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15 Years into Asean, Challenges Remain


Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers his opening remarks for the 21st Association of Southeast Asian Nations, file photo.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers his opening remarks for the 21st Association of Southeast Asian Nations, file photo.

Cambodia marked its 15th anniversary as a member of Asean on Wednesday, and while experts say the country has gained much from its inclusion in the regional bloc, it still faces many challenges going forward.

Chheang Vannarith, a lecturer at the University of Leeds in the UK and a political analyst, told VOA Khmer Cambodia has expanded its diplomatic relations through Asean, allowing it to form partnership with powerful countries.

Asean also helped ease tensions on the Thai border during the prolonged military standoff, he said. “It helped reduce the escalation of the conflict,” he said.

Asean has helped Cambodia with non-traditional security issues, such as human trafficking and transnational crimes, he said. And it will likely help bring more investment and expanded markets once further economic integration goes forward, he said.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was established in 1967. Cambodia, which joined in 1999, was the last of 10 member nations to do so.

“When we joined Asean, our bargaining power increased nine-fold,” said Pou Sothirak, head of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, who was once in charge of Asean affairs for the Cambodian government.

Asean has allowed Cambodia to participate in a unified region, adopting major agreements like a code of conduct on the South China Sea and taking part in negotiations with North Korea and China.

But many challenges remain, as Asean moves toward economic integration.

“The free market will come into force in 2015,” Pou Sothirak said. “What can we produce to export to other countries? If only other countries’ goods flow to Cambodia, we’ll have a trade deficit.”

Cambodia still lacks qualified laborers, and its infrastructure is poor, he said. That creates challenges for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Both experts said Cambodia needs comprehensive reform to fight corruption and to improve education and agriculture, if it expects to be competitive.
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