By Chheang Vannarith
ASEAN identity is an abstract concept. It is socially and politically constructed under the three pillars of the ASEAN Community. Unity in diversity, regional solidarity, developing a sharing and caring society, peaceful settlements of disputes, cohesiveness, inclusiveness, and regional harmony and resilience constitute the core elements of an ASEAN identity.
For Cambodia, ASEAN awareness among its citizens is very low. The majority of people are unable to feel a sense of belonging to the ASEAN community. Educated youth and public intellectuals are generally skeptics and critics of ASEAN. They view ASEAN as a club for the “more advanced economies” and “elite groups”, ignoring the interests of the other poor member states and the grassroots.
The failure of ASEAN in preventing and solving the border armed conflict between two members – Cambodia and Thailand – disappointed both the Cambodian general public and the elites. With regard to the exodus of Cambodian migrant workers from Thailand in June, ASEAN did not take any measure to mitigate such a humanitarian disaster, although the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers was adopted in 2007.
The development gap is the main stumbling block of ASEAN community building. Economic inequality between old and new members remains large. The development gap is widening, especially at the national level. The poor and the marginalized are further left behind. Gradually, they no longer feel a sense of belonging to the community.
Landlessness, indebtedness, and lack of opportunities force Cambodian rural workforces to immigrate to the urban areas or take risks crossing the border to neighboring countries. Those migrants especially women and children are vulnerable to labor exploitation and human trafficking and they cannot escape from poverty trap.
Sustainability and Inclusiveness
The regional development path is not sustainable and inclusive. Environmental degradation, – especially region wide deforestation, water pollution, coastal pollution, industrial waste, and overfishing – is threatening human security in the region. ASEAN connectivity plans and economic corridors mainly benefit those living in the urban areas. It, therefore, further deepens the existing rural-urban divide. Urban-rural connectivity especially infrastructure and logistics needs more improvement and investment.
Damming the Mekong River
Construction of hydropower dams along the Mekong River threaten the livelihoods of tens of millions of people downstream — and the whole ecosystem in the Mekong sub-region. There are 11 proposed hydropower dams along the main channel of the lower Mekong River. There are two dams in Cambodia.
Nationalism and Sovereignty Disputes
Symptoms of intra-regional conflicts and tensions are omnipresent. Nationalism and territorial sovereignty disputes, especially between Cambodia and Thailand, remain critical threats to regional peace and stability.
The dynamics of domestic politics and nationalism continue to shape the foreign policy of many Southeast Asian countries. In Cambodia, a resurgent wave of nationalism, – together with the threat perception against its neighbors, – is counterproductive to the ASEAN community building process.
Democratization in the region remains at a crossroad. The military coup in Thailand turned democracy upside down and it generated a spillover effect on democratic development in the whole region. Democratic trends in Cambodia and Myanmar remain uncertain although there are certain positive steps to consolidate electoral reforms in Cambodia, and a more inclusive political representation and reform in Myanmar. Without having a strong and resilient democratic culture, people-centered ASEAN is just a dream.
Chheang Vannarith, a native of Cambodia, lectures on Asia Pacific Studies at the University of Leeds, Britain. He is also an Asian Public Intellectuals fellow of the Nippon Foundation, of Tokyo, and a senior fellow at the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
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