Four years ago, Cambodia wasn’t even a member of Asean. Today, Cambodia begins a one-year term as chairman of the 10-member group.
For many, that’s a huge turnaround. Aside from being able to set Asean’s agenda for the next fiscal year, the chairmanship is symbolic recognition that Cambodia has pulled itself together after decades of self-destruction, some officials and observers say.
“It’s a sign of maturity—that we’re a confident and able partner. For me, it shows a new image that we’re not just tagging along, we’re an equal partner,” Ministry of Commerce Secretary of State Sok Siphana said.
Cambodia joined Asean in 1999, along with Laos, Vietnam and Burma. It officially gains the chairmanship today from Brunei, part of a scheduled alphabetical rotation.
Cambodia’s entry came on the heals of the Asian financial crisis, which set more developed nations, such as Singapore and Thailand, back and ended debate on whether they could afford to ignore their neighbors. The other Asean members are Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
But, unlike Laos, Vietnam and Burma, Cambodia has shown itself an active partner in the political and economic bloc in the last three years, one Asean diplomat said.
“It is not just symbolic. The important thing to remember about Cambodia’s involvement in Asean is they don’t want to be passengers. They want to be involved in the decision-making,” the diplomat said.
That’s a long way from just a couple of decades ago, when Asean not only refused Cambodia membership, but refused to recognize the Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh government through the 1980s. Instead, the group, which had been organized in part to combat what they called “Vietnamese aggression,” recognized the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
That, of course, is a world away. Now, the group’s talking points focus on “regional cooperation,” “frameworks,” and, of course, trade.
In a 1992 essay, former Thai foreign minister Thanat Khoman, who was one of the founders of Asean, called on the group to expand its focus, particularly with an eye toward free trade.
“For the months and years to come, gradual economic integration should be the credo for Asean if we want our enterprise to remain viable and continue to progress. Otherwise, it may become stagnant, unable to keep up with the pace of global activity,” Thanat Khoman wrote.
What was on his mind was the new or improved trading blocs and treaties the developed world were, at that time, forming—the European Union, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement. All of those treaties and agreements either came out of or were spurred on by the end of the Cold War, when trade liberalization became a driving force of most governments’ foreign policies.
A decade later, Cambodia—once an outcast which advocates of trade liberalization saw as an example of what not to do with a government—now finds itself leading a regional bloc. That the nation accomplished this so quickly is amazing, the Asean diplomat said.
“If I’m surprised at all, I’m surprised at the speed at which they’ve adapted,” the Asean diplomat said.
The speed of Cambodia’s engagement is all the more amazing when you consider that Cambodia’s entry was delayed by the 1997-1998 factional fighting.
As chair of Asean, Cambodia will have the final word on disputes and will determine the agenda at this year’s Asean ministers’ meeting, which Cambodia is also scheduled to host in November. They will also host the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea in an Asean-plus-three conference and India for an Asean-plus-one conference. This is a daunting task for a junior member that has only recently found peace, but many officials are excited about the chance.
“Talking about practical matter, I don’t know. But it’s a challenge. A real challenge,” Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh said.
For proponents of Cambodia’s Asean involvement, the symbolic benefits are huge.
“It’s a show of confidence by those governments in this country. That’s significant in terms of diplomacy,” said Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace director and government adviser Kao Kim Hourn, a longtime advocate of Cambodia’s entry into Asean and author of the book “Cambodia’s Foreign Policy and Asean.”
The chairmanship of the regional bloc will make Cambodia a player in the international arena, Kao Kim Hourn said. “It’s going to put Cambodia on the map,” he said.
But for some critics, symbolism will not improve Cambodia’s inadequate social and economic conditions.
“Even with new membership, they have not been able to adopt the Asean philosophy and human rights,” Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Son Chhay said of the government.
Son Chhay and others point to Cambodia’s bleak statistics on adult literacy and the declining amount of foreign investment, which has fallen every year since 1998. The country is still one of the world’s poorest, with most of its people living on less than one dollar per day.
“We don’t have an economic policy in Cambodia. Agro-industry does not exist. It is ridiculous,” Son Chhay said.
Also, the potential image of Prime Minister Hun Sen standing arm-in-arm with regional leaders could have an impact in terms of how voters view the premier and the ruling CPP in the national elections scheduled for July 2003, Son Chhay said.
“For Cambodians, I doubt they care. In reality, they want to see that their lives will be improved. Without that, the chair of Asean won’t mean anything, except maybe in the 2003 elections,” Son Chhay said.
But that doesn’t mean Asean cannot help, Kao Kim Hourn said. Asean has already granted Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam and Laos more leeway on tariffs in hopes of developing their economy, he said.
Besides, it is a mistake to examine Asean only from an economic perspective. Asean is also a political grouping and it gives Cambodia a “framework” to handle international disputes—a priceless peace dividend.
Taking over as chair of Asean will also give Cambodia’s poor a voice, Kao Kim Hourn said.
“You have more influence on the process. As the chair, Cambodia can push an agenda, not only for themselves, but for all the poor Asean partners,” he said. “Of course, as a new member, Cambodia will have to catch up. The important thing is we focus on common goals. And there are common goals.”