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ASEAN entry in doubt as diplomats fret

ASEAN diplomats have expressed anxiety at the precarious state of the coalition government,

warning that more political turbulence could jettison Cambodia's prospects for joining

the regional club in 1997.

In a rare departure from their customary unintrusiveness, Association of Southeast

Asian Nations diplomats have voiced their concern to both Prime Ministers that they

avoid violence.

The recent bi-partisan brinkman-ship has triggered diplomatic alarm bells in Phnom

Penh, with Asian and Western embassies alike issuing low-level security alerts to

staffs and nationals residing in Cambodia.

"We are all very concerned because political instability in this country is

a fact, and if the Cambodians continue this way, it will upset regional stability

and, of course, jeopardize Cambodia's membership to ASEAN," remarked one Asian

diplomat. "We are also concerned that increasing tensions, in-fighting, and

civil strife will, of course, affect our nationals and our interests here."

Diplomatic concern is so palpable that a high-ranking diplomat from Japan - Cambodia's

biggest aid donor and a non-ASEAN member - reportedly sent a strong message to both

Prime Ministers to keep their rival forces at bay.

According to Kyodo News, State Secretary Masahiko Komura, the Number Two in the Tokyo

Foreign Ministry who was on a visit to Cambodia last week, conveyed a letter of concern

from Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun

Sen.

In separate meetings with both Prime Ministers, Komura reportedly broached the topic

of ASEAN, telling them that "political stability is crucial, especially ahead

of Cambodia's anticipated admission soon to the ASEAN."

The Japanese embassy withheld comment and would not publicly release Hashimoto's

letter.

July marks the tentative date of entry into ASEAN for Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar

(Burma), as it coincides with the 30th anniversary of the club's founding.

But Cambodia - instead of Burma whose human rights record is widely condemned in

the West - might prove to be the bugbear that undermines the ASEAN plan to admit

the three. While most ASEAN observers remain upbeat about Cambodia's chances, there

appears mounting concern over whether the Kingdom is ready for membership.

Rudolfo Severino, The Philippines undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, voiced the

heaviest skepticism yet about the lack of a legal framework in Cambodia to meet necessary

benchmarks for membership. At a meeting with Thai officials in Phuket this week,

he was quoted by the Bangkok Post as saying: "The National Assembly doesn't

convene ... how can they pass the required legislation?"

He also voiced concern about Cambodia's future ability to adhere to the legal tenets

of a free-trade area. Mentioning political infighting and the Mar 30 grenade attack,

he was quoted as saying that the political climate could deteriorate into "a

situation where it could not be possible for them to respect commitments to AFTA

[Asian Free Trade Area]."

Thai reaction was less specific, but echoed a cautionary tone. "ASEAN is ready

to welcome Cambodian membership, but the question lingers about the readiness of

the Cambodian government," said a Thai diplomat. "ASEAN countries are quite

concerned because any violence will affect Cambodia's entry."

Diplomats point to last week's endorsement by the Council of Ministers of a series

of protocols required for membership - now awaiting ratification by the paralyzed

National Assembly - as an encouraging sign.

But they say Cambodia's future place in ASEAN - due to be decided at a foreign ministerial

forum in Kuala Lumpur May 31 - depends on whether the ruling parties can defuse potential

bloodletting and keep the government intact.

"The crisis within Funcinpec is more serious than other political developments

that have taken place recently," said Kamal Ismaun, Malaysia's Ambassador. "Funcinpec

is a major coalition partner, and this [the Ung Phan-Toan Chay gambit] is an attempt

to divide and disintegrate the party."

By Ismaun's own admission, the question of stability was very much on the minds of

ASEAN ambassadors when, during the tense build-up surrounding Prince Norodom Sirivudh's

anticipated return, they leaned on the PMs to block his flight home.

"What we mentioned to the Cambodian Government is that if Prince Sirivudh were

to come back, it should be on a consensus basis," the Ambassador said. "Our

view was that if he should be brought here, he should come only if [it] would not

result in tensions and violence."

Ismaun suggested that it might be better for Cambodia to enter ASEAN now, as the

grouping's other members would be a better position to "remind the Cambodians

of their obligation towards maintaining stability." He noted that the economic

spin-offs of joining ASEAN should "be seen as an incentive to put aside political

differences".

Although the policy of "non-interference" in the domestic affairs of nations

is the keystone of ASEAN diplomacy, observers see political stability as the bedrock

of significant Southeast Asian trade and investments in Cambodia.

But while ASEAN wants to see bloodshed avoided, whether it believes the continuation

of the coalition government is vital for providing stability is a moot point. One

envoy of an ASEAN country is understood to have sent a message to Hun Sen along the

lines of "do what you want, but make it look legal".

One Western diplomat expressed a similar sentiment, and lent a dose of realism to

gauging the situation.

"I don't think the coalition government will last very much longer," was

the way the diplomat put it bluntly.

"I think it would more effective to have only one PM and one party in power.

I hope no coup will take place, but on the other side, Cambodia has to find a way,

and I hope a peaceful way, out of this situation.

"If one or the other parties arrives at securing a two-thirds majority in the

National Assembly and exercises its rights as a two-thirds majority, and if one of

the two PMs has to leave office because of lack of confidence, then I think this

must be accepted by Western governments."

The diplomat also made it plain that donors' patience is wearing thin over the continued

in-fighting, as well as the lack of necessary preparations for the forthcoming elections.

"I don't think the international community is very willing to spend another

$40m on elections without any proper preparation on the Cambodian side."

Another diplomat warned that the government partners had to work out their own solution,

or be ready to bear the consequences on their own if the coalition disintegrated

into violence: "The internationalization of the Cambodian problem is over. There

was one Paris Accords - there won't be another."

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