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ASEAN UPDATE (r)
APRIL 30 1999
The dream of the founding fathers, that Asean
would embrace all South-east Asian countries, will
be realised after 32 years with the admission of
Cambodia today as the 10th Asean member.
By EDWARD TANG IN HANOI
WHEN the foreign ministers of the original five Asean
countries signed the Bangkok Declaration in 1967 to
establish the regional grouping, they envisaged a day
when it would "embrace all South-east Asian countries".
The dream of the founding fathers -- survived by
Thailand's Dr Thanat Khoman and Mr S. Rajaratnam of
Singapore -- will finally be realised today, 32 years
with the admission of Cambodia as the 10th Asean
To mark the occasion, a signing ceremony will be held
today at the five-star Daewoo Hotel in the Vietnamese
capital, followed by a reception hosted by Prime Minister
Phan Van Khai.
The newest addition to the club -- whose original
members are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines,
Singapore and Thailand -- follows the entry of Laos and
Myanmar in 1997, and that of Vietnam in 1995. Brunei
joined in 1984 and is regarded as among the six core
members of the association.
Although it has taken more than three decades for
Asean-10 to become a reality, its significance has not
been lost on its members, despite their current
preoccupation with the economic crisis.
Asean foreign ministers are expected to turn up in full
strength in Hanoi to welcome their new counterpart,
although they will be accompanied by visibly smaller
entourages. The Thai delegation, for instance, has only
four members, including the minister.
"It is a symbolic occasion; that's all there is to it,"
senior Thai official. But he hastened to add that
was not downplaying the event by sending a small
"It's just that we are more conscious about austerity
days," he said. The more important issue facing an
expanded Asean was to ensure that it remained cohesive,
despite obvious differences in political systems and
economic development among its members.
Indeed, until recently, concerns over Cambodia's
stability and the additional burden it would impose on
Asean was the reason it delayed the Indochina state's
Cambodia was to have joined Asean in July 1997, along
with Laos and Myanmar, but its admission was put on
hold after Prime Minister Hun Sen ousted then
co-premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Asean leaders meeting in Hanoi last December agreed to
admit Cambodia at a special ceremony pending the
formation of a full government, including a senate, which
was assembled last month.
Responding to the view that Asean might be weakened
by Cambodia's inclusion, former Thai Deputy Prime
Minister Kasem Kasemsri said he believed that, on the
contrary, the organisation would gain from having an
additional market to trade and invest in.
An expanded Asean would also enhance regional stability,
he said, judging from Thailand's experience with Laos,
Myanmar and Vietnam.
Cambodia, he noted, had more economic potential than
Laos, and was more internationally acceptable than
Myanmar, which has been a major bugbear in Asean's
relations with the European Union over the issue of
The former veteran diplomat, who was permanent
secretary at the foreign ministry and later, foreign
minister, told The Straits Times in an interview this
"Asean membership will help rather than hinder these
countries from the political standpoint.
"They now belong to respectable company. It will help
them behave in a manner acceptable to the international
community rather than let them be wild agents."
According to a senior Asean diplomat, Thailand's
with Vietnam, formerly a bitter rival, had improved
significantly since the latter joined Asean.
Prickly relations with Myanmar, with which it shares a
common border, had also improved, he said.
Mr Kasem dismissed the view that Asean would
gradually become a two-tier organisation -- a rich men's
club comprising the six core members and a poor men's
club made up of the new entrants.
He said it was natural for the newcomers, which shared
similarities, to gravitate towards each other, but he
believe that they would form a "bloc-within-a-bloc".
He debunked as a "Cold War idea" the view that Vietnam
would assert its "big brother" influence over Laos and
Cambodia, which it had occupied for a decade.
Ironically, a pitfall Asean should watch out for, he
would come from closer economic cooperation through
the Asean Free Trade Area (Afta), Asean Investment
Area and other market-opening initiatives agreed at the
last leaders' summit in Hanoi.
The reason: Asean, which was formed to tackle the
communist threat, has no established settlement
mechanisms to solve economic disputes. "The closer the
involvement with each other, the greater the need for
accountability and transparency," said Mr Kasem, citing
the opposition from some members to set up an early
warning system to check on each other's policies -- in
aftermath of the economic crisis -- as an example of the
In his view, Asean countries should be prepared to accept
"some amount of interference" in economic matters.
Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, associate editor of The Nation
newspaper, who had served a stint at the Asean
Secretariat in the mid-1990s, was less benign about
"What's next? Now that finally, after 32 years of
existence, South-east Asian countries have symbolically
become one community? Symbolically, because in
practice, they have not yet become one. They act
differently, talk differently and their economic systems
He added: "In the early years, it was differences between
like-minded groups. Now, the differences are between
different groups. Differences between like-minded groups
are all right as they can be settled or a consensus
found more easily."
He described Asean's expansion as a "high-cost
"Now, 60 per cent are old members, 40 per cent are
completely new. How long does it take for the two groups
to adjust to each other and bring out the best of their
potential?", he wondered, adding, "It will take a long,
He said it would be more difficult for Asean to present
itself as a single market because the new entrants would
need more time to open their economies under the Afta
For instance, Cambodia had been given 10 years
beginning Jan 1, 2000 to reduce import tariffs to 0-5 per
cent, whereas the six core countries were required to do
so by 2002. Vietnam had up to 2003 and Laos and
Myanmar, by 2005.
To make matters worse, Asean's image had been eroded
by the admission of new member Myanmar. "Before, we
beat the drums at home. Now, we have to beat the drums
louder in their land," he said, alluding to the extra
required by Asean to make a point.
Mr Kavi's views are shared by analysts, including Mr
John Euston, a senior fellow at the Singapore
South-east Asian Studies. He told Reuters yesterday: "If
the admission had occurred at a different time, it might
have been something to celebrate but the last two years
have been difficult for Asean."
Still, on balance, the opinion within Asean is inclined
towards the more optimistic view that an expanded
grouping augurs well for the region's future.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Albar said recently that
Cambodia's entry into Asean would not only help foster
national reconciliation in the country but also move
regional cooperation onto a higher plane.
Vietnam's Vice-Foreign Minister Nguyen Tam Chien
called the event a "very important milestone" in Asean's
development and one that "will usher in a new stage" for
The Cambodians themselves are upbeat about their
country's new status after enduring decades of foreign
occupation and civil war.
Mr Chem Widhya, permanent secretary at Cambodia's
Foreign Ministry, said recently that the country had been
preparing for this occasion since 1995 and had gradually
moved its economy towards a capitalist system since
"I believe that Cambodia will successfully enter the
Asean system because we have not gone to Asean
unprepared," he said.
The later members
THE other members that were included to make up
Brunei, which joined in 1984.
Vietnam, in 1995.
Laos, in 1997.
Myanmar, in 1997.
Cambodia, the latest addition, joins Asean today.