Posts Tagged ‘cambodia’
I’ve published a piece over at The Diplomat on what ASEAN should do after its unprecedented ‘failure’ to issue a joint communique at the foreign minister’s meeting in Phnom Penh earlier this month. You can read the full thing here, but I’m also placing it below.
Soul Searching After Phnom Penh
Questions are still being asked about ASEAN’s unprecedented failure to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in its 45-year history at Phnom Penh earlier this month due to disagreements over the South China Sea. Regardless of what transpired at the meeting, it was an embarrassing moment for ASEAN and it raises questions about the ability of the organization to preserve its autonomy and centrality amidst great powers with the potential to dominate the region. If the grouping needs to do some “soul searching” over the next few months, as ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan put it, where should it start?
A logical start should be to try to make some progress on the South China Sea (SCS), since events at Phnom Penh illustrated that intra-ASEAN divisions on the issue can clearly tarnish the organization’s image.
As a first step, the four ASEAN claimants- the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia- should aim to clarify and codify their various South China Sea (SCS) claims in order to present a more unified front to China, as others have advised. Beijing has a proven record of exploiting ambiguity to make contradictory claims in the SCS, some of which have very little basis in international law.
If ASEAN countries make their claims explicit by codifying them in domestic legislation and multilateral frameworks in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), they can sort out areas where disputes are particularly intractable and aspects where their opinions converge. The ball would then be in China’s court to clarify the basis for its own claims. As of now, ambiguity on the SCS only allows Beijing to make dubious claims while simultaneously exposing divisions within ASEAN. While ASEAN should continue efforts toward a code of conduct with China, there is no substitute for clarity on this question.
Secondly and more broadly, ASEAN as a grouping should redouble efforts to preserve its centrality and cohesion. The organization is receiving greater international scrutiny these days and it will continue to grapple with tough issues like the SCS in the future. Yet at the same time, much like Cambodia in 2012, the next few years will see ASEAN chaired by smaller or less-developed states (Brunei in 2013, Burma in 2014, Laos in 2016). While these countries are capable in their own right, they may not have the same capacity to drive regional integration or tackle contentious disputes as an Indonesia or Singapore. And while Southeast Asia has other great leaders, it will be difficult to sustain the decade of vigorous and dynamic leadership ASEAN has enjoyed under Secretary Generals Ong Keng Yeong (2004-2008) and Surin Pitsuwan (2008-2012).
Confronting this challenge will require greater efforts on various fronts. For one, ASEAN must move faster on its goal of creating an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015, given that the bloc is behind on several aspects of that initiative. Greater regional cohesion creates a stronger collective identity among all members of the organization and strengthens economic linkages between them, both of which will incentivize putting ASEAN first. But if states choose to “keep to themselves,” as Pitsuwan told the Myanmar Times earlier this year that will only hold ASEAN back. Repeats of Phnom Penh could also be avoided by agreeing on innovative ways to express legitimate disagreements, which will require flexibility from both the chair and other ASEAN countries. And if future crises do occur, solving them may require ASEAN’s older members to demonstrate leadership and innovation, like Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa’s “shuttle diplomacy”’ that led to the organization’s six-point principle agreement on Friday.
Outside actors like the United States and China should continue to support a strong and united ASEAN. Despite its shortcomings, the organization remains the best hub around which to structure a regional architecture that will socialize actors into a set of acceptable norms and behaviors, and guide Asia towards a prosperous and peaceful future. Equally important, they should also resist short-sighted attempts to undermine the bloc’s unity or exploit its divisions, since they will only undermine this shared goal and leave themselves increasingly isolated in a more integrated world.
As thousands of representatives convene in Phnom Penh today for a donor conference, Cambodia is mulling a draft NGO law that forces associations and non−governmental organizations to undergo an onerous registration process.
While the government says the bill aims to stem crime and promote transparency within these institutions, it doesn’t take a lawyer of Atticus Finch’s acumen to grasp this as another veiled attempt by Prime Minister Hun Sen to curb dissent and destroy the fabric of civil society in the country.
Over the course of ten years up till the financial crisis, Cambodia appeared to have pulled itself out of the abyss of war and genocide, building a $10 billion economy expanding at an annual average of nearly ten percent per year. But this hollow economic growth has lined the pockets of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his cronies rather than trickle down to the country’s citizens. According to Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize−winning veteran New York Times reporter and author of a fresh book on Cambodia, 80 percent of Cambodians still live without access to basic electricity, water or sanitation, while nearly half of the country’s children grow up stunted due to lack of nutrition. Phnom Penh ranks a dismal 154th in Transparency International’s 178−nation Corruption Perception Index, and the global economic recession exposed its deep and unhealthy dependence on garment exports.
Economic growth has also coexisted with increasing political repression. Over the past few years, the country’s strongman Hun Sen has used the courts against prominent opposition figures, outlawed demonstrations, and restricted free speech and organized labor, turning Cambodia into a de−facto one−party state. He has also whipped up anti−Thai sentiments in Cambodia to shore up his domestic popularity, according to Kevin Doyle, editor−in−chief of the Cambodia Daily who spoke at the Fletcher School last week. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge and currently South East Asia’s longest serving leader, already enjoys an iron grip on power, with his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) winning 90 of 123 lower house parliamentary seats in the last election. Like most observers, Mr. Doyle sees Hun Sen’s political dominance continuing over the next few years.
The NGO law is clearly the latest manifestation of Hun Sen’s authoritarian streak. There is a high risk of it being misused to silence dissent, particularly since Phnom Penh can reject new registrations or shutter existing groups without explanation or appeal. Fresh amendments introduced by the government since the draft law was first introduced in December 2010 only make this outcome even more likely. As a result, sixty−two international organizations working in Cambodia, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have called on the government to withdraw the law and for donors to protest it.
Few good options exist, however, for the international community. Cambodian officials have grown accustomed to the pattern of absorbing criticism at pledge conferences, promising to reform and then using the over $1 billion in aid for themselves rather than their people, says Mr. Brinkley. Human rights groups, on the other hand, heckle donors to withhold their greens every year to no avail. Besides, many donors now write off aid as a form of leverage because China is ever−willing to step in for the West — no strings attached. Last year, just weeks after the United States froze military assistance to Cambodia, China pledged millions of dollars in new aid to the Cambodian military.
But setbacks should not lead to cynicism. Cambodia’s garment industry is sufficiently reliant on Western markets. In particular, the United States, Cambodia’s largest trading partner, can help Phnom Penh integrate into the international order as it diversifies its economy after the crisis. This is leverage that can be exercised to ensure that the NGO law and Hun Sen’s future repressive actions do not occur without protest. Cambodia ought to be governed by those that uphold the rule of law, rather than those who misuse the law to rule.