Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

A People-Oriented ASEAN: A Door Ajar or Closed for Civil Society Organizations?

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

A People-Oriented ASEAN: A Door Ajar or Closed for Civil Society Organizations?

Article excerpt

In his report from a civil society conference held in Singapore on 27-28 October 2007, Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), said: "A community is much more than an inter-governmental organization ... it tries to open doors for people groups. So here we are, at the door, and here is our report." (2) A month later, on 20 November 2007, the ASEAN Charter was signed at the 13th ASEAN Heads of State Summit. However, a coalition of a hundred "people groups", collectively known as the Solidarity for Asian Peoples' Advocacy (SAPA), described the Charter as a "disappointment ... a document that falls short of what is needed to establish a 'people-centred' and 'people-empowered' ASEAN". (3) Is the door open, ajar, or has the ASEAN Charter slammed it shut in the face of civil society organizations (CSOs)?

In this article, I will trace the involvement of CSOs in ASEAN's community building project. The role of CSOs, both in terms of what they can do and the degree of their involvement in ASEAN decisionmaking, is an important element in that project, and specifically, ASEAN's professed desire to be "people-oriented". (4) The article begins by examining what a people-oriented ASEAN means and how it could represent a significant change for the Association. The article goes on to examine which ASEAN members are interested in engaging CSOs before explaining why and how CSOs have responded. The article concludes with an analysis of why SAPA views the Charter as a disappointment.

A People-Oriented ASEAN

The notion that ASEAN should be oriented towards the people of the member states could signify a dramatic reorientation of the Association's raison d'etre. Although in its founding declaration, the 1967 Bangkok Declaration, the ASEAN members committed themselves to "raising of the living standards of their peoples" and to "secure for their peoples ... the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity", a cursory examination of ASEAN's history reveals the centrality of state security and specifically the safeguarding of the state elite. (5) The core principle of non-interference was designed to assist the member states engage in the often brutal business of nation building, safe in the knowledge that their neighbours would refrain from interfering. According to Kuhonta, this support created an illiberal ASEAN community and given the level of violence committed against their own people by the dictators of the past (Soeharto, Fidel Marcos) and present (Than Shwe) such a description seems apt. (6) The notion that ASEAN was established in 1967 to secure peace and freedom for its members' people will no doubt be quite a surprise for those that endured, and for some who continue to endure, oppressive rule. ASEAN has been first and foremost an Association for the elite.

What then does ASEAN mean when it refers, as it does in its Charter, to a people-oriented ASEAN? Although ASEAN is first and foremost an Association for the elite, this does not mean that it has not engaged regional non-state actors. ASEAN has encouraged business involvement via the ASEAN Chambers of Commerce and Industry (ASEAN-CCI) established in 1972, a vehicle through which businesses can have an input on regional economic issues. ASEANCCI, for example, played an important role in the creation of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA). Since the 1980s, ASEAN has engaged with academics from the ASEAN Institutes for Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS). This is known as Track-II dialogue and since 1991, ASEAN-ISIS has met the members of the ASEAN Senior Official Meeting prior to the annual ASEAN Ministerial Meeting. The human rights body outlined in the Charter has its origins in the ASEAN-ISIS Colloquium on Human Rights. ASEAN began granting accreditation to civil society organizations as far back as 1979, although formal guidelines for affiliation were not adopted until 1986 and these were revised in 2006. …

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