C AMBODIA's admission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations depends on when it is ready - and can pay - to do so, according to ASEAN's Secretary-General Dato Ajit Singh.
On a four-day trip to Cambodia in early December, Ajit Singh met with Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, Foreign Minister Ung Huot and ASEAN ambassadors to discuss the country's ambition to join the six-nation organization.
He said Cambodia, like Vietnam and Laos, was welcome to join and its admission should not be delayed longer than necessary.
But he stressed that there was still a "big problem", such as the human and financial resources situation in Indochinese countries, that need to be addressed.
"Once you become a member, there are financial obligations and they [the Cambodian government] have to get themselves ready and be prepared for that as well," he told a press conference on Dec 9.
Each member had to have embassies in all countries of the organization, pay financial contributions of $1 million a year and send representatives to about 200 meetings a year.
"As soon as they are ready and prepared we would be happy to welcome them," he added.
He did not see Cambodia's Khmer Rouge insurgency as a barrier to granting Cambodia membership.
At an "ASEAN-Cambodian Relations" forum on Dec 8, Foreign Minister Ung Huot declared the government's readiness to sign early next year a treaty of amity and cooperation, a prerequisite for gaining observer status in ASEAN.
He intended to seek the prime ministers' approval to set up an ASEAN National Secretariat within his ministry - a step described by Ajit Singh as the beginning of Cambodia's active preparation for eventual full membership in ASEAN.
"Certainly we would like to be in [ASEAN] as fast as we could, but there are steps, formalities that need to be taken," said Ung Huot.
He hoped he would be allowed to represent Cambodia as an observer at an ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Brunei next July.
Ajit Singh's advice was that Cambodia needed "to learn to walk before it can run" - an exercise that Vietnam had undergone after it obtained observer status in ASEAN in 1992.
He said there was a strong likelihood that Vietnam would win full ASEAN membership at the July foreign ministers' meeting.
Vietnam would be the seventh country to join the organization, founded in 1967 by Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines and Thailand.
Laos, which also has observer status, was likely to take longer to become a full member because of its lack of human and financial resources, Ajit Singh said.
But he hoped all of Indochina would eventually join the fold of ASEAN.
"We have been separated because of historical reasons, because of the cold war. Now...we can start thinking about how to get our house back into order and live together as one happy family."