Slowly, Asean Heads Toward More Political Integration

Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, left, and other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations join their hands for a group photo section during the 22nd ASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Thursday, April 25, 2013. (AP)

Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, left, and other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations join their hands for a group photo section during the 22nd ASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Thursday, April 25, 2013. (AP)

Original: Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, June 29, 2013

WASHINGTON — Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are meeting this week in Brunei to discuss the region’s major security issues.

Analysts at a security conference in Washington earlier this month said such issues present a test for the grouping’s ability to move to a greater level of political integration by the end of 2015.

After Cambodia’s divisive chairmanship of Asean last year, analysts say they are cautiously optimistic that Asean is in the process of achieving a degree of integration in the next two years.

Questions over Asean’s ability to come together on security issues and political issues were among those asked by experts and observers during a South China Sea conference held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington earlier this month.

The South China Sea, a major international shipping lane where several Asean states have claims against China, is a major regional concern. But Asean’s 10 members will face many more challenges as it seeks to integrate, analysts say.

Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, told VOA Khmer that Asean’s political and strategic cooperation is a “work in progress.”

“As 2015 approaches, I think we will see incremental progress on the basis of consensus,” he said. “If there is anybody out there that is not comfortable, they won’t proceed.”

By the end of 2015, Asean aims to achieve a much higher degree of political, security, and cultural integration between its 10 members. But while the less sensitive economic integration appears to be on track, many analysts question whether a more unified political community is possible.

Conflicts between Asean members on issues like territorial disputes and democratization remain major obstacles.

Just last July during the Asean Regional Forum, chaired by Cambodia in Phnom Penh, ministers for the first time in the group’s history could not issue a joint statement because of mistrust and disagreement over the South China Sea.

Greg Poling, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Southeast Asia program in Washington, says that the main problem is that Asean is an organization founded on principles of non-interference and protection of sovereignty. That leaves the political community vaguely defined.

“I mean there’s doubt that if you don’t at least get the Aseans themselves into some kind of consensus, not necessarily on where the dispute should end but how to manage it, then you are going to have a certain level of strategic mistrust,” he said.

Trust among Asean members was seriously eroded last year when Cambodia was seen as siding with China on the sea dispute. The Philippines in particular was unhappy with Cambodia’s handling of the issues. This led to a number of subsequent diplomatic spats well into Asean’s last major summit in November 2012.

Henry Bensurto, Jr., former secretary general of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs’ maritime commission, tells VOA Khmer that the Philippines and Cambodia are now on good terms again and that such disagreements are just part of the integration process.

“I think this was a lesson learned by everybody, and this year Asean has taken a different direction in terms of discussing the issue,” he said. “And I think at the end of the day this is good for us and solidarity and centrality.”

That means more discussion as Asean ministers meet this week in Brunei for a regional forum to discuss security issues, he said.

Analysts say some degree of trust has been restored since last year’s row, but for Asean to move to a more integrated political community requires more than just trust.

Christian Le Miere, a senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, is less optimistic about an integrated Asean political community given that it lacks strong institutions and shared values.

“I think Asean could benefit from a slightly more candid and frank rhetoric around its integration,” he said.

And even though Asean is not the European Union, it can still find lessons there, he said. “Europe benefits from long historical animosities between these countries. I mean, they are quite happy to speak their own mind.”

Admitting tensions among Asean members and putting them out in the open could be helpful, he said.

Many analysts agree that the region is moving on the right track, albeit very slowly. But democratization remains another challenge.
Many are looking at the reforms under way in Burma as evidence that Asean is on the right track.

Poling, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says less democratic countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam will be affected by the changes in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

“You look at Vietnam,” he said. “Vietnam is furious because Myanmar was the guy that made Vietnam look good for the last 20 years. Now Vietnam’s this year’s press index, Vietnam is the lowest in Southeast Asia, not Myanmar. It’s a new game to them. They are back to being the bad guy.”

He says only time will tell if Burma will hold that promise.

For Thayer, at the Australian Defense Force Academy, Asean’s success will be a question of how its members actually define integration.

“No one has ever defined it,” he said. “On that day you don’t press a button and a light opens and all of the sudden there is a community. It’s a process. But when the end of 2015 comes, we could do a score card, and there will be some pluses and negatives. And in my estimation, the pluses will slightly outnumber the negatives, because they are moving in the right way.”

That process continues with the regional forum in Brunei this week, as well as a full summit in October.

Opposition Looks To Facebook for Election Push

A screenshot of the Facebook page of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on June 14, 2013, showing a fan number of over 70,000. That number, he claims, makes him the most popular Cambodian politician on Facebook, out-beating another page profiling Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. (VOA Khmer)

A screenshot of the Facebook page of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on June 14, 2013, showing a fan number of over 70,000. That number, he claims, makes him the most popular Cambodian politician on Facebook, out-beating another page profiling Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. (VOA Khmer)

Original: Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, June 20, 2013

WASHINGTON — Editor’s note: With no access to traditional media ahead of the July national election, Cambodia’s opposition is increasingly turning to the country’s small but growing online media to attract voters. Last week, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, celebrated online “victory” over Prime Minister Hun Senafter his Facebook page attracted more 70,000 fans. That number, he claims, makes him the most popular Cambodian politician on Facebook leading into the July 28 elections. He spoke to VOA Khmer via phone last week.

Listen to full interview in Khmer here.

What does your “victory” mean?
I want to take this opportunity to thank all my Facebook fans, especially the youth. The majority of my fans are those under 30; from around 18 to 30 years old constitute the largest group. They are mostly educated, with computer and English skills, so they are the educated and future leaders of the country, this Facebook generation. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook page is fairly popular, with around 67,000 fans. But this page is already three years old, while my Facebook page is only three months old. Within these three months, I have basically surpassed him in terms of popularity. The content that is shared on Mr. Hun Sen’s page are official and important documents that must come from the government or someone close to Mr. Hun Sen. No one else would have such documents.

Why do you think that the Internet/social media in Cambodia has remained free and uncensored?
This is a technological, social and cultural trend occurring worldwide, especially among the young generations, which no one can stop. Even in China, which we consider a communist and highly restricted country, the government cannot shut down Facebook or the Internet. They might regulate or censor it, but they cannot shut it down. So even a superpower like China cannot shut down the Internet, let alone an aid-dependent country like Cambodia.

Are you concerned that the Cambodian government might try to shut down Facebook during the election?
I believe that Mr. Hun Sen’s government has an interest in blocking Facebook, because it has encouraged the educated youth to share and exchange news and ideas freely and safely, leading to a change of mindset. So I believe the Cambodian People’s Party is very concerned about the growth of Facebook and will probably attempt to shut it down. But I don’t think they will be able to do so, to prevent that trend.

You are targeting young voters. But since you don’t have a physical presence in Cambodia, don’t you think there is a limitation to use Facebook to reach especially people in the rural areas?
I believe that my online presence has more impact than my physical presence. That’s because if I go somewhere, I’m only physically present in one place; while on Facebook, I can simultaneously be present in countless places. I can even reach people in their homes anytime and engage with them on a very intimate level.

Malaysia which recently had an election also has a similar political climate to Cambodia. Observers say social media helped the opposition there, but Malaysia has a much higher Internet penetration than Cambodia. How optimistic are you about Facebook’s impact on the upcoming Cambodian election?
I believe there is momentum in social media growth. I was recently in Malaysia and met opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has gained tremendous support, making the opposition win the popular vote although getting fewer seats than the ruling party. The opposition’s winning of the popular vote was in large part due to the help from the Internet and Facebook. We are not at the same level in Cambodia because the number of Internet users is still small. But it is increasing fast. From the latest data I have, there are over 1 million Facebook users.

You were recently quoted by a news organization as saying that you plan to announce the results from polling stations live on Facebook. Can you give further details?
Once we get the results from a ballot count at each polling stations, we will immediately make it public on [Facebook], YouTube. That way, we can immediately calculate the results nationwide and document the accurate count. In the election five years ago, when there was no Facebook or barely any smartphones, we couldn’t follow the results as closely as that time. Then they could change and manipulate the numbers at will. This time there will be transparency in the vote count, as we can immediate record and publicize the numbers.

Even though you can reach your voters via Facebook, do you have any updates on a possible return to Cambodia before the election?
If the upcoming election were legitimate, free and fair by international standards, I would return immediately. But if this election is just a joke, there is no need for me to be there.

Angkor’s Founding City Revealed on Mount Kulen

A graphic representation showing the urban structure of the Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen mountains. (Screenshot of the Age website)

A graphic representation showing the urban structure of the Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen mountains. (Screenshot of the Sydney Morning Herald website)

A group of archaeologists from the Greater Angkor Project in Australia have discovered the precise location and extent of Mahendraparvata, one of the founding Angkorean cities, according an exclusive report by the Sydney Morning Herald. Mahendraparvata (មហេន្ទ្របព៌ត) – now with its own Wikipedia entry – was founded by King Jayavarman II on the now “mist-shrouded” Phnom Kulen mountains around time of the Khmer Empire’s founding in 802. The urban structure of the ancient city was discovered using a modern airborne laser-scanning technology called lidar.

Damian Evans who leads the research, explains the significance of the find:

”This is where it all began, giving rise to the Angkor civilisation that everyone associates with Angkor Wat.”

The mountain city predates the nearby lowland city of Angkor and Angkor Wat by 350 but appears to have similar urban features of roads, canals, temples, and orientation.

A 2007 research map by the GAP which showed Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city included Phnom Kulen within its study boundary. But it did not show anything other than scattered temples on the mountain.

Maps from a 2007 research, revealing the extend of Angkor's urban structures, and surrounding areas, including Phnom Kulen. (www.newscientist.com)

A map from a 2007 research reveals the extend of Angkor’s urban structures, and surrounding areas, including Phnom Kulen. This makes Angkor the largest pre-industrial city known. (www.newscientist.com)

Although researchers have long known about the existence and location of Mahendraparvata, the new findings suddenly put a sophisticated urban structures – roads, canals, dykes, etc – all onto a plateau-like mountain. As amazing as it is to imagine what the sprawling city of Angkor looked like during its peak in the 12th century, it is equally fascinating to ponder what an ancient Khmer ‘hydraulic plateau’ city with mountainous roads and canals looked like. Mahendraparvata is then no longer a just a collection of temples where King Jayavarman II declared the birth of the Khmer Empire, but rather it would be a hydraulic city in its own right and on the above map, would appear as an outlying suburb or satellite city of Greater Angkor. Astounding.

But why did Jayavarman II eventually descend from the mountain city to build a low-land capital at Hariharalaya near Angkor? Was Mahendraparvata a prototype for Angkor’s hydraulic structures or was deforestation also an early story for the civilization?

The top image shows a digital recreation of Angkor Wat, with elevation derived collected by LIDAR; the bottom image shows the raw LIDAR digital terrain model, with red lines indicate modern linear features including roads and canals. (MIT Technology Review)

The top image shows a digital recreation of Angkor Wat, with elevation derived collected by LIDAR; the bottom image shows the raw LIDAR digital terrain model, with red lines indicate modern linear features including roads and canals. (MIT Technology Review)

It’s unclear why the King decided to move down. This finding seems to tell me that after having experimented with water management on the safely situated and self-sustaining mountain capital, the King looked down over the vast forested Angkorean plain and thought “Now let’s implement our urbanization project on a grand scale.”

But perhaps it might just have been deforestation and the beginning a starting-anew pattern that would recur throughout the Angkorean period?

In fact, the Khmer’s very tendency to over-engineer their landscapes may have led to their ultimate doom. Whenever drought killed rice and other crops, the Khmer simply moved elsewhere and built even larger canals — stretching beyond the landscape’s sustainability. Decades-long droughts in the 14th and 15thcenturies finally helped do the civilization in.

This is anyone’s guess at this point. In any case, King Jayarvarman II must have been a visionary leader who not only established the “God-King” as state ideology but also had some strong geographical and engineering understandings. It seems that the birth of the Khmer Empire was possible due to very unique historical circumstances: a toxic fusion of ambitions, ideology, scientific understanding, favorable geography, etc. What eventually brought it down, as many scholars now believe, were overengineering and equally unique circumstances of mega-droughts.

If you are really into ‘scientific archeology’ as I am, please stay tuned to Dr. Evans’ team’s research titled “Uncovering Archaeological Landscapes at Angkor Using Lidar” to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. It’s like Indiana-Jones all over again!

On 51st ICJ Anniversary, Preah Vihear Less Politically Divisive

Preah Vihear temple in December 2012. (Sophat Soeung)

Preah Vihear temple in December 2012. (Sophat Soeung)

WASHINGTON – On the 51st anniversary of the ICJ’s ruling of June 15, 1962, I ask where is the Preah Vihear temple dispute today?

The ancient Hindu-Khmer* temple of Preah Vihear is once again ‘on trial’ at the International Court of Justice earlier this year. Exactly two month before the 51st anniversary of its 1962 ruling, the court held another hearing right around Khmer/Thai new year on the request for reinterpretation of that ruling. The request was made by Cambodia, following a series of border conflicts with Thailand between 2008 and 2011 subsequent to the enlisting of Preah Vihear temple as world heritage site.

The court is expected to make a landmark ruling in October. The big question is what the ruling will be. But an even bigger question is how the two countries – especially Thailand and the Thai military – will react to the ruling.

The good news is that – at least on the Cambodian side – local politics appear to be out of the picture, at least until the October ruling. Although some domestic dynamics in both countries are similar to the period leading up to Cambodia’s 2008 national elections, the differences are significant, especially the current Thai government’s much more favorable attitude towards Cambodia and Mr. Hun Sen. This has especially manifested itself in Thailand’s recent denial of entry to opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Even though the ICJ hearing occured just over three months before Cambodia’s national elections on July 28 and the pending case extending over into the post-election period, the hearing and 51st anniversary has officially been kept low, perhaps also out of the need to show impartiality during the high-profile World Heritage Committee gathering starting tomorrow.

A final factor is that unlike in 2008, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has by now established itself as a legitimate protector of the country’s sovereignty, a legitimacy it has lacked and some still see as lacking. And according to analyst Chheang Vannarith, the disappearance of Preah Vihear in election politics is also due to Cambodia’s general confidence after the ICJ’s April hearing on a generally unifying issue for Cambodians. Here’s my Skype interview with him, in Khmer.

Back in the last election in 2008, the Preah Vihear dispute eventually became somewhat intertwined with pre-election politics in Cambodia and helped set a string of events that eventually let to Thai-Cambodia border skirmishes. This was how I viewed the situation back in November 2009, after the first round of border clashes between the two countries. In hindsight, however, the Preah Vihear dispute then was ironically also the most unifying issues in country in decades. It unified Cambodians across political lines both inside and outside the country.

Preah Vihear concert in 2008: A rare large-scale re-introduction of formerly banned nationalistic song “Pongsavadar Khmer” or “Khmer Chronicle”, something previously unthought of by the CPP.

The bad news, however, according to the same observer, is that there is no foreseeable ‘good’ or ‘win-win’ scenarios yet following the ICJ ruling in October, making things less predictable.

Since Preah Vihear is likely not a factor this year’s Cambodian politics, where attention has shifted east, the likely scenario in the run-up to the ruling remains one of calm like since current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra came to power. Until the ICJ ruling, and thereafter, it seems the key player and determinant in the dispute will be the Thai military.

*I use the term “Hindu-Khmer” temple rather than “Hindu temple” or “Khmer temple” to more accurately describe the nature of the ancient temples build by the Khmer Empire. It appears that the term “Hindu temple” is mostly used in Thailand to maximize the religious nature of it and ignoring the Khmer identity of the temple. In Cambodia, the temples -including Angkor Wat – are simply known as “Khmer temple” to refer to its cultural heritage, where Hinduism is already understood as a part of Khmer identity.

Note: An earlier version of this article wrongly suggests that this year was the 50th anniversary rather than 51st anniversary.