Transforming Civil Society Engagement with ASEAN
In 2017, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marks the fiftieth year of its founding with the Philippines as the host country. Civil society organizations (CSOs) and peoples’ organizations across the region have been challenging the regional organization to address issues and concerns that affect the peoples of Southeast Asia. Among the more prominent CSO concerns are: (1) lack of popular participation in ASEAN decision-making; (2) rising inequalities between and among member countries; (3) weakening democracies and prevalence of authoritarian governing modes resulting in human rights deficits; (4) dominance of an elite-centered development strategy and the resulting failure to attain inclusive growth; (5) competition rather than complementarity in trade and investment relations; (6) absence of sanctions against rogue regimes; (7) lack of a regional identity and unity; (8) weak social protection for all residents and migrants; and (9) prevalence of gender inequalities.
The main forum for civil society engagement with the ASEAN process is the ASEAN Civil Society Conference / ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (ACSC/APF) which was established in 2005 in Kuala Lumpur. Its constituents are: workers, the peasantry, urban poor, fisherfolk, women, youth/children, LGBT community, indigenous peoples, migrants, older persons, employees, professionals, students and persons with disabilities. Among its thematic priorities are human rights, social protection, foreign policies, trade and investments, labor and migration, social inequalities, peace and security, food sovereignty, women, gender and LGBT rights, and climate justice.
Throughout its eleven years of engagement with ASEAN, the ACSC/APF has focused on organizing national consultations and workshops, national and regional meetings with government counterparts, regional consultative meetings, crafting the ACSC/APF annual statement, holding of a parallel conference with the ASEAN Summit, mass mobilizations (rallies, etc.) and an interface with ASEAN heads of state.
The specific issues and concerns are: inequituous free trade agreements, rampant land conversions and land grabbing, heightened militarization, pollution, disasters, migration, feminization of informal sector, high-skilled and low-skilled divide among migrant workers , internal conflicts and displacement, absence of a genuine agrarian reform, agro-ecology, neglect of agriculture, gender inequality and women disempowerment, lack of universal health care, poor access to education, power and water issues, homophobia and misogyny, trafficking of persons, and the marginalized informal sector.
The question, however, is whether these eleven years of CSO engagement with ASEAN has borne fruit. Tellingly, an internal ACSC/APF Ten-Year Review (2005-2015) concluded that “individual ASEAN member countries have consistently resisted and vacillated with regards civil society participation and engagement” and that “ASEAN and its member governments have been seen to be more comfortable with the private sector and academic and research think tanks than with civil society.”
The ACSC/APF 2016 Timor Leste Statement stated that “ASEAN civil society remain extremely concerned about ASEAN’s prevailing silence and lack of attention and response to the observations and recommendations raised in all previous ACSC/APF Statements” connoting “disregard of the need to engage substantively with civil society in ASEAN and (this) is cemented in the lack of open and safe space that promotes meaningful and substantive participation, inclusion and representation of all peoples of ASEAN ... in the various processes of ASEAN structures and mechanisms.”
A press release issued by the ACSC/APF Co-Chairs upon the close of the two Laos Summits of Leaders in 2016 expressed “disappointment at the continued lack of opportunity to voice human rights concerns and critically engage with government .. (and of) ASEAN governments’ lack of recognition of civil society as a critical stakeholder.”
Given the disappointing results of ten years of engagement with ASEAN utilizing modes as outlined above, what is needed now is a new vision for engagement by civil society in general and by the ASEAN ACSC/APF for 2017 and beyond. This is a way of overcoming the frustration and vexation felt by CSOs. Accordingly, the Philippine Process of the ACSC/APF has initiated the development of a new vision for ACSC/APF based on people-to-people interactions rather than state-to-state relations or purely market-oriented interactions. The CSO network intends to take the initiative of providing organizational and intellectual leadership for Southeast Asian civil society.
The strategy for the new vision is to build on the existing initiatives and practices at the ground level which are alternative and non-mainstream and which encompass economic, political, and socio-cultural aspects. At the economic level, examples are: people-to-people trade through cooperatives; reviving local markets; social enterprises; sustainable food production systems, organic farming, agroecology, biodiversity, zero-waste production, building forward and backward production and marketing linkages, and, community-based renewable energy systems.
On the political front, the new vision would entail expanding networks and international gatherings of CSOs on environmental issues, human rights, and peace and human security. At the local level, this means looking into alternative modes of governance that are participatory and popularly-based. On the socio-cultural aspect, visual artists and performers are to engage in exchange programs and visits in order to share the richness and diversity of Southeast Asian cultures and arts that are liberative and emancipatory.
From these alternative practices, ACSC/APF will henceforth develop a new form of regional integration from below by:
- Coordinating the interactions between the alternative practices;
- Convening and organizing conferences and workshops of the groups and communities involved in alternative practices;
- Researching and documenting the practices and building a data base;
- Conducting alternative learning and training programs based on grassroots needs;
- Conceptualizing and making sense of the practices and developing new paradigms and strategies of development;
- Mobilizing the entire universe of alternative practices, regional interactions and the communities and organizing joint actions and initiatives;
- Promoting the replication of the alternative practices in order to mainstream them; and,
- Establishing a regional mechanism at the civil society level that is based on the interactions and cooperative practices between these alternative practices.
The above strategy for a people-to-people regional integration does not preclude the continuation of engaging the official ASEAN process as before. This traditional form can continue in order to win concessions on specific issues and concerns and extend support for reform-minded government officials and personnel. It will, however, no longer be the main focus of ACSC/APF as it harnesses its regional network’s members to work for a new Southeast Asian civil society peoples’ integration.
While being initiated at the Philippine level of ACSC/APF, it is hoped by its visionaries that this rethinking of CSO engagement with ASEAN will be adopted as well by other national processes of ASEAN member countries. By the time ACSC/APF convenes in its annual gathering in mid-2017, a unified goal should have been arrived at transforming the eleven-year network and recharging its vibrancy and optimism.
The eleven-year experience of engagement with the official ASEAN process has taught civil society movements in Southeast Asia valuable lessons that should guide its future trajectories. Disappointments, rejections, and disillusionments should now be a thing of the past and chalked up to experience. The real challenge facing ACSC/APF today lies from outside and beyond the established ASEAN process. ACSC/APF must be firmly linked and tightly interconnected with grassroots initiatives and the creative practices of real peoples struggling to carve a better and more dignified life for their families and communities and for the future. ACSC/APF has to take up this challenge or continue to be mired in the old ways that have proven to be ineffectual and counterproductive.
* Eduardo C. Tadem Ph.D. is Co-convenor, ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (ACSC/APF 2017); President, Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC); and Professorial Lecturer of Asian Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman. This paper is based on the ACSC/APF Philippine Process’s vision paper for 2017: “Beyond Boundaries: Solidarities of Peoples in Southeast Asia.”