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Cambodia and ASEAN:
A separation of economics and politics

Last week, the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN), an economic alliance of seven countries with varying degrees of democracy, agreed to put Cambodia's entrance to the economic circle on hold. It seems that Hun Sen's bloody coup and overthrow of the government, and with it the end of all semblance of democratic rule, bothered the ASEAN leadership.

Not that ASEAN is bothered by a lack of democracy in and of itself. ASEAN specifically cites in its charter a "non-interference" clause; that the organization as a whole will not interfere with the internal affairs of its members. Considering that Indonesia, probably the most powerful member of ASEAN, has a less-than-sparkling human rights record, it is not surprising that ASEAN as a whole tends to turn a blind eye to human rights in favor of expanding trade.

Of course, the theory of favoring trade as a means to improve human rights and democracy enjoys a strong following in contemporary politics, especially in the last few United States presidential administrations. Most Favored Nation status for China is just one example of this theory in action. According to this theory, trade embargoes work only when there is full compliance. For example, the embargo against South Africa's apartheid regimes worked because every nation and company in the world (notable exceptions include Dutch Royal Shell) followed the embargo, to the point that South Africa had to change. But the American embargo against Cuba is futile, since so many other countries trade with Cuba. Because China has too compelling a market to ignore, it would be impossible for one nation to convince the rest of the world to stop trade, and thus, any one nation's embargo would only sour that nation's relations with China, to no benefit on the human rights front.

So, ASEAN has a valid argument in choosing to overlook some of the human rights violations and anti-democratic tendencies of its members in order to further trade, which is helping to raise national per capita GNP, and raise standards of living for even the poorest in those nations.

Therefore, the issue is not democracy, but stability. But here is where ASEAN's logic is so puzzling. At the same time ASEAN was to initiate Cambodia, ASEAN welcomed in Laos and Myanmar, two nations not known for their strong tradition of democracy. In fact, while Laos seems to be headed in the right direction, Myanmar maintains one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

Never mind that the nation is so tyrannical that virtually every major corporation has pulled out under domestic pressure. (Notable exceptions include, not surprisingly, Dutch Royal Shell -- click here for a list of corporations that have pulled out of Myanmar, and those that are still doing business there, courtesy of the Soros Foundation.) Never mind that Myanmar's ruling military junta SLORC jailed a Nobel Prize winner and tortured her followers just because they won an open election, these can truly be defined as the "internal affairs" of Myanmar, and under the ASEAN charter, can be safely ignored. Just focus on stability.

Cambodia's democracy was earned through a free and fair election, parliamentary controls, and a seemingly solid coalition government. Now that Cambodia's democracy has all but collapsed, what makes ASEAN think that Myanmar's government, which came to power in a bloody coup, is any more stable? Especially given that defense spending takes up nearly half the national budget, and government fear of widespread rebellion is cited as the reason for such spending, is Myanmar really considered a beacon of political stability? Furthermore, Myanmar's finances aren't in any better shape than its politics. The official exchange rate, fixed by the government in 1989, stands at approximately six kyats to the US dollar, but the real exchange rate has fallen to about 300 kyats to the dollar, down from 100 kyats just a year ago. The country is spiraling downwards into financial ruin.

An interesting parallel to the debate about admitting Myanmar can be found in the recent debate in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) about admitting new members. The United States was especially adamant that only those nations who were deemed economically and militarily ready, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, were admitted, and those who were not, such as Slovenia and Lithuania, were told they needed improvements. A crucial difference between NATO and ASEAN is that NATO is a political and military alliance, and its charter specifically cites democracy as a prerequisite for membership. However, the lesson to be drawn from the NATO debate should be noted by the leadership of the ASEAN nations: some nations are just not ready to be tied so closely with yours. The potential benefits of links with other nations are indisputable, but the dangers are just as real, whether the linkage is military, political, or economic.

Can ASEAN truly separate its economics from its politics? Can they honestly tell the world that there is no connection between the two? It is reasonable to argue that economic growth does not necessarily require democracy. One look at China confirms this; China has been economically stable since Mao's death, as its leaders have transformed it into a mixed economy while maintaining its brutal controls. However, the distinction in China is precisely that it has been stable for so long. Deng's death, which caused a moment of fearful anticipation in some analysts, passed with nary an effect on Chinese stability, and for the moment, it seems that nothing will shake that stability.

Cambodia has proven itself unstable in a spectacularly violent way. Myanmar's SLORC only consolidated its power early in this decade, not nearly as long as the Chinese Communist Party's continuous reign. To pretend that Myanmar is stable just because they haven't had a violent overthrow of the government since 1989 is a sham. ASEAN is about to overextend its reach, and undermine what was gradually becoming an world embargo wide enough to make an impact on SLORC and its rule. ASEAN should learn from the lessons of not only NATO, but from the disintegration of Cambodia, its proposed new member state, and think carefully in its dealings with Myanmar.

At latest meeting of ASEAN ministers, the ASEAN nations pledged to help stabilize Cambodia, in an effort to make it suitable for membership in ASEAN. Perhaps politics can't be separated from economics after all.

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