Sok Siphana, a highly respected Cambodian lawyer, has played a key role in helping develop the Cambodian economy from its humble beginnings. He sits down with Khmer Times’ May Kunmakara to talk about Cambodia’s leading role in the upcoming Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) summit.
The 6th LMC senior officials’ meeting was held in Phnom Penh yesterday, with high-level officials meeting today for the second LMC leaders’ meeting.
KT: Are there any obstacles for further cooperation in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism? If so, what are they and what can be done to overcome them?
Mr Siphana: I don’t think there are many challenges because we are at an early stage of building the foundation of the initiative. In fact, for a new cooperation mechanism like this, two and a half years is nothing. We started from a new idea, concept and vision way back in 2015 and already we are holding a second summit.
So, a lot of ideas has been pushed forward by all the six countries and we’ve been able to formalise the process and get the mechanism in place. We even have projects up and running and financial mechanisms set up. But the main thing is that all the leaders have a very clear political vision.
So challenges will come later on as we start to implement the project. That’s when we will start to see what we need to fine-tune or rethink. But, in terms of getting the mechanism up and running, I can’t think of any issues at all.
KT: Cambodia has cooperation mechanisms with other nations in the region, such as the Mekong River Commission, the Mekong-Ganga cooperation and the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy. What makes the LMC necessary?
Mr Siphana: The uniqueness of the LMC is that all six countries share the same river. I think it’s a mechanism that will solidify, consolidate and bring synergy to the cooperation that we have with our major development partners.
It’s important to keep in mind that sub regional mechanisms like this are always very helpful supporting larger regional frameworks like Asean. We are a member of Asean; the five Mekong countries are full members of the Asean community. So, any framework that strengthens the members of Asean can only strengthen Asean itself.
We’ve talked a lot about development gaps. We do think about the development gaps between the more advanced Asean countries and the not so advanced ones. To me, the LMC can play a very crucial role in strengthening, beefing up, supporting, empowering and enabling the less developed Asean members, like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
Anything along those lines can only strengthen Asean. The LMC is not a substitute for the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), or for the Ganga-Mekong Initiative. They complement each other.
KT: Could you please elaborate on the LMC’s spirit of openness and inclusiveness and how this will tally with the priorities of Asean?
Mr Siphana: The spirit of the LMC framework is very much based on openness. It is all about inclusiveness. The idea is simple: it enables countries to reach out to each other.
For example, the connectivity aspect of the LMC will fit right into the Asean’s master plan for connectivity. Asean has three pillars: political security, economy and sociocultural factors. The LMC has exactly the same thing. As I said, they complement each other.
KT: Tell me about the priority areas of the LMC?
Mr Siphana: There are five key priority areas: connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources and agriculture and poverty reduction. It’s quite comprehensive.
KT: In what areas does the LMC overlap with China’s One Belt One Road Initiative?
Mr Siphana: The LMC is a sub-regional initiative. The One Belt One Road Initiative is the grand plan; China’s grand strategy to link itself to the rest of the world – to Europe and even to Africa. But, a continental approach like this needs to look at the smaller pieces of the puzzle to be successful.
The LMC can easily be part of the grand idea of the One Belt and One Road Initiative, particularly if you take into consideration that Southeast Asia can play a big role in river and sea transportation. It will be a key element of the new maritime silk road.
KT: There is a lot of commercial activity and infrastructure in the lower basin of the Mekong. Can the LMC achieve serious results when it comes to protecting the natural resources of its member countries?
Mr Siphana: The environment, pollution, water – these are things that don’t understand boundaries. Cross-borders issues like this cannot be tackled by just one country. I believe that having a mechanism to discuss and negotiate is far better than not having a mechanism at all. The more mechanisms, the better.
We have the Mekong River Commission. They have a lot of technical expertise and many years of experience, but they lack political clout. The LMC has political clout, so the question is, how can they work together to incorporate the political vision and agenda of the leaders? At the end of the day, cross-border issues cannot be solved through just technical work; political will is needed.
KT: What’s Cambodia’s role within the LMC?
Mr Siphana: Cambodia has been a co-chair for the last two years. We have been playing an important role consolidating the framework. Being a part of the founding process is very important. Laos and Thailand will assume chairmanship later, but it will be much easier because the house is already built.
Cambodia should take pride in that we are part of the team that helped built the pillars of the house. Other countries just built the floors on top of it.
The fact that we are now the co-chair and that we are going to host this very important summit is a big honour. We are an active player in regional and Asean affairs and in the sub-regional framework. This is something that we take a lot of pride in. It gives us the opportunity to show the world that the Mekong region is a centre of growth; a region that can stimulate the global economy, and a region that everyone needs to take into account.
I hope that from this successful summit more trade and investment will come to Cambodia and ultimately create jobs for our people – isn’t that what we all want?