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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,"
said a

                     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
                     human rights. 

                     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
did not
                     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
                     potential problems. 

                     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
                     Asean's future. 

                     "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
                     are different." 

                     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
can be
                     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
Institute of
                     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
                     regional peace. 

                     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.