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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The pros and cons of joining the club

The pros and cons of joining the club

It's official-Cambodia will be joining the Association of Southeast Asian nations.

Dr Lao Mong hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, and Kao

Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace

share their thoughts with Hurley Scroggins on what Asean membership will really

mean.

Kao Kim Hourn: Asean is a regional organization with a successful record,

becoming what we

call a diplomatic club with a very successful economic record behind it. It is a

fast-growing dynamic region that continues to attract considerable foreign investment.

Now [it is] increasingly playing a very important role. Not only managing its own

affairs, but in projecting its positive self image in the international political

arena.

Cambodia will probably become a member in late July, we have lost more than two

decades of what we call our regional role. Now we are re-entering Southeast Asia

in the framework in a different time and I think that we have different reasons now

for joining.

I think this is very important, because Cambodia has only two choices: continued

isolation or integration. And I think that integration is not only a choice, but

a necessity.

Lao Mong Hay: It seems the admission of Cambodia into Asean was just a matter

of course. It seems the Asean six itself wanted Cambodia, Laos and Burma to join.

External powers like Japan and America seem to encourage the expansion of Asean,

perhaps something to do with geo-strategic interests in the sense of having a bloc

at the southern flank of China. Because Southeast Asean countries, especially the

original Asean six, have had good relations with Japan and with the west and their

properties have depended on the two areas.

Since around 1990 some portion of Asian scholars advocated that Asean should prepare

itself as a welcoming place for Japan. And Japan itself has an interest in maintaining

good interests and relationships with Asean, its sea-links and air, because its economy

depends very much on overseas links. And of course the West, especially America,

wants to maintain its presence in the Western Pacific.

Will Asean Affect internal Cambodian politics?

Kao Kim Hourn: The question whether Asean will have any impact, whether

positive or negative is something we have to see in the future. But I don't think

Asean will dictate the political process in our country. Neither do I think that

Asean will try to intervene in our own political affairs. That would be a contradiction

to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asea, which clearly spells out

the policy of non-interference of member states in Asean.

Asean is a Cambodian agenda. It is not to benefit one party and cost another party.

Surely if Funcinpec see this as helping one political party, I don't think that they

would do it and vice versa. Rather, has a consensus on. They see that this will benefit

Cambodia as a nation.

And I don't think Asean would do the same, to try to give more benefit to one

party over another. I think that would be suicide for Asean. Rather, this is the

only thing at least that Cambodia, the coalition government, has a consensus on.

They see that this will benefit Cambodia as a nation. And I don't think Asean would

do the same, to try to give more benefit to one party over another. I think that

would be suicide for Asean. Rather they have to work with Cambodia as one nation,

as one government. I think sometimes it is very difficult for them, but they have

to. I don't think that one party will gain over the other. Supposedly Asean is for

the benefit for all.

I don't think membership will affect pluralism. Because this is a Cambodian internal

political process and there's no way Asean can dictate how our political process

should be.

Lao Mong Hay: Here I can predict that whatever happens to Cambodian people,

I doubt very much that Asean governments would care. So far they have shown that

they care, but the aim of their care is global stability so as to guarantee assurances

of their business interests in Cambodia.

Look at the former Thai PM who came to Cambodia, the foreign minister of Malaysia

came to Cambodia, they conveyed messages to our leaders to work together so as to

ensure stability. Some even mentioned their own business interests, investment. I

cannot remember that they mentioned the well being of the Cambodian people or a reference

to the Paris Peace Agreements. They are hiding behind the sacrosanct principle of

non-interference into internal affairs.

Asean would not react if there were a repeat of Pol Pot. They would adhere to

the principle of non-interference. They have accepted SLORC. If their contracts are

OK then everything is OK.

Is Cambodia selling out its sovereignty?

Lao Mong Hay: Asean has not adhered to protocols. There was no approval

from the National Assembly. They don't care. It is a step down a slippery slop. We

have let our neutrality be violated in the past and we have paid for that.

Are we foolish enough to crush all who are demanding concessions from Asean? We need

to be clever, to use public opinion pressure to negotiate the postponement as long

as possible the implementation of AFTA [Asean Free Trade Area] rules and regulations.

We are losing out to Asean. We need to negotiate as well from now on, even before

the implementation of AFTA. The way you exploit our natural resources causes resentment

and in a democracy if you have resentment it is not good for the government or the

ruling parties. They could be booted out of office. Use these democratic processes

to win concessions. Talk abut it in and out of Parliament.

Kao Kim Hourn: I don't think that [protocol] has been violated. Cambodia

is not yet a member of Asean -as a full member. The decision was only that they are

going to admit us in July. So it will take some time really.

Of course Asean would like for Cambodia to ratify, or endorse, all of the 19 agreements,

but they will ask us to do it. What is important is that Cambodia has a commitment

and I think that Asean realize that.

Asean has a lot of interests in Cambodia, vested interests. They have a lot of investments

here- investment interests They want to see Cambodia doing well. I don't think that

they are more pro-Cambodia than the Cambodians themselves. You cannot say that they

are, but of course they would like to see peace and stability in this country like

the Cambodians themselves.

In my view, I don't think that we are selling Cambodia to Asean. We joined Asean

for different purposes. We want to get something from it. Asean is not the only institution

that we are a member of. We have to keep that in perspective.

Does joining violate neutrality?

Lao Mong Hay: The issues that need to be addressed first are the permanent

neutrality of Cambodia. It needs to be very careful. There has been a euphoria to

join Asean.. Well and good but how about Cambodia's status as a permanently neutral

state. For instance, I asked questions to Asean scholars and strategists over the

dispute between China and Paracel Islands.

Should Cambodia's ambassador attend a meeting [on the disputed islands] along side

Asean ambassadors or not? To me it is a very sensitive issue because first we have

a status as a permanently neutral state, which means no operations of military bases

inside Cambodian territory. And no military alliances with any other nations.

But then how can we define [Asean] when there's more and more talk abut security,

regional security, regional re-armament.

To my knowledge it has become more and more a de facto security arrangement of some

sort. You cannot say that it is military alliance, but there is more talk about security

issues. Against whom? Against China?

I think that the Asean Regional Forum includes army officers, military elements.

So how about Cambodia? There have been talks about joint military exercises and all

that. What attitude does Cambodia need to take? And how about the reaction of China?

China is a signatory to the Paris Peace Agreements, which spell out the permanent

neutrality of Cambodia. So international obligations - and furthermore strategically

speaking-we need to maintain good relations with China. Historically, we haven't

had any trouble with China and China has been helping us.

Kao Kim Hourn: The Asean Regional Forum is not NATO. It does not have armed

forces. It is not an institutionalized mechanism as such. Therefore, I am not so

sure that it is a de facto security arrangement. ARF is a forum for discussion, for

meeting, for exchanging views, ideas, information-and in the process build confidence.

I don't think that [the Spratly /Paracels issue] will come to a vote, whether Asean

should address the South China Sea . It would never want to take a confrontational

stance to wards China. I think Asean will continue to engage China in various ways.

But I don't think Asean would ever confront China on such a thing. It's not in

Asean's interests -for the Asean way of doing things. So it really comes back to

the fact that Asean is not a de facto security arrangement as such.

Permanent neutrality is very important factor, but what do we mean by such a concept?

What does it mean to Cambodia in the post Cold War period? I don't think that when

we join Asean that we will compromise our neutrality. That's why I say that Asean

is a regional organization composed of sovereign nation states. Cambodia as a nation

state is not going to put our sovereignty under Asean. Neither are the other members.

The concept of neutrality today is different from the one Cold War period. We

are not joining the US, joining the Soviet Bloc-ther are no more blocs. The concept

to me is not relevant as such.

Will Asean make a lasting difference politically?

Kao Kim Hourn: It may affect the patronage system, because Cambodia as

a nation state will have to build up a strong bureaucracy. We have to build up a

state apparatus. Today we don't have a strong state, we don't have a strong society.

One of the thing that I mean is that we don't have a strong government.

We don't strong government because we don't have a united government. At the same

time we don't have a strong bureaucracy. We need some time to really do that. Once

if the process is taking place and you have a strong bureaucracy then Cambodia will

not be ruled so much by patronage, but you will have a strong bureaucracy, institution

and standard-operating procedures in place and so forth.

That's the way I think things will be, but it is going to take some time to do that.

That's the reason why there are a number of reforms now in the process: public administration

judicial, military and police reform among other things.

Lao Mong Hay: In Asean itself how many countries are liberal democracies?

Our next-door neghbor is a communist country. How about the impact, the effect, of

a successful liberal democracy in Cambodia? It will be contagious. The Cambodian

tail could wag Asean's dog with regard to democracy and human rights.

We have to make our leaders accountable. Are they accountable? For instance, the

killing of journalists, the killing of demonstrators...They were elected to rule.

They now forget all what they pledged to do. The Constitution says that all conflicts

have to be solved through peaceful means.

Asean both a threat and opportunity. It depends on the skills of the officials attending

the Asean meetings. Are we clever enough or not? We are poor. We cannot afford to

send many people. We need to make arrangements to send only one, but one sure and

very knowledgeable person who can tackle issues with the rest of asean.

Not many people sent now are up to the standard. Here they are used to the communist

system. Some of them are of the feudalist or royalist system. Now way they can represent

our case well at the international conferences. No way. I can assure you.

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