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Cambodia Marks Asean Decade Mostly Successful

In its first 10 years as a member of Asean, Cambodia has achieved positive returns diplomatically, politically and economically, senior government officials say.

Cambodia became a member of the 10-nation bloc on April 30, 1999, and since then has used Asean as a gateway for doing business and strengthening relationships with development partners, Kao Kimhourn, secretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told VOA Khmer.

“We have been working through the Asean framework to build relationships with Asean’s dialogue partners, such Asean-plus-1 and –plus-3,” he said. “Through this we were able to boost stronger relationships and mobilize resources to develop Cambodia.”

Cambodia’s Asean accession took place weeks after a new government was formed, following nearly a year of political deadlock after 1998’s turbulent elections. The country then set out on strategy to integrate itself in the region and to normalize relations with the international community, as a means of promoting economic development.

“From 1999 to 2009, we achieved high economic growth. On average in the past 10 years we have made around 9.3 percent growth,” Hang Chuon Naron, permanent vice-chair of the Supreme National Economic Council, told VOA Khmer in a phone interview.

Hang Chuon Naron, who is also the general secretary of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, added that inflation was kept at a low level while Asean membership brought investor confidence to Cambodia’s banking sector.

Deposits increased from $300 million in 2001 to almost $3 billion at present.

Asean members are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—a market of some 500 million people.

According to the Ministry of Commerce, Cambodia exported more than $27 million in garments, manioc, aluminum cans, textiles and cashews to Asean countries in 2008.

However, some say more needs to be done.

“What we should do more of is to have an economic policy that can attract more investors from Asean nations to Cambodia,” said Chheang Vannararith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

Some analysts expressed concern that economic growth did not contribute much to poverty reduction. The country’s poverty rate was still at 30.1 percent in 2007, and at the same time the World Bank has warned that 200,000 more will fall below the poverty line this year.

Human Right Party President Kem Sokha said that the human rights records in some Asean nations had not yet improved, and he recommended a regional human rights body be formed that Cambodia should be part of it.

“If Cambodia takes part in this Asean human rights body, my view is that Cambodian people will benefit more in the future, because once the authority here fails to solve their complaints, they can go to the regional body for help,” Kem Sokha said.

Cambodia’s Asean membership has not helped much in a current border dispute with Thailand near Preah Vihear temple, which has continued since July 2008, after the temple was named a Unesco World Heritage site.

Kao Kimhourn said that while there are many mechanisms in Asean that Cambodia could resort to, both countries prefer to solve the dispute bilaterally.

So far, bilateral talks have failed to reach an agreement on a disputed stretch of land, and high numbers of troops from both sides remain entrenched in their border positions. These tensions have led to several skirmishes in the past year, causing the deaths of at least two Cambodian and three Thai soldiers.

Even so, some Cambodian officials say they hope the once a newly adopted Asean charter is fully in place, disputes such as this one can be solved easily.