Confusion, Caution Greet News of Summit

In the wake of Asean’s decision to delay Cambodia’s formal ad­mission, reaction in Phnom Penh was cautious in some quarters, confused in others. But analysts also expressed relief that the major hurdle of membership has been cleared—now it is just a matter of timing.

“It’s already a done deal,” said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “Why get bogged down on today or three months from now?”

Others warned that the country still has much work to do and cautioned that admission into the regional grouping will not bring instant prosperity.

The long-awaited announcement that Cambodia will be Asean’s 10th member came Wed­nesday but without the formal ceremony that Cambodian leaders had hoped would happen at this week’s Hanoi summit.

“It would have been a slap in the face not to admit Cambodia after so many appeals from [Prime Minister] Hun Sen and the King [Norodom Sihanouk],” said one Asean diplomat Wednes­day. “This saves face. It is politically good for Cam­bodia.”

But the mixed messages from the various Asean leaders left some in Cambodia confused over the country’s status. “In principle, they agreed and the only thing left is the ceremony,” said government spokesman Sieng Lapresse, adding that the vaguely-worded decision made him reluctant to comment further.

There was little agreement among diplomats in Phnom Penh on Cambodia’s status. One called Cambodia “technically” a member while another emphasized that Cambodia is not a member until the agreements are signed at the ceremony.

The confusion, said Kao Kim Hourn, is troublesome and indicates a weakness in the regional grouping’s unity.

“It seems that consensus-making is now more difficult, and Cambodia is a litmus test,” he said. “If the nine members can’t agree on a very simple case of now or later, it exposes the weakness of Asean” and may affect its credibility.

Regardless of whether membership is days or months away, there is still much preparation to be done, Kao Kim Hourn said. One of the main priorities is for the National Assembly to debate and approve about 20 Asean agreements that range from customs procedures to rescue of ships and downed aircraft.

In theory, the agreements must first be approved by the Assembly before Cambodia can accede to them at a formal ceremony. However, Kao Kim Hourn said it would be possible for the induction ceremony to take place and the Assembly to approve the agreements later. He called such a procedure “the Cambodian way and the Asean way.”

Some believe that Asean membership will help boost lagging foreign investment in Cambodia.

Bit Seanglim, a former adviser to Cambodia’s Finance Ministry, said that investors who had taken a wait-and-see approach will now be reassured.

But business consultants and analysts cautioned that Asean would not be a magic pill that immediately relieves Cambodia’s economic ills.

“It is a good step and an inevi­table step, but it won’t bring in­stant prosperity,” said a West­ern business consultant. “It will take time for the effects to kick in.”

He added that the country has many other tasks to complete, ranging from ensuring political stability to strengthening the rule of law and improving the integrity of the judiciary—some of the main complaints of investors doing business in Cambodia.

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