‘No chance Cambodia booted out of ASEAN’

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The retired Singaporean diplomat Bihalari Kausikan. Photo Mothership

A group of former and current Cambodian diplomats on Tuesday fired back at retired Singaporean diplomat Bihalari Kausikan after he proposed that ASEAN dismiss Cambodia and Laos from the bloc.

In an open letter, the Cambodian diplomats said Kausikan’s remarks were made from a nostalgic perspective and represented a plea for attention.

On October 24, Kausikan wrote an article suggesting that ASEAN should consider expelling some member states if they continue to be heavily influenced by other superpowers. Kausikan singled out Cambodia and Laos, arguing that the two countries have made the ‘wrong choices’ by following the superpowers’ lead.

The former ambassador-at-large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the current chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, Kausikan said the China-US rivalry in ASEAN was not new and alleged that Cambodia and Laos were proxies for unnamed external powers.

He said the two countries try to be passively neutral in the competition of superpowers to serve their own interests.

“To state things bluntly, I see Cambodia and Laos teetering precariously on the edge of making a parallel mistake as that which led to very tragic results for their countries in the late 1960s and 1970s,” Kausikan wrote.

He added while Cambodia and Laos may not have an interest in the South China Sea, they are keen on the Mekong River as it is an essential lifeline which directly affects livelihoods in the two countries.

“We shall see. They have some difficult choices to make. And if they should make the wrong choices, they will confront ASEAN as a whole with difficult choices. We may have to cut loose the two to save the eight,” he wrote.

Cambodian diplomats said this was not the first time that the Singaporean ‘wolf warrior’ proposed the idea. In July 2016, Kausikan also stoked criticism against Cambodia on Facebook, suggesting the country should quit ASEAN and Laos should follow.

In their open letter, the Cambodian diplomats described Kausikan as old and absent-minded and said he disregarded the basic principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.

They said ASEAN’s guiding principles in governing inter-state relations in Southeast Asia and beyond were based on mutual respect for sovereignty, non-interference in domestic affairs and consensus-based decision making.

“When he [Kausikan] argues for dropping Cambodia and Laos to preserve the other eight members [of ASEAN], he is [being] intellectually lazy by assuming that the other eight [nations] represent a regional consensus.

“A consensus that somehow excludes Cambodia and Laos? This consensus is a weak consensus, as he himself implies, precisely because the eight members also have to pay attention to their national interests, which are not identical,” they argued in the letter.

They added that Cambodia has never taken its neutrality for granted because history reminds Cambodians that the abandonment of this principle led the country to civil war and one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

The group acknowledged the existence of a superpower rivalry but said a true diplomat should use his wits, skills and wisdom to put out the fire, not pour oil on it.

Asian Vision Institute (AVI) president Chheang Vannarith said Kausikan’s comments represented his personal view, not Singapore’s foreign policy.

“Nothing is more valuable than independence and sovereignty and this also applies to small states like Cambodia, which is striving to maintain its strategic autonomy and exercise its agency in the unfair and unjust international system,” he said.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said: “If being led by an external power should disqualify a country for ASEAN membership, it is not unreasonable to call for its [Cambodia’s] expulsion from this regional grouping.”

US-based political analyst James Sok said Kausikan’s viewpoints were not his own ideas, but rather the ideas of unnamed allies. Sok said the criticisms were borne out of a desire for revenge for events that happened in2012. At that time, Cambodia and Laos did not join other member states in publishing a joint ASEAN communique concerning the South China Sea.

Sok said: “He [Kausikan] interpreted this issue, assuming that Cambodia and Laos did not express their courteous stances of neutrality. A person like Bihalari Kausikan is a parrot of allies who just floated the idea that if Cambodia and Laos do wrong again, they will be expelled from ASEAN. This individual is a diplomat but he doesn’t understand about the ASEAN Charter.”

He further said Kausikan used to aggressively express his views to the senior leadership of Cambodian, but was sneered at because some of his ideas lacked a real understanding of the ASEAN Charter.

Kausikan pretended not to understand the charter to serve his allies, Sok said, noting that superpowers had interfered in ASEAN’s internal affairs.

Royal Academy of Cambodia president Sok Touch agreed that Kausikan’s request to remove Cambodia and Laos from ASEAN was not based on reality because no ASEAN country can remove another member state, according to a joint consensus.

A senior researcher who requested anonymity said the government should use diplomacy to request that Singapore instruct their analysts to operate responsibly.

Even though they were only individual remarks, he said political analysts should not have used their forum to attack any country.

He added that in practice, Singapore has leaned towards the US and noted that the city-state’s leader supported the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s.

“I see that his agenda is to criticise Cambodia’s relations with China – it is a geopolitical issue with China. But he must understand that Cambodia and Singapore alike are small countries. [These] small countries must befriend all nations to survive, both western and eastern countries. They cannot blame us for relations with China. Singapore itself is also bad because it gets along with all countries which can bring benefits to itself,” he said.

“Cambodia does the same. Its senior leadership has to come up with all means possible to develop the country further. So, they [critics] cannot criticise Cambodia for this matter. They can criticise [Cambodia] for some things, but they cannot say that this country is expelled from ASEAN.”