As explained above, apart from seeking to have a better understanding of Cambodia’s present domestic situation, our mission was also to make an assessment of the Cambodians’ resolve and preparedness to become a new ASEAN member in the light of the recent domestic and regional developments.

The Cambodians, we believe, continue to harbour many concerns regarding ASEAN membership.

One set of concerns is the lack of financial and manpower resources. With the number of ASEAN meetings fast approaching 250 a year, membership is likely to be a costly undertaking. Moreover, it is felt that Cambodia does not have a sufficient number of officials with adequate English-language training to attend and participate fully in all these meetings. Accession to the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the Common Effective Preferential Tariff (CEPT) programme will also require a very large number of technically trained officials to understand, to introduce, to enforce, and to make full use of all the rules and regulations related to them, which again Cambodia does not have.

The second involves the question of law and documentation. Decades of national development and regional cooperation have left the ASEAN countries individually and collectively with a very large legacy of laws, rules, regulations, procedures and agreements. Many of these are related to Cambodia’s entry to ASEAN and AFTA-CEPT, to her participation in the full range of regional cooperation, and to the promotion of trade, investment and communication ties with neighbours. If they are to be understood, followed and, where necessary, introduced as Cambodian legislation or executive measures, they will have to be collected, translated and disseminated. It is by no means an easy task.

The third set of concerns is related to the economic impact of accession to AFTA-CEPT. One issue is the potential loss of revenue from trade taxes, which amounted to R 344.1 billion or 48.7% of current revenue in 1996. Another is the likely increase in the already growing trade deficit with the ASEAN countries, which rose three fold between 1995 and 1996, from R 301.6 billion to R 910.5 billion. Yet another issue is considerably greater exposure of Cambodia’s nascent industries to foreign competition. And the last issue is the possible increase of exploitation of Cambodia by the private sector of the ASEAN countries.

These concerns are genuinely felt. Yet we find no ambivalence in the Cambodians’ attitude towards ASEAN membership.

Cambodia should join ASEAN and is willing to do so at the earliest opportunity. This is the sentiment shared by a broad cross-section of the leadership, government officials, NGO representatives and opinion leaders.

The Cambodians recognise that the costs of entry will be high in the short term, especially where the diversion of scarce governmental financial and manpower resources, the loss of revenue and the increase in trade deficit are concerned. But they believe that the longer-term benefits far outweigh these costs of adjusting to the responsibilities of new membership.

Sentiments and perception are difficult to assess and to summarise in a systematic and objective manner. But we believe that the overall picture which emerges is very clear.

Regional cooperation is seen as both the framework and the mechanism, firstly for fully integrating Cambodia with the international community and, secondly, for strengthening the foundations of economic reconstruction and rehabilitation, which in turn are necessary for consolidating the process of national reconciliation. ASEAN membership is also seen as a symbol of complete acceptance of the new Cambodia by key neighbouring countries and an expression of appreciation and support for the Cambodian’ firm commitment to bring peace and prosperity to their troubled land.

We believe that in both operational and psychological terms ASEAN membership is at the very core of Cambodia’s national strategy for revival and progress. It is most significant that, while Cambodians harbour certain concerns regarding entry to ASEAN and AFTA-CEPT, as explained above, they seem considerably more apprehensive about being kept out than being invited in. Time and again leaders we talked to mentioned problems of Cambodia’s image, arising from recent bad press concerning political uncertainty, lawlessness, and the drug trade, and strongly emphasised that, whatever domestic problems there might be, they would not be obstacles to preparations for joining ASEAN.

Where Cambodia’s preparedness for entry to ASEAN and AFTA-CEPT is concerned, we are encouraged by a number of factors.

Firstly, "technical" preparations are moving forward. These include both personnel training and translation of ASEAN agreements, rules, regulations and procedures into the Khmer language.

Secondly, while we have to wait for the results of official enquiries made by the ASEAN Secretariat and the ASEAN Senior Economic Officials concerning Cambodia’s state of economic preparedness, recent studies have made conclusions supportive of her case. One is that the Cambodian economy has been, is, and will continue to be, in a generally healthy state, as explained above. Another is that there are considerable economic complementarities between Cambodia and the rest of ASEAN. The third is that, since four major import items, namely cigarettes, diesel oil, gasoline and beer, which contribute some 70% of Cambodia’s tariff revenue, will not be covered by Cambodia’s CEPT Inclusion List, the immediate impact of accession on the government’s income is likely to prove manageable. And, perhaps most importantly, it is found that Cambodia’s weighted tariff level is relatively low at 14.5% and, if like others she is given 10 years to implement her CEPT programme she will have to bring about an annual tariff reduction of only 0.95 percentage point.

In this connection, it is significant that, while a number of outside observers have questioned Cambodia’s readiness for engaging in regional economic cooperation, some members of the Council of Ministers have openly advocated a "super-fast track" approach for meeting her CEPT obligations. This, we believe, indicates not only Cambodia’s firm commitment to regionalism, but also her confidence that she will be able to discharge all the responsibilities arising therefrom.

Thirdly, the government is now moving ahead in the task of undertaking the necessary legal preparations for joining ASEAN. At a recent Council of Ministers meeting, it was resolved without debate to forward nineteen ASEAN agreements to the National Assembly for ratification or acknowledgment. After a period during which political differences prevented its convention, the National Assembly is due to meet in the second half of May. In their conversations with us, leaders from both ruling parties promised that all the ASEAN agreements requiring the National Assembly’s ratification would be ratified by July 1997, the generally expected date for admission to ASEAN. If this cannot be done, they added, then Cambodia does not deserve to belong.

Some problems remain, as we have stressed time and again. But we find many encouraging signs, which suggest that Cambodia is both willing and able to take up the burdens and privileges of ASEAN membership.






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