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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - First step to ASEAN 'family'

First step to ASEAN 'family'

C AMBODIA today in Brunei becomes an official observer to one of the world's

fastest growing and powerful regional blocs, the Association of South East Asian

Nations (ASEAN).

To most, it's Cambodia's "window to the

world".

Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace executive director

Kao Kim Hourn said this first step toward full ASEAN membership "will forever

change the course of Cambodian foreign policy".

Others say its like

thinking about jumping onto a speeding train. Foreign Relations committee

chairman Om Radsady is wary of not rushing to "join an exclusive golf club not

really yet knowing how to play the game."

In the same ceremony in Brunei,

Vietnam becomes the seventh ASEAN member and the first "new kid" since the

meeting's host joined in 1984.

ASEAN's other members - "tigers" that

Radsady and others say Cambodia must cautiously emulate and join so as not to be

isolated - are Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and

Singapore.

ASEAN's vision of an "ASEAN 10", incorporating every South

East Asian nation, will be complete with the eventual signatures of Cambodia,

Laos and Myanmar.

Recent statements by key Cambodian leaders indicate

their country is looking to the ASEAN "family" for special help.

First

Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in a speech on June 27, said that being

part of ASEAN would give Cambodia "... a confidence of security... because, as I

understand it, family members would help each other, particularly in time of

need".

Foreign Minister Ung Huot had earlier said that Cambodia could

join more quickly as full members if other ASEAN countries gave "preferential

terms of trade".

There is no specific agenda for Cambodia to join as a

full member. Political leaders in Phnom Penh say membership is inevitable, but

at some indeterminate time in the future.

Cambodia's observer status is

free; full membership costs $2 million in the first year and $1 million each

year thereafter and that's a problem for the Royal government.

"But even

more difficult is the fact that we have to train people to attend (ASEAN)

meetings, and contribute to dialogue and decisions," Radsady said.

ASEAN

has around 300 meetings annually, and Cambodia must pay for its own observers -

proficient in English - to go to as many as they can afford.

Four

ministry officials are now training in ASEAN issues in Malaysia. Fifteen more

from six ministries will begin training in Malaysia next month, according to

Huot. Singapore and Canada have also offered help to train Cambodian ASEAN

officials.

Radsady said: "We have to organize accommodation and

conference places for ASEAN meetings when we are members."

"We are only

now training Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, and ourselves as MPs... our

Parliament has still not established all the laws, or seen that the laws we have

adopted are good or well implemented," he said.

"We need to be strong and

ready ourselves first (before joining ASEAN)."

Ung Huot, in a speech on

June 19, said: "As we learn more of ASEAN's procedures and the heavy

concentration of meetings every year, we become increasingly aware that we are

going to have to engage in a considerable amount of training of our

officials."

As full members, each country must be committed to opening

their markets to ASEAN products and lower tariffs by 2003 under the ASEAN Free

Trade Area (AFTA).

Dr Sorpong Peou of the Canada-ASEAN Center in

Singapore said in a speech on June 26 that Cambodia's low level of

industrialization could make it difficult for it to become competitive "and

enjoy mutual economic benefits under AFTA".

Peou said Cambodia might find

ASEAN membership a burden rather than a relief in the short

term.

However, he said, Cambodia would lose out in the longer term if it

continued to depend on one particular great power (China or the United States)

without the shield of a regional organization.

Huot said that Cambodia

was looking forward to joining ASEAN as a full member but understood the need

for "a considerable number of adjustments" before it could join

AFTA.

However, he said, the Cambodian government was prepared to make the

effort.

"I also believe that the integration of Cambodia into ASEAN could

be significantly facilitated if ASEAN could consider providing Cambodia

preferential treatment in terms of trade," Huot said.

Prince Ranariddh

said that while Cambodia's entry to ASEAN was vital, observer status was

important as a "means (of) learning, studying and research(ing)."

"I

must, however, caution that we must understand ourselves first before we rush to

do anything, because the process is irreversible," Prince Ranariddh

said.

"Yes, we have a stake, a desire and an interest in ASEAN. It is in

the observership that we must learn all the rules and nature of the game."

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