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Asean gives the long-awaited green light

Asean gives the long-awaited green light

DEFYING speculation of delays to Cambodia's membership into the Association of Southeast

Asian Nations (Asean), representatives of the diplomatic club formally welcomed the

country into the regional fold this week.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi met with the two Prime Ministers

separately on Monday to notify them that Cambodia would be fully accepted on July

23. He was accompanied by Asean Secretary General Ajit Singh to deliver the letters.

The decision to admit Cambodia, as well as Burma and Laos, was made at an Asean

foreign ministers' meeting May 31.

"It was unanimous. There were no reservations on the part of any Asean member,"

Abdullah Badawi told reporters after the meeting.

Earlier, there were reports that some Asean officials had reservations that Cambodian

government was too fragmented to fulfill the obligations of participation as a full

member.

Cambodian officials including both Prime Ministers welcomed the foreign ministers'

decision to admit the Kingdom, while the Asean Secretary General said he was confident

Cambodia was ready to join despite its political difficulties.

Ajit Singh, after his meetings with the Prime Ministers, said: "Of course,

I also informed them that we have some concerns about the situation in the country.

It is our hope that the leaders will be able to resolve whatever problems that they

are having.

"....It is important that as a member of Asean and [if Cambodia] is stable

and peaceful, there are tremendous benefits that they can have...that they never

had before."

Before the Asean decision, some concerns were mitigated by a report by a Malaysian-based

policy think tank that visited Cambodia last month and reported that it was ready

to assume the responsibilities of membership.

The Institute Kajian Dasar, also known as the Institute for Policy Research, issued

a frank assessment of Cambodia's current political climate in a May 27 report titled

"Cambodia in Asean - Partnership for Peace and National Reconciliation".

During a whirlwind two-and-a-half day visit, the group met the Prime Ministers,

Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Finance Minister Keat Chhon, and Foreign Minister Ung

Huot among others.

The report was forwarded to the special meeting of Asean foreign ministers in

Kuala Lumpur May 31. Despite the candid observations in their findings, the mission

may well have tipped the balance in Cambodia's favor.

The first section of the report titled 'The Present Situation in Cambodia' begins:

"The situation is grave."

It outlines the escalation in hostility between the ruling parties, their propensity

for rhetoric, and the use of "private armies" to protect the two Prime

Ministers.

Internecine rivalries and defections within parties, notably Funcinpec, and the

"understandable reluctance" of King Norodom Sihanouk to referee all of

these conflicts was also reported to cause concern.

The language of the document was terse, but not without flair: "Cambodia's

politics at this juncture is a simmering cauldron of conflict, distrust and suspicion.

The situation, we fear is fraught with danger. An individual act, a single event,

can catalyze a chain reaction leading to widespread violence and destruction."

Despite a nihilistic initial assessment, the authors offered a guarded sense of

optimism: "The situation is indeed grave. But it is not hopeless. It is not

beyond repair. In fact, even though we take into serious consideration some of the

more alarmist viewpoints, we are encouraged by the fact that there are also a number

of signs which augur well for Cambodia's immediate future."

A widely held desire for peace among Cambodians was one reason for hope, as was

the bi-partisan Joint Commission for Abnormal Conflict Resolution.

The commission was seen as a key stabilizing influence, with its expressed hope

to keep the bulk of the Royal Cambodian army and police out of any future bi-partisan

fighting. "By virtue of their collective command over military and security

personnel, they have the capacity for preventing the conflict between the two ruling

parties from escalating towards sustained and widespread violence," the report

states.

Other reasons for optimism given were the diminishing threat of the Khmer Rouge

and the relatively sound state of the Cambodian economy.

Aside from studying Cambodia's political and economic climate, the participants

tried to assess Cambodia's willingness and ability to participate fully in the activities

of the group. "With the number of Asean meetings fast approaching 250 a year,

membership is likely to become a costly undertaking," the authors warned. "Moreover,

it is felt that Cambodia does not have a sufficient number of officials with adequate

English-language training to attend and participate fully in all of these meetings."

The question also arose of whether the Cambodian government is willing to lose

tariff revenues, widen its trade deficit with Asean countries and open up industries

to foreign competition. These would be the costs of adhering to the Asean Free Trade

Area (AFTA ) guidelines, which are requisites for Asean membership.

The study group surmised that the perceived benefits outweighed the costs of joining

Asean in the minds of Cambodian policy makers.

The team's conclusion given to the meeting of Asean foreign ministers recommended

Cambodia for membership, despite the country's shortcomings.

"We believe that Cambodia's present political predicament should not be used

as reason or justification for keeping her out of Asean," the report ends.

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