Monday, September 25, 2017

Lessons from Cambodia-Thailand common visa

For the past four years, Cambodia and Thailand are the only two ASEAN counties to have adopted a common visa system under a pilot project that is now facing new challenges.

Maj Gen Veasna Sok. Photo: SuppliedMaj Gen Veasna Sok. Photo: Supplied

The plan was adopted by the leaders of the Ayewaddy-Chaophraya-Mekong-Chaophraya Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMEDS) in 2013, and was contained in the action plan signed by five countries, including Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Maj Gen Veasna Sok, director general of Cambodia’s Immigration Department, told The Myanmar Times that the pilot project provides some useful lessons for a future feasibility study of a common visa within ASEAN. “We have challenges and we learned a lot from these experiences that we can share,” he said.

The most important elements are trust and shared intelligence because of the countries’ long and unmarked shared border and the large number of tourists crossing that border. “Thailand and Cambodia must continue to trust each other, otherwise the project would not work,” he said. An ACMEDS visa can only be issued after immigration officials of the two countries give the green light to applicants.

Pol Maj Gen Choochat Thareechat, commander of the Investigation Division in the Thai Immigration Bureau, echoed this sentiment. He said there are some bottlenecks involving visa procedures and border-crossing practices, “but these problems can be solved by working together and exchanging data.”

Choochat revealed that the number of tourists using the ACMEDS visa to enter Thailand and Cambodia has decreased because tourists can now enter the country and immediately get VOA (visa on arrival) visas. In 2016, he said, only 44 tourists entered Thailand under the ACMEDS visa scheme, up from 34 in 2015. When the common visa scheme began in 2013, a total of 202 tourists applied for the visa.

“We have to find ways to encourage them to use this special visa. Also, we have to cut red tape to make sure that any person using this visa will have a better experience,” he said.

The Cambodia-Thailand common visa scheme, despite its problems, has been under close scrutiny by researchers at the Habibie Center in Indonesia, which has been tasked to study the possibility of setting up a common visa for all ASEAN members. European Union (EU) and INTERPOL are working closely to provide capacity building for immigration officials throughout ASEAN. The EU has used the Schengen single visa policy for the past 15 years.

ASEAN is moving toward a more integrated community, so it is important to institute a framework that would allow ASEAN citizens to travel freely within the grouping. But fears of transnational crime, epidemics and other issues have discouraged policymakers from coming up with a comprehensive plan.

The common visa in ASEAN is not limited to ASEAN citizens and those who are visiting the ten member countries. Further studies are needed to forge common positions and policies toward the visa plan. From 2010 to 2014, intra-ASEAN tourist arrivals increased from about 35 million to 55 million.