Cambodia Readies for ASEAN

Cambodia is preparing to hold the ASEAN summit next week. The South China Sea isn’t on the agenda.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit will take place April 3-4 in Phnom Penh. As the new chair of the regional bloc for the 2012 year, Cambodia will have an opportunity to show off its capital’s latest developments, both socioeconomic and political. The streets are already being decked out with symbols of national pride, and flags of the other nine ASEAN countries have been hung from the street lights of Phnom Penh’s busiest boulevards.

Judging from the level of security already evident on the streets here for last week’s meeting between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Burmese President Thein Sein, no one anticipates a repeat of the kind of scenes witnessed at the 2009 summit in Pattaya, Thailand. That summit was abandoned after Red Shirt protesters stormed the resort where the conference was taking place, resulting in delegates having to be airlifted from the top of the hotel.

The underlying theme of this summit is cooperation, and this is perhaps why Cambodia has decided to prevent the dispute over  the South China Sea making the docket of topics for discussion. It’s a particularly thorny issue, with six countries all claiming ownership of the Spratly Islands atoll, four of them ASEAN member states.

China, which isn’t a member of ASEAN, will of course be kept informed of the summit’s proceedings by its two closest allies in Southeast Asia: Cambodia and Laos. Beijing is another claimant of the island chain, believed to hold vast deposits of oil and natural gas, and has seen tensions flare in recent months, particularly with Vietnam and the Philippines.

The hot topic in the region at the moment, though, is the situation in Burma. Reforms in the now nominally civilian controlled country have been unfolding at a breakneck pace over the past five months. Political prisoners have been released, unions will be allowed to form, and by-elections have been called for this weekend. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, are expected to score major victories. As Luke Hunt noted this past week in ASEAN Beat, Burma President Thein Sein announced that international electoral monitors will be permitted to observe the process to ensure the proceeding’s transparency.

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And of course the United States, which is steering its attention back to the Asia-Pacific, is bound to be another key topic for discussion.