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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Narrowing the gap: how Cambodia's neighbors help

Narrowing the gap: how Cambodia's neighbors help

One of ASEAN's express commitments is equal partnership, in which member states work

together to narrow the development gap. A glance at the disparities between two ASEAN

economies shows just how wide that gap is: Singapore's per capita GDP last year was

80 times greater than Cambodia's.

Since Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam are considerably poorer than ASEAN's original

six nations, it stands to reason they run the risk of receiving fewer benefits for

their membership. But leaders say the development gap that makes for a 'two-tier'

membership must be narrowed.

The rationale is that the entire region must be safe and focused on development if

ASEAN is to compete successfully with economic blocs in other regions.

"Other countries have a stake in seeing that ASEAN and Cambodia are stable,"

says Verghese Matthews, Singapore's ambassador to Cambodia. "We recognize there

is this division, but we also recognize it should not be a permanent one."

That division is what Singapore had in mind when it proposed the Initiative for ASEAN

Integration (IAI) in November 2000, a framework to help the four newest members in

their development efforts so that the region will be better integrated.

Singapore also sent teams to the four countries to determine their needs. From visiting

Cambodia, Singapore decided to provide training in trade and WTO issues, information

technology (IT), tourism, and the English language.

"We are very serious about IAI, because in our own case when we became independent

in 1965 we found we had nothing," says Matthews. "We needed a lot of training

and were fortunate in that a lot of countries helped us."

Foreign ministers from all ASEAN countries signed the Hanoi Declaration on Narrowing

the Development Gap for Closer ASEAN Integration in July 2001.

As part of that they vowed to "devote special efforts and resources to promoting

the development of the newer member countries of ASEAN with priority given to infrastructure,

human resource development, and information and communication technology".

The IAI Work Plan was endorsed by the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar

and Vietnam last February. It was then presented to donor countries and international

organizations in August. Some 50 projects are now underway to narrow the development

gap.

"We are now in the process of following up what countries expressed their interest

in," says Meas Kim Heng, director-general of the ASEAN department at Cambodia's

Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA).

Under the program poorer members such as the Philippines and Indonesia may not be

able to help fund projects in the four countries, but they can still help by proposing

development ideas.

To kick off the program, the five-year "Train-the-Trainers" program has

brought Cambodians with some degree of experience in IT to Singapore.

There they receive four months of intensive English courses, training in computer

applications, and trouble-shooting tips. On their return they teach government staff

at two training rooms each equipped with 15 computers set up by Singapore at MoFA

and the Council of Ministers.

The Cambodia-Singapore Training Center in Phnom Penh brings in lecturers from Singapore.

Trainers from the United States recently gave courses there on WTO accession. A tourism

and hospitality course at Hotel Le Royal is also sponsored by Singapore.

"I'm sure if you build a nice highway it helps, but we want to help these guys

manage these things," says Matthews.

He estimates that "a couple of thousand" Cambodians have gone to Singapore

to receive schooling in programs that last between two weeks and two years. Senior

government officials study at Singapore's ministries, while students go to different

institutions.

People from developing nations around the world have benefited from the Singapore

Cooperation Programme, which has trained 20,000 persons to date. Secondary students

from Cambodia get scholarships to study subjects such as port management and firefighting

for tall buildings, but the most popular courses remain English and IT.

In the meantime, most of Cambodia's neighbors have chipped in to improve its development.

Ambassador A.H. Anuar from Malaysia says that his country is gearing up for the IAI

program, but "we've been doing this even before the concept came out".

In the past two decades Malaysia's Technical Cooperation Program has trained 249

Cambodian officials. Among the 20 institutions they received help from are the National

Institute of Public Administration, the department of irrigation, and the country's

central bank. Another 168 are expected to participate in short and long term courses

there over the next two years.

Malaysia also awards post-graduate scholarships in disciplines such as agriculture,

engineering, economics and law to Cambodians with good academic standing. The two

countries are also expected to sign a memorandum of understanding in late October

for cooperation in education.

Thailand also does its part, says Ambassador Chatchawed Chartsuwan. Government officials

get study tours at Thailand's Ministry of Commerce and the Thai Board of Investment

to learn more about trade and investment, while Cambodian military officials are

taken on tours of Thai military installations.

The country also provides scholarships in various fields, particularly agriculture,

using the "train-the-trainer" philosophy.

"They go to Thailand to become a trainee and come back a trainer," says

Chatchawed.

In Cambodia itself, Thailand financed the construction of the vocational training

center at Phun Phnom and sends its experts to teach courses. And in Kampong Thom

a Thai-financed school, one of the biggest in the country, will provide primary and

secondary vocational training with the emphasis on agriculture.

Thai army engineers are also building Route 48 in Koh Kong, and plans are underway

for Export Processing Zones in Koh Kong and Poipet. With some investment from the

private sector, it is hoped the zones will provide a framework for economic cooperation

between Thailand and Cambodia.

Brunei opened its mission here in 1997, says first secretary Abdul Hamid Abas, and

bilateral relations are still at "an infant stage". Consequently many of

Brunei's exchanges have been given under ASEAN and UN programs.

"We've contributed assistance to Cambodia since we established diplomatic relations,"

says Abas.

Cambodians get trained in Brunei, mostly in English and IT, for terms of four to

six months. Brunei also provides two scholarships per year at the University of Brunei

Darussalam.

Cambodian officials from the MoFA observed how Brunei's officials hosted last year's

ASEAN summit "to get a feel" for how best to host international meetings,

says Abas.

He adds that his government has been talking with various agencies in Cambodia, and

sees a possibility for training in banking and tourism in the future.

Of the three other new entries to ASEAN, it is Vietnam which continues to have the

closest aid ties with Cambodia. It provides about 100 scholarships a year to Cambodians

for studying subjects such as agriculture, medicine and technology at universities

across Vietnam.

Ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung says Vietnam also provides training programs in IT, tourism,

agriculture and civil aviation, as well as help with road maintenance and food aid.

The reality, however, is that Cambodia is so far behind the wealthiest ASEAN members

that it will take decades, if it happens at all, before the country catches up. There

is no timeline for integration says MoFA's Meas Kim Heng, but he believes the body

will not be truly effective until all of the countries "walk at the same pace".

"Once ASEAN is fully integrated it will become competitive with other regions,"

says Kim Heng. "That is why it's in everyone's best interest."

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