The People and ASEAN’s Complicated Relationship

By Jenina Joy Chavez

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is 45 years old, remedy but it has yet to enjoy wide recognition and support from the ASEAN populace. Many explanations have been offered for this, not least of which is the distance of the regional formation from the people that it is supposed to represent and serve. The long history of authoritarianism and unstable political environment in the region has also been cited. Recent developments, including the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the signing of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection of Migrant Workers, did a lot to bring ASEAN to the attention of its people. However, more is needed before people in the region can truly identify with ASEAN.

Jenina Joy Chavez (Trustee, Action for Economic Reforms and Director, Southeast Asia Monitor for Action) states that ‘three important mechanisms readily come to mind, on how a regional project such as ASEAN can have more resonance with the people.” Having freedom of information (FOI) legislations in the ASEAN Member States; having freedom of information (FOI) legislations in the ASEAN Member States and mechanisms for people’s participation, that shall provide the regular space for citizens and stakeholders to be a part of the ASEAN processes.


(2) A New Tradition for ASEAN?
(4) Finding Spaces: the ASEAN Charter and Structure
(6) The Case for Freedom of Information (FOI) in ASEAN
(7) Mechanisms for People’s Participation

Download full briefing

By Yuyun Wahyuningru

When you sign up for Facebook, cure discount you will be asked to state your relationship status. Facebook provides the following choices: single, ask healing married, engaged, divorced and it’s complicated. The later is, perhaps, what is merrily–and ridiculously–playing in between the ASEAN and the civil society.

This state is a result of too many complicated forces that were not efficiently addressed, including the deficiency of democratic mechanisms, absence of political will and inability of member states to empower the organizations with real authority to deal inter alia with number of issues and actors.

This failure resulted in the alienation of citizens because their voices are no longer heard during critical political deliberations. Popular and nagging sentiments from the ground were no longer being counted in. Dangerously, this might reduce the relevance of ASEAN among its people.

In 2008, the ASEAN Charter introduced an ASEAN with a new, different face. It is supposed to be more transparent, accountable, predictable, responsive, and most importantly a people-oriented association. The Charter formalized ASEAN’s commitment to democracy, human rights, rule of law and good governance. Furthermore, it set out the norms of behaviour for member states in relation to citizens toward the creation of an ASEAN Community.

Within the Community’s structure, there are number of mechanisms to ensure that all actions under the Roadmap to Community 2015 can be implemented. What was lacking, though, was a mechanism to hear or welcome the views of the people.

The ASEAN’s pillar for political-security cooperation remains a state-centric in its orientation. It places the member governments of the Association as the central point for the promotion of peace and stability in the region. Although the Roadmap for ASEAN Community mentions the “increase participation of relevant entities” to promote political development in the region, these are confined to limited non-state entities associated formally with ASEAN. This is ironic as political-security pillar has a big task on putting democracy and good governance in practice, where people’s participation is one of the important components for accountability.

This is also the case with the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). This body continues to refuse to meet with wider civil society. The process of drafting the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration is far from being inclusive. The first AICHR consultation with civil society organizations on June 22, 2012 in Kuala Lumpur could be considered successful, however it was selective and dismissed off everyone who wanted to participate.  While the very focus of AICHR is on human rights promotion, the body ignored and continues to ignore the importance of people participation is its work.

As to whom and for what purpose does AICHR promote human rights is a question that baffles members of the civil society organizations. Does it even promote human rights to start with?

In the economic cooperation pillar, ASEAN has shifted its economic cooperation to be an open economic regionalism, which simply means integrating within ASEAN without hurting its economic relations with the grouping’s dialogue partners. Its behaviour toward people participation, however, remains similar with the rest of the pillars. It is the fact that policy-making in ASEAN’s pillar of economic cooperation is, perhaps, the most difficult to be accessed by civil society. Trade and other economic deals are often done in secret, behind the curtain, away from the public. This also partly explains the reasons why so many free-trade initiatives pursued by ASEAN went unnoticed by the public.

The cooperation on socio-cultural is arguably the most important pillar which will break or make the ASEAN Community. For years ASEAN gave much of its attention to political-security and economic cooperation, and only in the late 1990s that ASEAN began to realize the necessity to look beyond these two areas of cooperation. The participation of civil society is also highlighted in this pillar, but no opening or access for engagement has been created so far.

One may feel betrayed when the Charter invokes “we the peoples” because it does not refer to an organized or disorganized citizens group, but the peoples of the member states. Nevertheless, it would be fair to mention that there is an interesting development for the last couple of years. This can be seen in the process of civil society engagements with the ASEAN Committee on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC).

During its first meeting in Jakarta in February 2011, ACWC invited civil society organizations to a dialogue. It was done through a so-called “informal dinner with civil society organizations.” Nine out of twenty ACWC Representatives attended the dinner. The rest said that they did not have authority from the Capital to meet with civil society. Despite the fact that ACWC refused to share the decisions and the discussion they made during their first meeting, the dialogue opened some possibilities.

In September 2011, ACWC invited civil society again to an “Informal Session with Civil Society” right after their Second Meeting was completed. Sixteen out of twenty ACWC Representatives discussed number of issues and possible cooperation with civil society in addressing some cross-border issues such as trafficking against women and children.

At the “Consultative Meeting with the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Violence against Children (SRSG-VAC) and CEDAW Committee experts on violence against women” in January 2012 in Manila, ACWC had a special session with civil society.

The session was considered “formal” and the participants representing the member countries were limited. Each Government determined the invited 25 national organizations from ten ASEAN countries, and also 16 regional and international organizations to the meeting. Eighteen Representatives out of twenty attended the Consultation. The session provided an opportunity to exchange views in the area of preventing and addressing all forms of violence against children (VAC) and violence against women (VAW) among civil society, regional mechanism (ACWC) and international systems.

Further, in its fifth meeting in Jakarta in July 2012, ACWC invited civil society to the formal “open session” as a part of implementing its Rules of Procedures (ROP). Being a formal meeting, individual country, again, decided which organizations could attend. Thirty-nine national and regional organizations finally met with 20 ACWC Representatives, for the first time. However, the planned five-hour interface meeting was cut into two-hour. Civil society provided feedback on the Commissions’ draft declaration on VAC and VAW as well as on several issues related to the rights of women and children.

The evolution of civil society engagement with ACWC from ‘informal’ to ‘formal’ and moving forward into the direction of ‘institutionalization’ within two years, leave number of lessons and reflections.

Within the ‘informality’ frame, there was no restriction on which organizations can come to the session. Civil society could also come together to strategize and prioritize issues to be taken before the ACWC. Yet, the discussion with the body was substantive, and agreed recommendations could be taken for further action. Nevertheless, ‘informality’ does not guarantee the practice will be sustained.

With the dialogue shifting into a formal setting, apparently, has consequences. First, the control of participation, including the criteria, number and type of organizations, the duration of the meeting and its modalities—all moved from civil society to the Institution or Government.

Second, civil society has little voice in the agenda setting. The ‘open space’ became ‘invited space’ participation. However, it provides assurance that the practice can be repeated no matter who will be sitting in the ASEAN organs.

The relationship between ASEAN and civil society will continue to be complicated for good and bad reasons in the coming years. The challenge now is to put together the practice of “open space” participation that is guaranteed by the legal framework and institutionalized within ASEAN.

Another issue to be tackled is that ensuring all ASEAN countries are compliant to their pledges to the Charter to put people at the centre of ASEAN development. At the same time, the positive trend and practices should continue.

Inclusive, free, and open participation should be a condition to foster a constructive ASEAN’s relationship with civil society.

Editor’s note: Inset photo was taken at the gathering of CSOs for the 2nd Strengthening ASEAN Human Rights Systems through CS Advocacy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on October  22-23, 2012. Photo courtesy of the author.




Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply