US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) shakes hands with Myanmar President Thein Sein in Siem Reap during a meeting on Friday. Photograph: Heng Chivoan / Phnom Penh Post
The arrival of Myanmar President Thein Sein in Siem Reap on Friday to join US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra made for an interesting finish on a leader-packed evening dinner at Le Meridian Hotel following a meeting of the US ASEAN Business Forum.
The all-day forum, attended by nearly every US ambassador in the region, as well as senior executives from big American companies including Ford, Google, General Electric, and Coca-Cola, as well as Cambodian business leaders including Neak Oknha Kith Meng, included breakout sessions on topics such as entrepreneurship, infrastructure and connectivity, attracted greater than expected numbers.
In his speech, which followed those of Clinton, Hun Sen and Yingluck, the Myanmar president spoke of the reforms taking place in his country, telling the audience that Myanmar had to “walk out” from a centralised system that had been practised for a half century and eventually build a mature democratic state by reforming the executive, legislative and judiciary bodies.
He said Aung San Suu Kyi had been invited to hold discussions openly, that his government had granted amnesty to many prisoners, and had relaxed regulations on media and telecommunications, including an easing of censorship procedures. “We have committed ourselves to enact a media law for media freedom and transparency in the near future.”
While security was high, once the dinner was under way, a relaxed mood fell over the crowd and Hun Sen, sitting next to Clinton, enjoyed a salmon dinner along with the Thai prime minister, the Myanmar president and a mix of Cambodian and US business leaders at the long head table.
Thein Sein said following 60 years of conflict, lasting peace was another reform objective in Myanmar and noted the launching of a new system last year to enable the signing of peace agreements with 10 armed ethnic groups.
For economic policy, Thein Sein said reform action was under way to transform a centralised economy into a market-oriented economy, using a new Micro-Finance Act and seeking help and assistance from foreign experts.
The Myanmar president expressed regret that his country was now unable to receive assistance from the international monetary institutions including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Development Programme because of sanctions now in place. Cambodia’s own country head for the ADB, Putu Kamayana, is leaving Cambodia this week to get ADB operations under way in Myanmar.
“We have the fervent desire to seek technical know-how and to set up economic engagement with other countries, but the challenge is that sanctions are still restricting us from doing so,” Thein Sein said.
“Myanmar has lagged behind in development for the last 60 years,” he said, underscoring Myanmar’s commitment to participate actively in the aims of the “Rich ASEAN 2030” vision, including a green economy to protect the environment and prevent natural disasters.
There were also significant numbers of government and business leaders from ASEAN countries including Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, and a number of Cambodian officials including Sun Chanthol, vice chairman of the Council for the Development of Cambodia who gave a rousing speech of welcome to the packed house of mixed ASEAN business leaders. Clinton, whose speech was the first of the evening, complimented the Myanmar president.
“I also want to thank President Thein Sein, who has moved his country such a long distance in such a short period of time,” Secretary Clinton said, adding that it was the largest US-ASEAN event ever assembled.
One of Clinton’s deputies, Under Secretary of State Bob Hormats, left Siem Reap with a delegation of about 70 business leaders for Myanmar following the Friday event.
Clinton arrived in Egypt yesterday to meet with military leaders there, following a popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak from leadership in February 2011.
She said the US delegation in Siem Reap of more than 70 US business leaders was the largest in memory. “We’re excited by what lies ahead, and we’re very supportive of President Thein Sein’s economic and political reforms,” Clinton said. “We’re paying particular attention to ASEAN and Southeast Asia. We’re pursuing an economic statecraft and jobs diplomacy agenda to promote sustainable growth and prosperity across the region and, of course, we know that by doing so it will help the countries of ASEAN, but it will also help the United States.”
Clinton said US exports to ASEAN countries were more than $76 billion in 2011, up 42 per cent since 2009.
“We have more than twice as much investment in ASEAN as we do in China. So there is a great deal of potential for continuing to grow our economic activity,” she said, calling on the development of a more integrated ASEAN market by harmonising customs and improving regulatory standards.
“Later this fall, our trade ministers will gather here in Siem Reap to discuss ways to advance our Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, the operating system of our economic partnership,” she said.
Clinton also complimented Hun Sen. “Cambodia has achieved tremendous economic progress during the tenure of Prime Hun Sen, and the United States is proud of our economic partnership,” she said.
“The United States is the number one importer of Cambodian-made garments – and this is a shameless plug, but I will say it anyway – thanks to trade deals we did back in the 1990s.” She mentioned US industrial giant General Electric’s deal in Cambodia for a rice-husk biomass power plant.
Insiders describe 2012 as the highest point in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political career because of Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship this year and the presence of leaders from Myanmar, Thailand and the US secretary of state underscored that feeling.
He looked comfortable and healthy during his speech, saying he hoped that Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia could in the future be eligible for membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which required APEC membership. He also expressed appreciation to the US for the Lower Mekong Cooperation Initiative.
To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at [email protected] reporting from Siem Reap