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.

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.

10 Cambodia Topics to Watch in 2013

KNY13 Wat Brooklyn Sophatography (1 of 1)

Happy Cambodian new year 2013, year of the Snake!

Here are ten broad developments in 2013 that I think Cambodia observers should watch out for. They are not necessarily in order of priority. I will be revisiting these topics separately in the coming weeks and months.

  1. Cambodia national elections (July 28)
  2. Preah Vihear border dispute and nationalism
  3. Khmer Rouge tribunal ‘crisis’
  4. Cambodia’s growing land conflicts
  5. Hydropower and Mekong river dilemma
  6. Human rights problems and the Myanmar effect
  7. Corruption and attempts at governance reform
  8. Cambodia, China, and Asean ‘triangular’ relations
  9. Rise of digital media, youth voices, and social development
  10. Uneven economic growth and regional competitiveness

Major events in the ‘2012 Cambodian year’ that will likely have an impact on 2013 developments:

  • Death of King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s ‘father’ for decades
  • Death of Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister
  • Cambodian performance as chair of Asean in 2012 and the South China Sea disagreement
  • Shrinking press freedom in traditional media space
  • Opening up and early democratization of Myanmar (Burma)
  • US President Barack Obama visit to Phnom Penh

*I may be updating some of topic as necessary.*

Analyst Worries Democracy May Be Sidelined for Asean ‘Security’

Chinese and ASEAN leaders attend the 15th ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh's Peace Palace, Cambodia, November 19, 2012. (VOA Khmer/Sophat Soeung)

Chinese and ASEAN leaders attend the 15th ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace, Cambodia, November 19, 2012. (VOA Khmer/Sophat Soeung)

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, April 13, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC – The adoption of the Asean Human Rights Declaration in Phnom Penh last year marked a major milestone for advocates of Asean democracy. But a prominent Southeast Asian security expert says that while democracy is important for security in Southeast Asia, getting the region’s democracy agenda back on track remains uncertain in the near term.

The recent opening up of Burma, also known as Myanmar, has made some observers see promise of greater democracy in Southeast Asia. But some worry that despite this attention, traditional security issues, like the South China Sea, might sideline the region’s democratization agenda in coming years.

Rizal Sukma, executive director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia, told an audience at the East West Center in Washington last week that the current global geopolitical climate is starting to affect how Southeast Asian countries prioritize their foreign policies.

Countries in the region are having to choose between their core values and their practical interests, he said. “My fear is that most of us will choose interest, rather than values,” he said. “And then we can say goodbye to democracy as the agenda of regional cooperation in Southeast Asia.”

Human rights and democracy were founding principles of Asean, a group that puts together democracies, constitutional monarchies and communist governments. But Indonesia, the bloc’s largest member, has been pushing for greater democratic reform since 2003.

Burma’s reforms in the democratization process have stirred some signs of optimism, but Sukma said democracy should be viewed as important regionally, as well. And that will require changes in a lot of countries.

“In a democracy, you have to open up and cannot withhold information anymore,” he said. “So it provides a lot of opportunities to actually understand each other better.”

But democracy is a tough agenda item for Asean countries, who typically have non-interference policies. It took years to adopt a Human Rights Declaration, one that rights groups have criticized as below international standards.

Katherine Southwick, an international law consultant based in Southeast Asia, told VOA Khmer via Skype that the Asean declaration is an evolving document, and while revision of some provisions will be helpful, its value will ultimately depend on implementation.

That will depend on citizens and governments, “and what kinds of measures they actually take when they are confronted with human rights abuses,” she said.

Sukma told VOA Khmer that the declaration allows governments to argue “cultural relativism” to trump universal rights norms. The declaration was a disappointment to Indonesia, the only Southeast Asian country listed as “free” by the US-based watchdog Freedom House, he said.

And though officially Indonesia welcomed the declaration at its signing in Phnom Penh last November, the country is walking a fine line between promoting a regional democratic agenda and alienating countries that might see its work as patronizing, he said.

Burma was the first Asean country to reach out directly to Indonesia for help in its democratization process, he said. Burma will now chair Asean in 2014, symbolizing the region’s struggle to put democracy as a pillar of regional security. But other issues are pressing, as well.

That kind of tension was brought to light at the November summit in Phnom Penh last year. The summit was dominated by policy arguments of the South China Sea, where Asean members have overlapping claims with China. Discussion on the rights declaration was overshadowed by that contentious issue.

Still, Sukma said Burma’s chairmanship will put democratization higher on the agenda, as the country seeks to trumpet this achievement.

Asean Summit Seen as Opportunity for a Balanced Cambodian Foreign Policy

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, November 16, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC – Cambodia will host the Asean and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh next week, during which major regional security topics will be discussed amid visits by world leaders, including the US president. Ernie Bower, head of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, recently spoke with VOA Khmer’s Soeung Sophat. Bower says the international attention that comes from the summits presents an opportunity for Prime Minister Hun Sen to demonstrate that his country has a balanced foreign policy, and will allow Cambodia to address criticism over failed Asean meetings in July and to improve its partnership with the US.

Editor’s Note: This interview was also broadcast on Cambodian News Channel (CNC) TV before the 21th Asean Summit in Phnom Penh.