Economic Pragmatism and Regional Economic Integration: The Case of Cambodia


July 12, 2018

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Economic Pragmatism and Regional Economic Integration: The Case of Cambodia

by Chheang Vannarith

Chheang Vannarith, Visiting Fellow, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, explains that “International economic cooperation and regional integration are key principles of Cambodia’s foreign policy.”

Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 429

Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy has been chiefly shaped and driven by “economic pragmatism,” meaning the alignment of foreign policy with economic development interests. The Cambodian government’s two main approaches to regional economic integration are (1) transforming the international environment into a source of national development and (2) diversifying strategic partnerships based on the calculation of economic interests. International economic cooperation and regional integration are key principles of Cambodia’s foreign policy, which emphasizes shared development and win-win cooperation.

As a less developed country in the region, Cambodia has a strong interest in promoting and realizing a more inclusive, fair, and just process of regional community-building that narrows the development gap and implements people-centered regional cooperation. Linking regional integration with national economic policies is critical to sustaining dynamic economic development.  Key tasks include improving regulatory harmonization and harnessing and synergizing various regional integration initiatives.  It is particularly important to link ASEAN community blueprints with sub-regional cooperation mechanisms such as the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) program and Mekong-Lancang Mekong Cooperation (MLC).

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Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen–Father of Cambodia’s Socio-Economic Development

The Cambodian government perceives regional integration as a means to further advance its national development interests. ASEAN, GMS and MLC are the main gateways for Cambodia to reach out to the region and beyond. The ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint 2025 aims to achieve five goals: (1) an integrated and cohesive economy; (2) a competitive, innovative and dynamic ASEAN; (3) enhanced connectivity and sectoral cooperation; (4) a resilient, people-oriented, and people-centered ASEAN; and (5) a global ASEAN. GMS operates under the principles of non-interference, consultation and consensus, mutual interest and equality, win-win cooperation, shared development, and common destiny. GMS gives emphasis to practical or functional cooperation, aiming at achieving concrete results in poverty reduction. MLC promotes regional connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, trade and investment facilitation, customs and quality inspection, financial cooperation, water resource management, agriculture, forestry, environmental protection, and poverty reduction.

In the Rectangular Strategy Phase III, issued in 2013, a five-year strategic development plan, the Cambodian government set out a vision that states, “by the end of the first half of the 21st century, Cambodia is to reclaim full ownership of its own destiny, while becoming a real partner in regional and global affairs.” It further states that Cambodia is now “actively integrating itself into the regional and global architecture, and playing a dynamic role in all regional and global affairs on equal footing and with equal rights as other nations.”

The Cambodian government stresses several key benefits of regional integration, including regional peace and stability, the development of both hard and soft infrastructure, energy and digital connectivity, free and effective movement of trade and investment, human capital development, the expansion of regional production bases and networks, and stronger regional cooperation and coordination in agricultural development. Strengthening regional cooperation — especially in the Mekong region in rice production and trade facilitation — would contribute to improving farmers’ standard of living. Creating an association of rice-exporting countries will strengthen the global position of the Mekong countries.

Although there have been remarkable achievements over the last two decades in forging regional cooperation, integration, and connectivity, there are several challenges that Cambodia needs to overcome. Those challenges include socio-economic inequality within the country and the region, weak institutions and governance, and the lack of national capacity in implementing regional projects. Income disparity within the regions and localities contributes to political instability, trans-boundary crimes, illegal labor migration, and human trafficking.

Institution-building based on good governance remains a key challenge to the effective implementation of regional policies. The national capacity of each member country of the GMS in transforming and integrating its regional development agenda into a national development action plan is limited. The lack of resources in realizing regional development projects requires more investment and participation from the private sector.

Local government plays a significant role in regional cooperation and integration. Recognizing the role of local government in socio-economic development, in 2008 the government adopted two Organic Laws and established a National Committee for the Democratic Development of Subnational Administrations. These measures are aimed at decentralizing power and creating a sub-national governance system. Delegating power and resources to local governments at the commune, district and provincial levels not only contributes to national development but also connects governments with neighboring countries, especially in the border areas.  For instance, the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam Development Triangle was formed in 2002 to link 13 border provinces of the three countries.

A major challenge is that both the central government and local governments in Cambodia lack sufficient institutional capacity and resources to effectively implement the country’s regional cooperation and integration agenda which includes the budget infrastructure connectivity projects. It is therefore necessary to forge a closer partnership between the public and private sectors, especially in infrastructure development and connectivity.  Decentralization, delegating more authority to local governments, can facilitate public-private partnerships and stimulate national public administrative reform. Cambodia’s Ministry of Economy and Finance crafted a policy paper on public-private partnership for public investment project management, 2016-2020, which aims to “create an enabling environment for promoting the participation of the private sector and financial institutions in public investments.”

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

To enhance Cambodia’s competitiveness, and thereby to improve the depth and quality of its participation in regional economic integration, Prime Minister Hun Sen said at the GMS Business Summit in Hanoi in March 2018 that it was necessary to strengthen efforts in regional economic integration and connectivity through prioritized areas of finance, economy, e-commerce and cross-border trade.

The seize the opportunities arising from fourth industrial revolution and digital integration in ASEAN the Cambodian government is focusing on four pillars.  According to a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen at the 2018 Cambodia Outlook Conference in Phnom Penh, these are:

(1) Developing a skilled workforce by emphasizing education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and technical and vocational training, supporting linkages between education and enterprises, and creating a national accreditation system.

(2) Promoting a research and development network, a high-quality physical infrastructure, and a public-private partnership mechanism to support the establishment of research and development, the facilitation of information sharing and technology transfer, and the penetration of foreign markets.

(3) Further strengthening institutional, policy and regulatory frameworks by bolstering the implementation of intellectual property law, related regulations, and other regulatory frameworks in order to encourage and support entrepreneurs and scientists to innovate and sell their technology products and services.

(4) Inspiring public participation in the science and technology sector, promoting public awareness of the importance of STEM, and nurturing the talents of its population.

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Young and Better Educated Cambodians

As a small and open economy, Cambodia has taken a proactive approach in promoting regional integration based on the principle of win-win cooperation.  The government has taken measures to diversify the sources of growth by investing in knowledge-based economy and strengthen public-private partnerships. However, the lack of institutional capacity at both national and local levels remains a key constraint.

Good Wishes for Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, 2018


June 15, 2018

Good Wishes for Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, 2018

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Phnom Penh at night–hauntingly mysterious, warm and delightful to all

To All Muslim Readers and others of Goodwill in Malaysia and around the world,

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I wish you all Selamat Hari Rayo Aidil Fitri, Maaf Zahir & Batin. I thank  you for making my blog a popular one. Your comments and ideas have been helpful and educational. I owe you a depth of gratitude. Best Wishes–Din Merican, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Future Prosperity of Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) through Cooperation


April 9, 2018

Future Prosperity of Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) through Cooperation

by Takehiko Nakao

https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2018/04/08/securing-the-future-prosperity-of-the-greater-mekong-subregion/

The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) countries have made stunning progress over the past quarter century. Once plagued by poverty, they are now economic success stories.

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Phnom Penh–The Hub of Greater Mekong Subregion, Cambodia

 

The GMS Economic Cooperation Program has contributed significantly to this transformation. Since it was established in 1992 as a means to enhance economic relations and promote regional cooperation, its six member countries—Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam—have built a platform for economic cooperation that has mobilized almost $21 billion for high-priority infrastructure projects. Foreign direct investment into the subregion has surged ten-fold and trade between its countries has climbed from $5 billion to over $414 billion.

But the subregion faces challenges to its prosperity. Further reducing poverty, climate change adaptation and mitigation, energy efficiency, food security, and sustainable urbanization remain priorities of the GMS Program. Countries also face new challenges, including growing inequalities, rising levels of cross-border migration, and the potential impact on jobs of the fourth industrial revolution.

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Tsubasa Bridge ( Neak Loeung ),Cambodia

Moreover, GMS countries have agreed to significant commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

There are also emerging opportunities for the region, including incorporating new technologies in various sectors such as education, agriculture, health, and finance. GMS countries are situated at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia, and hence they can benefit from the increased momentum for growth in South Asia.

As GMS leaders gather this week in Hanoi to chart the future of the program, it’s a good time to consider how a new generation of initiatives can ensure the GMS Program remains relevant and responsive to the subregion’s needs.

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The Hanoi Action Plan and the GMS Regional Investment Framework 2022, both proposed for adoption at the Summit, provide a platform for countries to strengthen their cooperation through continuous innovation. These two documents will have a sharpened focus on the GMS Program’s strategic goals of enhancing connectivity, competitiveness, and community in the subregion.

Connectivity, the first objective, has been dramatically improved. More than 10,000 kilometers of new or upgraded roads and 3,000 kilometers of transmission and distribution lines have been added under the program. These transport networks have been transformed into an interconnected network of transnational economic corridors, building on 25 years of work to extend the benefits of growth to remote areas. The Ha Noi Action Plan calls for the continued expansion of these economic corridors to boost connectivity both between and within countries.

The subregion’s competitiveness is improving through ongoing efforts to facilitate transport and trade flows, enhance agriculture exports, and promote the GMS as a single tourism destination after receiving a record 60 million visitors in 2016. Looking ahead, it will be important to continue cutting red tape and to remove remaining barriers to transport and trade.

Finally, communities are being strengthened through cross-border initiatives to control the spread of communicable diseases, expand educational opportunities, protect the subregion’s rich biodiversity, and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

GMS countries have identified a new pipeline of 227 projects worth about $66 billion under the GMS Regional Investment Framework 2018–2022. These projects will expand economic prosperity by developing cross-border transport and energy infrastructure.

ADB, which has been the program’s secretariat since its inception, expects to provide $7 billion over the next 5 years for a range of projects supporting transport, tourism, energy, climate change mitigation and adaptation, agribusiness value chains, and urban development. This builds on more than $8 billion in financing provided by ADB so far under the program.

To deliver these projects and make headway on other priorities such as infectious disease control and environmental preservation, strong partnerships are vital. The GMS Program depends on the collaboration of many stakeholders, including local administrations and communities, development partners, academia, and the media.

The GMS will benefit from strengthened partnerships with other regional and global cooperation platforms, leading to new opportunities for future development.

Partnerships with the private sector will also be increasingly important, and it is gratifying to see them deepening through the GMS Business Council, the Mekong Business Initiative, the e-Commerce Platform, GMS tourism and agriculture forums, and the recent Finance Sector and Trade Finance Conference.

I am optimistic that the subregion will meet its challenges and capitalize on emerging opportunities. By working together, GMS countries can deliver rapid, sustainable, and inclusive growth for another 25 years and beyond. ADB will continue to be an important and trusted partner in that endeavor.

The End of Cambodia’s Ersatz Democracy


February 8, 2018

The End of Cambodia’s Ersatz Democracy

by Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forumwww.eastasiaforum.org 

In 2017, the world’s attention turned to Cambodia for all the wrong reasons.

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Phnom Penh City

When Cambodians went to the polls to elect municipal councils in July, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) saw a substantial boost in its support, particularly in the rural areas long considered a stronghold of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The local results were seen to put the CNRP in a competitive position in the national election scheduled for July 2018.

 

Rather than prompting the government to become more responsive to the concerns of disaffected voters, the 2017 polls became the trigger for a brazen crackdown on the opposition, the press and civil society. The CNRP has been dissolved in a controversial court ruling, and its leader Kem Sokha has been jailed on trumped-up charges of treason. Media outlets such as the respected Cambodia Daily newspaper and independent radio stations have been shut down. The government is intimidating the largest and most vocal NGOs.

As Astrid Norén-Nilsson writes in this week’s lead article (which is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead), the ongoing crackdown marks no less than ‘the endpoint of Cambodia’s era of electoral democracy — an era in which the opposition may have faced uphill struggles but was nonetheless dependably allowed to contest elections’.

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Certainly, Hun Sen’s Cambodia was no poster child for democracy and good governance before 2017. As political scientist Lee Morgenbesser has argued, after Hun Sen’s rise to power in the 1993 election overseen by the United Nations, the country became a textbook case of ‘competitive authoritarianism’. This is a system in which parties and civil society are allowed enough freedom to maintain the appearance of competitive politics, but where political institutions are so rigged that the opposition has no real path to power. In this view, the mistake of the CNRP was to get too popular, to the extent that a national election victory seemed a possibility — a scenario that Hun Sen could not countenance.

The degeneration of a pretend democracy into outright autocracy also marks the failure of decades of investment in Cambodian democracy and good governance by Western governments and international organisations. It is perhaps a small sense of responsibility for the current predicament that gives urgency to questions about what the world can or should do in response to Hun Sen’s crackdown. At present, targeted sanctions seem ‘the only realistic possibility of a somewhat modified course of government action, though [they are] a highly uncertain one’, writes Norén-Nilsson.

 

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A peaceful and attractive county side in a rapidly developing and stable economy

The note of caution she sounds is appropriate. Cambodia is no economic pariah; rather, millions of Cambodians are beneficiaries of trade with the West. As Heidi Dahles highlights in her review of the Cambodian economy, trade unions representing garment workers have spoken out against Western economic sanctions. Western governments should take such warnings seriously. Any program of sanctions that harms Cambodian export industries would only play into the hands of Hun Sen and his narrative that the West is out to undermine Cambodia. Heavy-handed sanctions not only fail to guarantee changes in the behaviour of the target regime, but can lead to isolation and economic hardship that serves nobody’s interests (the experience of Myanmar under the old military junta is a cautionary tale).

However Western governments respond, there are ultimately larger forces at work aiding the entrenchment of authoritarianism both in Cambodia and elsewhere in the region. Hun Sen’s crackdown takes place in a world where authoritarian leaders are less dependent on the West for their aid and investment needs — and thus have fewer incentives to cultivate support among Western politicians by promising reforms and democracy. As Norén-Nilsson writes, ‘China’s full political and economic support enables Cambodia’s shift to autocracy, which occurs in the context of President Trump’s voluntary handing over of American regional and global leadership to China’.

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Hun Sen and his CPP can expect to win the July 2018 election decisively in a contest compromised by the effective exclusion of the largest opposition party. By closing off avenues for peaceful opposition, Hun Sen has thrown up hazards for Cambodia’s future. As we have learned from the fall of autocrats from Indonesia to Egypt in recent decades, when struck by crises dictatorships can prove surprisingly brittle — and efforts to unseat them typically lead to large-scale violence.

The West will make noises about the illegitimacy of the Prime Minister’s victory, and will likely continue to apply and even extend sanctions. But Hun Sen is here to stay, and the dictates of realpolitik mean that the Western powers will soon revert to pragmatic cooperation with Hun Sen’s regime when necessary.

The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.

Also read: http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/11/05/cambodian-democracy-on-the-ropes/

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/01/16/has-cambodias-economic-boom-imploded/

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2015/03/18/after-thirty-years-of-hun-sen-where-is-cambodia-now/

An architectural beauty and brutality


August 20, 2016

An architectural beauty and brutality

by Julia Mayer

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Can architecture help heal the wounds of Cambodia’s genocide? Julia Mayer takes a look at the Documentation Centre of Cambodia’s new memorial to a dark past, the Sleuk Rith Institute in Phnom Penh. 

Passion and patience make strange bedfellows but are essential when best-laid plans temporarily go awry.

Youk Chhang, founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute and the Executive Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) continues to work tirelessly on his ambitious proposal to reconcile his country’s brutal past with its rich ancient cultural heritage. He is trying to build a multi-purpose centre commemorating Cambodia’s genocide and is doing this in what can best be described as an uneasy present.

Facing numerous setbacks, Chhang, who is also a survivor of the infamous Khmer Rouge era of 1975-79 in which more than two million people perished, remains undeterred.

“We were planning to start building in February this year,” says Chhang. But efforts have ground to a halt. The delay is very complicated involving government bureaucracy, and we are working to resolve it now.”

Designed by the late multi award-winning London-based Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, back in 2014, the Sleuk Rith Institute’s design immediately conjures images of a distant future as well as Cambodia’s glorious past. Five towers reminiscent of Angkor Wat rise from the monsoonal mists of the famed and beautiful jungle to inspire yet another allegory — trees of knowledge and life.

“The repression of cultural knowledge during the French colonial era, followed by the Khmer Rouge regime’s ideology as a form of education meant that links to the rest of the world were severed.It was an ideology that almost destroyed us. Today we are still chained to the past, which is why for me, only education can set us free. We should not be enslaved by the past. We cannot escape it; we have to face it,” says Chhang.

The name Sleuk Rith is highly symbolic and refers to the power of leaves, explains Chhang, as he recounts a story of Cambodian intellectuals and activists secretly writing messages on dried leaves during the colonial era to preserve their knowledge and culture.

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The symbolism runs even deeper.

There are distinctive parallels between the ancient regional tradition of meticulously writing Hindu then later Buddhist texts on palm leaves, sastra, to the hundreds and thousands of leaves of paper filled with forced confessions delivered under unabated torture, to reams of survivor testimonies painstakingly recorded and collected by the DC-Cam team since it began its work in 1995.

Chhang is quick to mention that within the concept of the power of leaves exists another meaning — plain paper, or that critical moment before the page fills with ideas and feelings, and which allows for the possibility of new versions of the history of genocide.

“When I was growing up, there was no education, and very few had traveled outside of the country,” says Chhang.

“As a result of genocide, Cambodians are now all over the world, and I think, because of that, people have formed a new version of the history of genocide. Each person comes with a different idea, different ways of thinking and different views, so there’s no singular interpretation.”

The new building is meant to inspire reflection, reconciliation and the restoration of relationships broken by the Khmer Rouge’s near four-year reign of terror. However, unlike other memorials and in situ sites scattered throughout the country offering explicit and undeniably invaluable evidence of the atrocities orchestrated by the regime, the Sleuk Rith Institute aims to tell the same horror story a little differently.

“Many young people look at a skull, a shackle or a blood stain on a wall and feel that it is the older generation who are responsible for the mistakes made,” says Chhang.

“They see the past as remote and have problems seeing it as part of their identity. But if you come in with photography, with beauty, with dialogue, you bring them in, and they start to question.”

Reinterpreting the atrocities in any way as ‘beautiful’ immediately calls for a reevaluation of aesthetics, as does the message that is hoped to be shared and retold by others.

Sites like Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison and interrogation center codenamed S-21, and Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’ where the majority of prisoners were executed, all serve as important witnesses to the past.

However, it can be argued that they elicit intense feelings of pity, shame and disbelief, which can be counterproductive when trying to understand what happened and to possibly achieve reconciliation through empathy. And not everyone can visit such places.

“The best memorials evoke reflection and commemoration, but are also living, dynamic places that engage with all generations in the community,” says Chhang.

“A memorial should be enlightening, a place where both the younger and older generation can feel comfortable learning about the tragedies of the past to find new ways to heal, and to move forward.”

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The centre will not only commemorate the lives lost but also serve as a tribute to the survivors via a museum of memory. It will also be an archive of all documents about the period, a library and an international research center for genocide studies, placing the Cambodian experience in context with other atrocities still being perpetuated today despite global outcries.

While such outcries have sadly done little to lessen the frequency and the impact of genocide across the globe, the fact remains that there are survivors and with them comes the arduous and initially insurmountable task of rebuilding a stable cultural identity that helps to heal. These efforts require hope and relentless optimism.

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Architect Zaha Hadid

Architecturally, Zahara Hadid’s futuristic designs embody this kind of optimism, as well as the belief that the past defines the future. The future depends on it, and, so by challenging the more traditional pessimistic practices of memorialising traumatic histories, her designs reach into the future as if to show that this can be, if not already, achieved. In the case of the Sleuk Rith Institute, this can be seen in the shimmering waterways and the warmth of exposed wooden beams that evoke the image of verdant and fertile trees or the themes of the rebirth of knowledge.

By widening the conceptual space for healing, the Sleuk Rith Institute has a profoundly important role to play. It shows that heritage so unequivocally rooted in pain and shame can be transformative through an oddly unsettling yet familiar kind of beauty that has the potential to evoke much-needed empathy and compassion.Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Youk Chhang, founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute and the Executive Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia

“Genocide is part our identity– it is our identity. It just takes a matter of time to accept it,” says Chhang.

Time is a great healer, and after a succession of delays we can only hope that Cambodia will see a building it so desperately deserves — one that will aid a more informed idea of the past well into the future.

Julia Mayer is a Masters of Museum and Heritage Studies student at the Australian National University. She has lived in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea, and has written extensively on traditional arts, performances and cinema in the region. She is also the Asia Correspondent for Metro Magazine Australia.

A building and brutality