-important : I wrote this stuff cos I cannot sleep, so please be patient with the grammatical error, which I believe there must be many of them 😀 And this writing reflect personal opinion, no institution position is attached.
Southeast Asian Countries tried to cooperate: where everything began
Association of Southeast Asia Nation (ASEAN) was first initiated by the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippine, Singapore and Thailand on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok. During a meeting attended by 5 Foreign Ministers – Adam Malik (Indonesia), Narciso R. Ramos ( Philippines), Tun Abdul Razak (Malaysia), S. Rajaratnam (Singapore) and Thanat Khoman (Thailand), a document namely ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration) was signed. The document stated that the five countries agreed to develop a regional cooperation will be called: ASEAN.
Originally, the cooperation was founded to address the challenge of cold war in Southeast Asia region. During the cold war, United States and Soviet Union competed to accelerate their influence in the region. This situation created a proxy war, especially in the Mekong Region and it was seen as a threat and challenges to maintain peace in the region. For the proxy war has led the Vietnam war which took place so many years. Besides the external issues such as Cold War, the creation of this cooperation was also dedicated to discuss the internal conflict of the five member countries. At that moment, there were conflict between Indonesia-Malaysia (Konfrontasi 1962-66), Philippines-Malaysia (over Sabah), Singapore secession from Malaysia, Mindanao, Southern Thailand and Thailand was brokering reconciliation among Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. So the newly created organization was expected to provide a solution to the ongoing conflict.
In the 1990s, the other countries from Mekong Region joined the cooperation. ASEAN then celebrated the 10 membership with Lao, Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei and Burma joined the cooperation and it signed the new dimension of the cooperation. During those years, the cooperation evolved and developed their range of issues. The political and security issues still the main pillars of the cooperation, but since the end of cold war and the reducing tension between Southeast Asian regions, the economic agenda emerged as the driving force for the cooperation. The signing of ASEAN free trade agreement in 1992 marked the advance economic cooperation in the membership. While the economic crisis which hit the Thailand has became the benchmark of a deeper and more intensive economic cooperation in the region. Various agreements have been signed ever since, from the trade agreement to the financial cooperation with East Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and China. Well, it can be said that the three countries are important actor to move the regionalism movement in ASEAN.
Unfortunately, since the original purpose is on political and security issues the comprehensive cooperation of the regional lack of a proper process for civil society engagement, the ASEAN remains elite and government driven cooperation. People and civil society opinion are excluded on the ongoing discussions and negotiation. Because of this situation, many policies are taken with only the perspective of the government and elites.
The economy cooperation does not take the issues of poverty as the bottom line. It develops to be a more trade centered cooperation but does not really take a proper step to overcome the negative impact of the cooperation. Free trade agreement with the China government for instance, in response to the proposal of China government to conduct a comprehensive economic cooperation which cover trade agreement, ASEAN already signed various free trade agreements. This agreement has provoked angers from various groups since the agreement will hamper the national economy, especially from communities such as farmer, small traders, fishermen, garment industries, etc. Chinese products flood the region market and most of Southeast Asian countries could not compete with the cheap and abundant labor of the big brother.
The other thing of the economic and security centered cooperation is: critical issues such as human right abuses, migrant worker, child and women issues are not taken properly. Different interest in every country makes it very difficult for them to agree various cooperation or agreement of issues like migrant worker for example. In the other hand, the principle of ASEAN way emphasizes the understanding that ASEAN will not interfere with internal affair of their members.
So the challenge is how to push the cooperation will be meaningful for the critical issues that were faced by CSOs in their own countries. In other name, the CSO face the challenge to make ASEAN work for their national advocacy. But it is very difficult to push the ASEAN to create an agreement, cooperation, framework or etc which requires them to interfere their own national politics. Since the ASEAN has already developed a kind of principle namely ASEAN Way, which we like or not, the ASEAN are stick on that principle. They will not intervene with their neighbour internal policy. Is it bad or good? I think it depends on the perspective we use to analyse.
This situation creates discomfort for various civil society organizations in across Southeast Asia. Multiple engagements had been created to ensure more participation and more voices from the grassroots level will be heard by the ASEAN during decision making process. There are various groups and communities which focused specifically for the issues.
In 2005, the Malaysian government initiated the first CSO meeting in Shah Alam, Malaysia.
The ACSC was seized by civil society in 2006, and subsequently, organized annually:
o 2nd ACSC in Cebu, Philippines, 2006
o 3rd ACSC in Singapore, 2007 (and ACSC 2007)
o 4th ACSC, within the 1st ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (APF) in Bangkok, Thailand, 2009
o 5th ACSC/2nd APF in Cha-am, Thailand, 2009
o 6th ACSC (A Post-Hanoi 6th APF process) in Bangkok, Thailand, October 2010
o 7th ACSC/APF in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 2011
Why it is important to have civil society in the process?
Various agreements resulted in ASEAN cooperation will impact more than 500 million people, it is important to ensure that interest of the 500 million people will be addressed. By having the civil society in the process, it will be much easier to push the ASEAN governments to keep the cooperation accountable to people. The presence of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference has created a strong stepping stone to seek solutions the multilayered problem. The ASEAN Charter, which became a fundamental document of the ASEAN community formation process, acknowledged the ACSC as a space for civil society. What does it mean? It means, whether they like or not, the ASEAN member states has acknowledged the presence of these groups. They even develop a notion of people centered ASEAN, a jargon to ensure that ASEAN will represent the people interest.
Even if there are so many people became so cynical on the process and accusing that all of those engagements only play as a lip service from the government, I think this stepping stone can be used as grenade to get the ASEAN on track. Now the civil society has the legitimate reason to talk to the ASEAN member states in term of their policies related to ASEAN cooperation. Civil society groups can use this issues as an advocacy tool to approach the ASEAN as an institution, to take a closely look toward their cooperation, and to deliver their voice in the regional level.
But it is not that easy to get people’s voice in ASEAN process.
The problem of formulating people voice is: the people have different voices and interest. The first time I joined this movement was in the 5th ACSC/ASEAN People Forum (APF) in Hanoi. From the first time I joined civil society circles, I enjoy the multi-color faces of civil society groups in Southeast Asia. The civil society groups are very colorful. Each groups work on specific issues in each countries, such as human right, domestic and migrant worker, woman, natural resources, children and youth, environment, economic justice, etc. They also work on different level of advocacy: there were groups who work on regional level, national level, local level and grassroots level. And of course, they have different approaches. I do really want to celebrate this richness of color. Honestly, it is a very great component to produce a meaningful and beautiful voice, to raise the concerns of current situations and threat for ASEAN people. But it needs a good conductor to produce such music.
Many people find it is a bit difficult to produce such kind of conductor. Since there should be compromise for each groups. Lack of common understanding and the wide range of color, the tendency to create conflict and drama are a bit high. The issues of ‘what kind of issues are the most important’, ‘who represent who’, and ‘engage or not to engage’ are the daily issues in the dynamic existence of civil society groups.
Civil society need to find a breakthrough to influence the ongoing process within the ASEAN. So we need to think further on how to finalize with the idea what to proceed during the future engagement process. Dissemination of information is critically important since the ASEAN is a very high political issue for the grassroots communities, such as farmer, fishermen, etc. There should be a comprehensive approach to engage the ‘ordinary’ people and grassroots groups on the ASEAN process and how ASEAN will directly impact their livelihood.
In the past I have seen wonderful examples on how civil society works hand in hand to overcome the challenge created by the narrow minded governments. Various movements have to push the government to look at and to consider the kind of issues which were abandoned during the past. Focusing on the conflictual issues will consume the energy of civil society and I do really hope to see a better cooperation and mobilization. If the color has to be kept different in order to make a very good music, so let it be.
The ASEAN integration inevitably will happen. The 2015 has been set as the target of ASEAN full integration by creating a comprehensive community. There are only three other years for civil society to take a very close every single cooperation they will sign. So let’s put our energy and effort to have a meaningful strategy to penetrate the ASEAN decision making process.
I’m a new kid on the block, I get so many surprises on the process of mobilizing people, the way we have conflict and discussion, but it seems that I find myself in love with the richness of civil society groups in the region, and I wish, I can see them in the future, as a colorful process to get a better region.