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Cambodian tycoon works on Asean reform

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090306_14.jpg

Royal Group CEO Kith Meng says Asean talks on integration are progressing, despite critics of the bloc's inaction

Asean File Photo

Cambodia's representative to the Asean Business Advisory Council Kith Meng [back row, far right] stands behind Prime Minister Hun Sen [front row, second from right] with the rest of the region's leaders at the Asean Summit in Cha-am, Thailand, at the weekend.

THE financial crisis and economic integration dominated talk at the Asean Summit in Cha-am, Thailand, which ended Sunday. While Prime Minister Hun Sen was the public face of the Cambodian delegation, behind the scenes it was the country's best-known tycoon that played chief economic adviser.

Kith Meng, as the Cambodian representative to the Asean Business Advisory Council (BAC) and president of the Cambodia Chamber of Commerce, is driving the Kingdom's economic discussions on Asean and therefore plays a key role in developing a single market, the bloc's goal.

"The talks in Cha-am were very productive," the Royal Group chairman and CEO said by email on Thursday. "The aim is much greater economic cooperation and integration using the strength of Asean to weather the current global economic downturn and emerge together as an economic powerhouse."

As Kith Meng and others present in Cha-am acknowledged, the recent summit was perhaps the most important in the past decade, amid the current economic crisis that has begun to hit the region.

Singapore's elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew said Thursday the city-state could experience a 10 percent drop in GDP growth this year, AFP reported, and Vietnam is forecasting its lowest economic growth in years.

Asean's export-driven economies are facing the biggest challenge since the 1998 financial crisis, analysts say, but at the same time Asean is beginning to see itself as a catalyst for a world recovery. Thai Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij told AFP before the summit that Asean is "increasingly the focus of the rest of the world".

Cambodia will play a central role in the development of some of these initiatives.

With Asean aimed at a European Union-style single market by 2015, the question remains how the bloc can reach its ambitious target.

An Asean fund "to allow companies ready to go regional and global to have access to affordable financing and investment" is one such initiative planned, stated an Asean BAC press release following the summit.

An Asean joint venture company was also proposed that would focus on using the strength of the region in agricultural and biofuel production "to meet demand for food security and alternative energy sources".

"Cambodia will play a central role in the development of some of these initiatives, particularly around the establishment of an Asean fund and public-private joint ventures," said Kith Meng.

An Asean Green Line designed to streamline the movement and transport of goods within the region is being piloted between Singapore and Malaysia, with Singapore and Indonesia also planning to roll out the project. And an Asean-wide brand was also discussed at the summit.

"The initiatives coming out of the meeting will establish an integrated economic bloc of almost 600 million people in one of the highest growth areas of the world," said Kith Meng.

But there remain question marks as to whether the talk in Cha-am will result in concrete practice that can fend off the worst of the global economic crisis and lead to economic integration in the vein of the EU.

"The gathered leaders made a lot of noise about deepening the integration of their economies to minimise the adverse impacts of the global financial crisis. But they failed to come up with any concrete measures," said an Economic Intelligence Unit report this week.

Kith Meng insists that the Asean BAC meeting at the weekend "was the most co-operative and focused" thus far. He will now largely be responsible - at least on the Cambodian side - for proving the Asean doubters wrong.

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