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Peoples and ASEAN: Defining the Divide

Peoples and ASEAN: Defining the Divide

Jan 14, 2012

Peoples and ASEAN: Defining the Divide

By Jenina Joy Chavez

More than five years ago, during the first ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC) in Shah Alam in Malaysia, only a spattering of regional organizations interested in what the ASEAN was up to flocked to this civil society event, governed mostly by protocol. I remember distinguished gentlemen in business suits occupying the reserved first rows of the hall, who would eventually leave once a speech they deemed important had been delivered.

I also remember the first interface with the ASEAN leaders, at that time lasting no more than 10 minutes, and with only the ACSC chair reading a summary of the conference statement. And I remember being in the company of civil society representatives appointed by the Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia and even Thailand governments. I cannot recall, however, whether the journalist from Indonesia was also appointed or selected independently by Indonesian participants. But what I do know is that I got to join that interface because I was the only Filipino staying behind after the conference, as many of them were rushing to Hong Kong for the Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization. So, no, I was not appointed by my government; and no, I was not rejected, either. I only had to bring my passport to the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center (KLCC) for identification.

It was not at all bad, the first ACSC; and to this day we claim it as the auspicious start of the process that has become a yearly event. But its relevance was to be affirmed by what happened after. In the following years, civil society was able to claim the initiative and organize subsequent ACSCs and APFs according to our own design. The ACSC became a truly civil society –driven process. This was the first substantial change in this limited ASEAN-civil society space.

Protocol was eventually dispensed with, as ASEAN governments showed increasing hesitation to grace our events. What happened in Bangkok, Thailand in February 2009 was unique—both the ASEAN secretary general and the ASEAN chair at the time, met with ACSC participants in a town-hall style interaction, attended by more than one thousand people, many of them in jeans (denim?) and slippers. It was also in Bangkok that the ACSC earned a second name, the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (APF). It was a successful event, and it was also the event that marked the second substantial change in the still limited ASEAN-civil society engagement.

In various ways, governments seemed to have staged a comeback. And Governments are never subtle. In Cha-am in October 2009, for the first time in ACSC /APF history, no ASEAN secretariat staff or ASEAN government official showed up. Civil society delegates to the Interface with the leaders were appointed, and those not appointed but tried to go anyway were rejected. And for the first time, too, there was a walkout.

(It’s an interesting story, and I used up the first two minutes of my time to relate it, because I submit that the divide between peoples and the ASEAN is the biggest challenge faced by ASEAN today.)

The Vision and Struggles of a Middle-Aged Association

Tomorrow, there will be 16 clusters of issues and 33 workshops that will discuss in detail the specific trends and challenges confronting the Southeast Asian region. I will not attempt even to introduce these issues, as workshop co-organizers will no doubt more competently and better handle the issues.

I will instead focus on the general vision, and struggles, of a middle-aged entity.

Approaching 44 years old, ASEAN is hard-pressed to examine where it has been and what it has done. And if the last three to five years are any indication, it is determined to show the world that it can modernize, procedurally and formally, like the best of the world’s regions, such as the European Union. Hence, it has launched the ASEAN Charter; bolstered the ASEAN Community pillars; created the Committee of Permanent Representatives; and established the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

It has also been flexing its negotiating prowess—negotiating or signing a total of 352 bilateral investment agreements as of May 2010 and 164 free trade agreements as of November 2010. And it promises the launching of the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015.

Still, it is beleaguered by persistent inequality—where the poorest national gets less than two cents for every dollar the richest country gets; and where the lowest-employment country will generate seven jobless people for every unemployed in the highest-employment country.

If you happen to be in the lowest life-expectancy country, expect to enjoy life 21 years shorter than the highest life-expectancy country.

And despite years of public relations, and the insinuation of the people-oriented or people-centered, and sometimes people-empowered, in ASEAN’s rhetoric, people’s awareness of ASEAN is low; their appreciation of what it does is even lower.

Defining the Divide

The divide between ASEAN and its peoples is deep and wide.

This divide has four aspects:

One, ASEAN is overly sensitive to criticisms. ASEAN governments are lacking in transparency—only two countries, and one state in another country, have freedom of information laws. Free speech is restricted in some countries, with the region hosting some of the most controlled media globally. A Member Country has resorted to closing down community radios that are critical of national institutions; and one even retains a backward lese-majeste law.

Two, ASEAN fails to address most pressing people’s concerns. The region hosts millions of migrants from within the region; yet some of the most horrendous violations of migrant rights happen under the noses of ASEAN governments. To this day, ASEAN has yet to establish an instrument for the protection of its migrants. Environmental destruction and climate change have affected lives and livelihoods, yet ASEAN has yet to fully incorporate these important concerns. They are, for instance, divorced from ASEAN’s economic plans and only slightly tangential to its political-security pillar.

Three, ASEAN is sometimes complicit in causing (furthering?) people’s suffering. The Solidarity for Asian Peoples Advocacies (SAPA) Working Group on ASEAN and its many task forces, together with key regional and national organizations, have embarked on a common project. On May 2, the first Public Forum on CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and ASEAN was held. The presentations were enlightening; the testimonies of witnesses and survivors short but clear. Be it a hydro-electric project, a gas pipeline, a mining operation, or an industrial plantation—ASEAN governments have in a big way failed to protect their people from corporate abuses. Sometimes, governments themselves have been in direct partnership or contractual relations with the abusive companies.

Regionally, ASEAN talks only of an ASEAN Investment Area, without any mention of regulatory weaknesses and imperatives. Recently, the ASEAN has launched the ASEAN CSR Network. Bankrolled by a grant from the ASEAN Foundation, the ASEAN CSR Network is supposed to build the capacity of ASEAN-based companies to comply with CSR standards.

Having a network in itself might be commendable, but for it to have required ASEAN resources to happen, to my mind, creates perverse incentives in doing CSR.

Finally, ASEAN’s conservative and formalistic structure is unwelcoming of people’s participation. Without clear procedures, or mechanisms, for receiving or giving inputs, interaction with ASEAN will remain a challenge. Fixation with protocol, and confining civil society to the Socio-Cultural Community box, also stunts the potential of ASEAN engagement.

And so I come to my last point.

I acknowledge that I may have sounded too harsh on ASEAN, as if it has not done anything right, or that it is a homogenous group. It is not, and ASEAN has done some useful things. Otherwise, it would not have survived for as long as it has.

Despite the failings of the ASEAN as it now stands, a regional platform is necessary especially for those from the developing world like us. A regional platform amplifies small country voices and increases the possibility for solidarity in terms of policy and space. The global economic order has also been shaken by crises and new momentum has emerged from regions such as Latin America, even as older regional arrangements, such as the European Union, have exposed their weaknesses. In short, elements of alternatives are there in the regions or the regional, and they are real—and we should grasp them.

But even this desire to prop up regionalism, where expectations have to be realistic, should nevertheless be ambitious in terms of creating new spaces. That is, without compromising deeply-held civil society values; and should always, always, strive to evolve a culture of openness in ASEAN.

Can the Divide be vanished?

Can the divide be removed? Or indeed, should some distance exist between ASEAN and peoples?

It has been an unfortunate realization for civil society after Bangkok in 2009 that ASEAN is simply not yet ready to open up—at least not in a significant way. The practice of appointing delegates to the ASEAN Leaders – Civil Society Interface is back. The governments may get more sophisticated, or tricky, by appointing people that are organic to the community, but the act of taking away that choice, of robbing civil society of the process of selecting its own representatives, undermines all of us. It does not bode well for meaningful engagement.

We want space, and we will struggle and fight to get it. We will go to great lengths—including doing policy advocacy, fielding or supporting candidates in electoral exercise, supporting our own colleagues for appointment in official posts; aside from the usual community work, marches, and mass actions.

But we should also be mindful when protecting the space we think we have secured for ourselves. The objective is for the progressive opening up of spaces, not just for institutionalization for the sake of having a space, albeit ceremonial.

As civil society, we have two seemingly contradictory roles. One is to make the ASEAN do. We occupy spaces so that we can empower ASEAN to give us what we need and do what we think would benefit us, our community, country and nature, by giving it the power to act on our behalf. This is the proactive part of peoples’ advocacy where constructive ideas are floated, and ways forward are explored.

The other is to make the ASEAN not do. We mobilize to protect ourselves from the ASEAN, to serve as counterbalance to the enormous power it can amass, to clip its powers so it does not go beyond the boundaries we set. This is our watchdog role. For instance, ASEAN should not just sign treaties and agreements at the regional level without our knowledge or express approval, or at the very least national discussion of the issues involved. ASEAN should also be alerted to its Members’ abuses, and tasked to respond appropriately.

As we push forward with the ASEAN Civil Society / ASEAN Peoples’ Forum, we have to be clear what role we are playing at every instance of engagement.

We are again being led to flashy protocol. We understand ASEAN’s need for it, and the Member States’ compulsion to assert themselves.

But as engaged civil society, I do hope that our reasons are clear for accepting, or rejecting, it.

And in the lucky chance that some of us get to the other side, the appeal is for you/me to also appreciate civil society’s need to assert itself.

*This piece was originally delivered as speech during the first plenary of the 2011 APF/ACSC in May 3, in Jakarta, Indonesia.

(Published on Focus on the Philippines May 2011: http://focusweb.org/philippines/fop-articles/articles/511-peoples-and-asean-defining-the-divide)

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