cambodia, Sam Rainsy is a wanted person to be arrested on sight. But two days ago, he was an invited guest of an informal group of Malaysian parliamentarians.
It is unclear why an invitation was accorded to Sam Rainsy. It has the semblance of interference in the internal affairs of another state. The principle of non-intervention is an established part of international law.
The United Nations Charter prohibits foreign states from interfering or intervening in the domestic affairs of another state. It also prevents a foreign state from taking sides during times of political divides.
Non-interference means that no attempt should influence a state’s choice of its government, political, economic systems or its foreign policy. This has to do with the need for the state to exercise its sovereignty and territorial integrity, which are also a part of international customary law.
However, the principle of non-interference has never been absolute. Some believed that states have a right to intervene if another state treated its people in its territory in a way that is unacceptable to universal norms.
History has many inferences of interventions, be that for humanitarian reasons or for human rights violation.
The principle of non-interference first appeared in the Asean foundation document — the Bangkok Declaration of 1967.
It was reiterated in the Kuala Lumpur Declaration of 1997 and functions as a political tool to prevent any one of the member states to undermine the domestic governance of another.
But from time to time, developments within the Asean member states compelled them to make public assertions against another.
The Asian financial crisis of 1997, the Indonesian forest fires, the repressive political situation in Myanmar, all challenged Asean’s steadfast principle of non-interference.
An approach of “flexible engagement” was suggested at one Asean ministerial meeting but this was flatly turned down. In effect, no one state tolerates criticism by another and, therefore, it is wise to refrain from doing so in the first place.
National interest should always be a paramount consideration when states choose to behave in relation to another. Some states prefer to use the international platform to announce their stand and, in the process, may receive unfavourable backlash. Others may prefer to engage in quiet bilateral diplomacy, where the adverse impact is less.
It is unclear what was discussed during the meeting of Malaysian parliamentarians with Sam Rainsy, or what assurances were given to him, if any. One thing however is clear — Sam Rainsy had a captive audience when he stopped over in Malaysia and in the process, he stole the limelight.
The writer is Malaysia’s former ambassador to Fiji, the Netherlands, and permanent representative to the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons