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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia's ASEAN Gamble

Cambodia's ASEAN Gamble

Is Cambodia's entry into ASEAN merely "a necessary step in

Cambodia's normalization of international relations," or a move toward "Malaysian

colony" status? Phelim Kyne looks beyond the rhetoric for a glimpse of

what ASEAN might actually mean to Cambodia.

TODAY in a ceremony in Hanoi, Cambodia will become the tenth and final SE Asian country

to enter ASEAN.

For ASEAN, Cambodia's membership status stands as a long-delayed completion of the

"ASEAN-Ten" vision - a desire to unite the ten countries of SE Asia in

a common grouping - that fueled the organization's founding in 1967.

For Cambodia, ASEAN member status marks a decisive and potentially irreversible rejection

of more than three decades of economic isolation begun with then-Prince Sihanouk's

refusal of an initial offer of ASEAN membership when the organization was first founded.

Kao Kim Hourn, Executive Director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and

Peace; Toshiyasu Kato, a Research Fellow at the Cambodian Development Research Institute

(CDRI); and Sam Rainsy, former Cambodian Finance Minister and leader of the opposition

Sam Rainsy Party outline their hopes and fears about Cambodia's fledgling ASEAN member


Repackaging Cambodia

For both Kato and Kim Hourn, the international recognition of Cambodia's entry

into ASEAN will help to alter traditional negative stereotypes of the Kingdom.

"Being part of ASEAN sends a powerful message to outsiders," Kato says.

"It helps reinforce the idea that Cambodia is no longer in a state of civil


Kim Hourn welcomes ASEAN as an much-needed 'image builder' for the Kingdom.

"Cambodia has been a country basically synonymous with a lot of terrible names

- genocide, Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, hostage taking," Kim Hourn says. "The

image of ASEAN will help to purge the negative connotations associated with Cambodia."

Economic Impact

"ASEAN offers Cambodia a multitude of (economic) benefits", Kim Hourn enthuses,

though he concedes that "most (of the benefits) are intangible and can't be

put into dollar terms."

Kim Hourn points to the long term potential of Cambodian ASEAN membership facilitating

increased investment from ASEAN countries as well as "helping (Cambodia) to

tap into the global tourist market".

CDRI's Kato sounds a more cautionary note, pointing out that ASEAN membership is

"a costly process", in particular with regard to the impact that ASEAN-stipulated

tariff limitations of a maximum 5% might have on the Kingdom's already chronically-low

government revenues.

"I congratulate (Cambodia) on its entry (to ASEAN)," Kato says, "but

I hope the government takes seriously the domestic reforms such as expanding the

tax base and reforming the civil service necessary (to reduce ASEAN's potential negative


Opposition leader and Paris-educated economist Sam Rainsy is far more strident in

his criticism of what he perceives as the damage that ASEAN membership could wreak

on Cambodia's economy.

Stressing that he is "in favor of Cambodia joining ASEAN on principle",

Rainsy fears that Cambodia's entry into ASEAN at this point in time will only further

the "damage" that he perceives ASEAN companies have already done to Cambodia's


"If what ASEAN companies have already done (in Cambodia) is a first taste of

what ASEAN membership will mean for Cambodia, I'd say it's a deterrent rather than

an enticement," Rainsy says.

Rainsy derides Cambodia's current relationship with ASEAN countries as that of "a

supplier of cheap labor with all the abuses it involves and to provide...virgins

to ASEAN businessmen."

"I think ASEAN membership will only aggravate this trend," Rainsy concludes.

National Sovereignty

According to Kao Kim Hourn, Cambodia's ASEAN membership will mark an effective end

to the decades of threats posed by armed guerilla bands on the edges of the Kingdom's

porous national borders.

"Once Cambodia is an ASEAN member, it will be impossible for any (neighboring)

nation to provide sanctuary to any rival groups along the border as has been the

case for the last forty years," Kim Hourn says.

Rainsy, however, sees in ASEAN membership the threat of Cambodia relegated to the

status of an economic vassal state for the larger, more powerful members of the grouping.

"Cambodia used to be a French colony, (and through ASEAN) it could be come a

Malaysian colony," he warns. "Powerful (ASEAN) countries could use ASEAN

to extract (Cambodia's) raw materials cheaply while in turn flooding us with cheap

manufactured goods, effectively condemning us to colony status."

Kato deflects Rainsy's concerns with assurances of the "balances" built

into ASEAN's structure designed to prevent such abuses.

"ASEAN has a dispute settlement mechanism like that of the WTO," Kato explains.

"Therefore small (member) countries could benefit (in disputes with larger members),

although 'under the table' there may still be power struggles."

Human Rights

The issue of how ASEAN membership may impact on Cambodia's frequently-perilous human

rights situation produces diametrically opposed viewpoints from Kim Hourn and Rainsy.

Kim Hourn points to explicit protocols within ASEAN that he contends bind member

states to specific standards of behavior both domestically and internationally.

"ASEAN membership will work as a catalyst for the stability of (Cambodia's)

political situation," Kim Hourn explains. "The (internal ASEAN) Bali Treaty

spells out (norms) on the use of force between member states and to a certain extent

within them."

Fat chance, according to Rainsy, who attributes Cambodia's admission to ASEAN as

a strategy by the "three totalitarian, communist and military-ruled" members

of ASEAN to fend off proposed alterations in ASEAN's controversial "non-interference


"Dictators tend to stick with dictators...Vietnam, Laos and Burma know Cambodia

is in a similar situation and want to together hide behind ASEAN as a shield so that

they can continue to violate human rights," Rainsy alleges. "The Cambodian

government will use ASEAN as a platform to promulgate 'Asian values" and the

notion of 'development first, democracy later' distort (the concept) of universal

human rights."



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