Cambodia: Life In The New Expanded Asean


Lt Gen John Sanderson

ASEAN has been widely regarded as the most successful example of Asian multilateral economic and cultural cooperation. Until 1995 the ASEAN grouping had taken on a convincing air of enduring stability, which generated the confidence needed to embrace a nation like Vietnam whose recent history had followed a significantly different ideological path. Indeed, ASEAN leadership was the primary force behind the resolution, through UN intervention, of the Cambodian impasse which had dogged regional relationships for the best part of two decades. Much of the confidence for these leadership initiatives came from the seeming stability of the original ASEAN nations whose governing regimes, apart from the Philippines, had been in power since the late 1960s.

For all of them, with the exception of Singapore and Brunei, this stability is gone. Beginning with the failed coup in Thailand in 1992, and driven by the deflation of the Asian economic bubble in the second half of the decade, all governments are now confronted with demands for far reaching social, economic and legal reform. It is readily apparent that these demands could only be denied by the application of levels of violence that would harm both the short and long term prospects for the region.

The newer members of ASEAN have a lesser problem. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have never been democratic. All are controlled by the same communist regimes which assumed power in the 1970s. In the case of Cambodia, the UN intervention of 1991-93 to establish a democratic government based on the rule of law has left in place essentially the same regime installed by the Vietnamese with Russian assistance in 1980. Many Cambodians contend that coercion, fear and fraud in an environment of widespread abuse of human rights and low regard for the rule of law have brought about this situation. Despite this, there is a strong desire, both in Asia and the West, to accept the outcomes of what is widely regarded as a corrupted electoral process in the July 1998 elections, in the interests of producing a stable environment in which the Cambodian people can prosper. While there were clearly reservations as to the acceptability of Cambodia's membership on the part of some nations at the ASEAN Forum in Vietnam in late 1998, there can be little question that it will proceed.

What has become increasingly clear is that the Hun Sen government is aiming to gain acceptability through generating stability. Its much publicised embrace of the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in early 1999 is part of this thrust. It is unlikely that this rapprochement could have occurred without China's influence, and it can be expected that Beijing will continue to frustrate any attempts to thwart this process of reconciliation with its former clients. While some will be aggrieved by the apparent rejection of the idea of trying the Khmer Rouge leadership for their crimes, others will applaud this initiative. In particular, China and Vietnam will find common cause in ensuring that Cambodia and then Myanmar are fully accepted fully into ASEAN membership.

WATCHPOINT: New influences from Cambodia and elsewhere will produce vastly different ASEAN to that which existed at the beginning of 1995.


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