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Asean at 50: Civil society is an ally, not enemy

  • After 50 years, the engagement between Asean state leaders and civil society through various platforms has remained disappointing.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

It is a busy week in the Philippines. The 31st Asean Summit and related meetings are scheduled to take place from 10-14 November. At the same time, the civil society-led forum, the Asean Civil Society Conference/ Asean People's Forum (ACSC/APF) is also scheduled to take place in the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. While Asean Youth Forum (AYF), an initiative by the youths took place from 4-7 November also in the Philippines.

While the region has made some remarkable political transformations with old political establishments having been challenged by the emergence of opposition forces and civil society, doubts remain as to the future prospect of Asean as a regional grouping, which can provide democracy spaces for dissenting voices. This year alone, we have witnessed a deterioration of the civic space in the Southeast Asia region with an increase of state repression in many Asean member states, for example Cambodia and the Philippines.

It is a special year for Asean as it celebrates its 50th founding anniversary. It is then a good opportunity to take stock of the achievements made thus far and the plans to meet the challenges of the future.

The ACSC/ APF has been engaging with various stakeholders in Asean platform since its inception at the Asean Summit in 2005 in Malaysia, however the relationship between the Asean state leaders and the ACSC/ APF have not been always harmonious. During the weekend, it was reported that four Timorese that arrived to attend the ACSC/ APF were detained by immigration authorities but were released after 12 hours followed the intervention of Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente and presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza.

In a statement after the release, the ACSC/ APF said it "regards the participation of foreign delegates in the civil society-led Asean forums as crucial in the meaningful intervention of social movements and sectoral groups from Southeast Asia towards forging a socially-responsive Asean."

There is no Asean Community without knowing the aspirations of the Asean people. Civil society is crucial as it serves as the bridge in bringing in the people's grievances to the governments. In a situation where strictly adversarial roles between governments and civil society have been the norm, there has to be political will from the Asean member states to listen to them.

Since the 2007 Asean Charter, Asean has been pursuing political and democratic reforms under the umbrella of the three pillars within the Asean Community, albeit at a slow pace. Some principles of the Charter have not been adequately implemented, and to some extent, are almost neglected by some Asean member states. This is particularly true when it comes to issues concerning human rights, democracy, fundamental freedoms, good governance, and the rule of law.

This raises a major concern, how do we develop a people-oriented Asean where people are at the center of community building through the participation of all sectors of society if we ignore the role of the civil society? As raised by InterAksyon, a Philippines news online portal in response to the detention of the four Timorese whom arrived in the Philippines to attend the ACSC/ APF, "How ‘inclusive' and ‘pro-people' is Asean, as it marks its 50th anniversary this year?"

The AYF for example, it has been organizing an annual gathering of young leaders from all over Southeast Asia since 2009 in various Southeast Asia countries, in which Malaysia hosted it in 2015. For a relatively young network, it has had some notable achievements. For example, the AYF is one of the contributors to the first Asean Youth Development Index, which was launched in July this year.

A day before the event of the AYF, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) reminded the public to be cautious of joining events purportedly organized for the Asean as he claimed that there were reports that the AYF is "being used by leftist groups to advance their agenda." According to the DLIG officer in charge Catalino Cuy as reported by the Philippines newspaper, The Inquirer, and I quote, " We want to make it clear that AYF 2017 organized by certain groups is not at all related to the Asean meetings being hosted by our country. It is a standalone activity whose goals are different and separate from the Asean."

The relationship between Asean member states and civil society has not been harmonious due to various reasons, with one reason being suspicion and mistrust. Approaches of different Asean state leaders to civil society are also varied. Two observations can be drawn to explain the trend. First is the lack of the enabling environment that could allow the civil society to further advance their programs and agendas without interference. Second, the approach is predominantly personality-driven whereby some civil society might be luckier than the others if they have officials whom support their programs.

While these issues are not new, but greater knowledge about civil society among Asean member states could potentially minimize the existing mistrust and suspicion among them. For example, last year was the first year where the ACSC/ APF could not take place in Laos due to concerns over limited freedom of expression on key issues of concerns of Asean, which are inconsistent with the agreed ACSC/ APF's modality of engagement; instead the event took place in Timor Leste, where it is not yet accepted as a member in the Asean but is given an observer status.

In the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Asean Community Vision 2025, signed by Asean state leaders during 27th Asean Summit in 2015, stated as follows: "We resolve to consolidate our Community, building upon and deepening the integration process to realize a rules-based, people-oriented, people-centered Asean Community, where our peoples enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms, higher quality of life and the benefits of community building, reinforcing our sense of togetherness and common identity, guided by the purposes and principles of the Asean Charter."

After 50 years, the engagement between Asean state leaders and the civil society through various platforms has been disappointing. While the civil society needs to review their current methods of engagement by exploring new strategies and modalities for closer people-to-people regional integration, it is a reality that Asean member states have different levels of openness to the concept of people participation. In actuality, this is a long and challenging process. Hence, the openness to listen to the voices of civil society on various issues is crucial and the Asean state leaders should also be able to accept the idea of a critical ally – the civil society.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)



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