The vice chairman for ASEAN at the Asia Pacific Council of American Chambers of Commerce says the aggressive programs already in place for regional ASEAN integration, based on government commitments, are much more important than meeting the 2015 date.
Brett Sciaroni, one of the most well-known American lawyers in Cambodia, said Cambodia’s accession to the World Trade Organization was achieved not because all the laws were in place, but because there was a commitment to get it done.
Sciaroni says the same is true for the ASEAN economic community.
“Whether we get it done by an artificial date or not, we are getting it done. The date is not as relevant as the commitment of all the governments of ASEAN to get it done, Sciaroni said in an interview at his office on Tuesday.
Sciaroni also serves as chairman of the International Business Chamber of Cambodia (IBC) and as chairman of the American-Cambodian Business Council.
“I’m pleased that Cambodia is in the ASEAN chair this year, because Cambodian experience is relevant to many other nations,” he said, citing Myanmar as an example.
“Myanmar is emerging as a very hot investment destination, but it is acknowledged that the laws are not up to date and I think Cambodia provides a very good model of reaching out to everybody who can contribute to legal and regulatory reform,” he said.
Sciaroni said Cambodia made the deliberate decision to open up the economy from the beginning, enabling the bilateral multi-lateral donors to engage.
“Cambodia made it so everybody could contribute to the reform process. The recognized a need to get the regulatory and legal environment correct and they reached out to everybody including the business community. Since then, we have had an active collaboration,” he said. “I would encourage Myanmar to do the same because it will work. People from the private sector are willing to devote their time.''
Sciaroni said the willingness shown by private sector experts to support Cambodia’s development could also be done very effectively in Myanmar.
“When you have people who are willing to donate their time, a lot of businessmen with knowledge of technical issues and legal issues, the Myanmar government should create a mechanism like we have in Cambodia to absorb what theprivate sector has to offer.”
Sciaroni, who will celebrate his 20th year in Cambodia next May, said that while the development agencies were important in places like Cambodia and Myanmar, the governments shouldn’t forget the private sector as a source of assistance and support.
“We have experience that the donors don’t have. We have real world practical experience. We have an active consultation and dialogue process that has contributed to the dynamic growth of Cambodia.''
The same process can be used in a place like Myanmar.
Sciaroni said nobody would pretend that Cambodia has a perfect system in place, but it was important to notice that the Royal Government of Cambodia has been committed to the process of reform for the last 20 years.
“What potential investors see when they look at Cambodia is the commitment to getting the laws in place, and it took us a long time to get some of the basic fundamental laws in place, but we’ve done it because there’s a commitment to have an open economy and a level playing field.”
He gave the example of last year’s anti-corruption law as evidence that the Royal Government of Cambodia was committed to getting things done.
“That was dramatic because we never had such a law, and we’re having difficulties implementing it. It’s not that things are perfect, but what I’ve seen is progress. I understand there are nay-sayers, but for me having seen the last twenty years, a lot of positive things have happened. What you’ve had since 1993 is the creation of a new society after war, revolution, and genocide. These were historical circumstances that set Cambodia back.”
For Sciaroni, the primary challenge for Cambodia’s future is having the continued willingness of the Royal Government to work with all the various stakeholders to improve the country.
“It would be easy to become complacent, but we’ve got a long way to go, so you can’t lose your enthusiasm for the reform process.”
He said from a Cambodian perspective there’s another challenge from the international interest in Myanmar.
“Myanmar is not nearly as far advanced as Cambodia in legal and regulatory reform. You can come to Cambodia today and set up and do business tomorrow. There’sa tremendous appetite for Myanmar, and I can understand why, but it is going to take some time for Myanmar to arrive where Cambodia is today.”
Another challenge for Cambodia, Myanmar and the other ASEAN countries in regional integration is to eliminate tariffs and change how customs departments work.
“Tariffs are going to be reduced and eliminated across the board In ASEAN. When you get rid of tariffs inside ASEAN it requires every country to give up some of the traditionalfunctions they perform but will make ASEAN a more attractive investment environment.”
Sciaroni & Associates, which employs about fifty people, provides legal advisory services mostly in the commercial area.
“We’re hoping to open Myanmar first quarter next year and we’re in the final stages of setting up in Laos,” he said.
“Our basic goal is to make Cambodia a more attractive investment destination. We want to make foreign countries feel comfortable to come and do business. It is similar to what I do as Chairman of Am Cham, or IBC: we are always in outreach to the international community to advertise the very fine attributes of Cambodia as investment destination and wherever I go, to Bangkok, Vietnam, Jakarta, or whatever hat I’m wearing, the objective is the same: to advertise Cambodia.”
“We aren’t as big as our neighbor s and we have to fight to get on the radar screen,” he said.
He said foreign delegations visiting Cambodia had often been surprised that the relations between the government and the private sector were so collegial.
“Our ability to work with senior members of government is based on collegial relationships. We don’t always agree, but we have respect and we are able to use dialogue effectively.”
Sciaroni said he’s happy that his life, which included a stint as legal counsel in President Ronald Reagan’s White House, took him to Cambodia.
“This has provided me with an unparalled opportunity to get involved in so many areas of law and commerce that we wouldn’t have the chance to explore in the USA. We can engage multi nationals on cutting edge issues and it gives us a chance to create law.
Sciaroni’s firm is now working on a case involving the Sotheby’s auction house to get Cambodian antiquities returned to their home country. He has also given legal advice about Cambodia’s fought-over Preah Vihear Temple.
“We’re working to get Cambodia’s heritage returned. This has been a tremendous life for me to havethis opportunity.Cambodia grows on one very quickly. The people, despite everything that happened are very nice.”
He said a law firm in an emerging market had to acquire certain sensitivities because a lot of things were based not on laws, but knowing the people.
“Having succeeded in a place like Cambodia willwork well for us to set up in Laos and Myanmar,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at [email protected]