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Asean Presidency a Chance for Improved Credibility: Analysts

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) waves a gavel after taking over the ASEAN chairmanship from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during the handover ceremony at the closing session of ASEAN Summit and Related Summits in Nusa Dua, Bali Novemb

As Cambodia prepares to take over the rotating presidency of Asean, it has a chance to gain credibility in the international community if it can work to solve a number of regional problems, analysts said Thursday.

Asean countries are facing issues of human trafficking and labor migration, a dispute over the South China Sea, an ongoing border standoff between Cambodian and Thailand and others.

“This is an opportunity to push for reform of the [Asean] political system, economic system and the system to respect human rights, as well,” said Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, as a guest on “Hello VOA.” “But credibility comes only if the government works properly and cleanly,” he said.

Asean was formed in 1962 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, in an effort to improve economic cooperation in the region and as a bulwark against the spread of Cold-War communism, said Pen Somony, head of Cambodian Volunteers for Society, who was also a guest on “Hello VOA” Thursday.

It has since expanded to include six other Southeast Asian countries, but among them Cambodia, which joined in 1999, remains one of the least developed.

“We are at a low level,” Pen Somony said. “Our people have low knowledge, skills and technology. To solve these issues, we need to create more human resources regarding computer skills, language skills and other professions for work in the country. If they lack skills in doing their work they will migrate to work as laborers in other countries.”

Most Cambodian skills are in agriculture, but the sector faces challenges like land grabbing, which prevents the growth of agricultural businesses, and there is a loss of skills in farming among the youth, he said.

Meanwhile, across Asean there is a diversity of political systems and leadership, as well as wide economic gaps.

As head of Asean, Cambodia will face these challenges, as well as China’s growing influence in the region. China wants looks for bilateral partnerships with individual countries in the region, Ou Virak said, and does not want Asean, comprised of 500 million people, to raise issues as a bloc.

“But if all of Asean negotiates, then Asean will have more influence,” he said. “China doesn’t like this, because China gives a lot of support to Cambodia and there will be pressure for Cambodia as the country chair to foster this [joint] agenda.”

Cambodia will need to work to solve problems in the region peacefully, before the chairmanship goes to Brunei in 2013 and Burma in 2014, he said.

“A good strategy is that Cambodia should not cause any conflict that leads to war or deadly fighting,” he said.