Tang Siew Mun, who is currently the head of the Asean Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore wrote a commentary, published by the institute’s website, on March 1 entitled “Asean Must Unite to Keep the Asean-Australia Special Summit on Track”, which is unfortunately flawed and baseless.
He accused Cambodia for having “infringed Asean’s cardinal rule of non-interference” in linking Cambodia’s domestic issues to Asean’s external affairs. He said, “This rule is enshrined in the Asean Charter which spells out the duty of all member states to uphold the non-interference principle. The non-interference principle was meant to ‘keep the peace’ among the member states by compartmentalising domestic issues from being politicised at the regional level.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s threat to derail the Special Summit effectively internationalises a ‘domestic issue’, with Cambodia’s individual disagreement with Australia possibly adversely impacting the interest of Asean as a regional organisation.”
Sadly, Mr Tang’s article has misled international audiences, perhaps inadvertently damaging Cambodia’s international image.
He should get his basic facts right. That fact is that Cambodian domestic issues are being internationalised by Australia which attempts to put the domestic affairs of an Asean member state on a regional agenda. And this clearly jeopardises the celebration of a new milestone of longstanding relations between Asean and Australia.
When interdependence is so important, no one can afford to be reckless in undermining relations. But protecting unity and regional interests does not mean that Cambodia should get embarrassed as an invited guest to a civilised nation such as Australia.
The fact is that the current situation is being complicated by the use of Cambodian internal politics for political gain in Australia’s domestic politics – with some of the Cambodian diaspora being part of the constituency of local Australian politicians.
Australian opposition Labor Party luminaries like Mark Butler, Chris Bowen and Gareth Evans have made it clear in the media that they have good relations with the Cambodian opposition. However, the Australian government, as host to the summit, has yet to provide any public assurance that their foreign head of state invitees would be given protection from politically motivated Australians out to harm the dignitaries.
To complicate matters further, Philippines – the former chair of Asean – is also having problems perceiving its peer. And this is disturbing.
Now, it turns out that Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has already confirmed his absence from the Asean-Australia summit. Now will Mr Tang publish another article with a similar tone against Mr Duterte? If not, it is clear that he holds a prejudice and is discriminating against a newer Asean member like Cambodia.
As present chair and an older member of Asean, Singapore should change its perception and behavior towards Cambodia. Both Singapore and Cambodia are small states being sandwiched by two powerful and not-so-benign neighbors. Singapore should be able to best understand Cambodia’s strategic predicament as compared to its own.
Singapore is not representing the whole Asean and it should stop pretending that its defined interests are best for all. It should stop treating those with different views and circumstances as traitors to the cause. It should also stop giving the impression that newer states should only listen one-way to older members who claim that their interests alone are equal to a collective “regional interest”.
If Singapore is still holding such perception, it is undermining its own role as a neutral and honest chair even if its government makes efforts to prove otherwise. As an honest chair of Asean, it should be able and willing to accommodate and cater to regional interests that should reflect the totality of the region.
Singapore is longtime friend of Cambodia and has assisted the Kingdom in developing its human resources. With many of Cambodia’s new generation being educated in Singapore, the mutual understanding should be better enhanced and not be misled by such blatant discrimination.
Chan Kunthiny is a Cambodian analyst based in Phnom Penh