ASEAN Governments reluctant to embrace region’s diverse civil society

~ By Dr James Gomez ~

Although civil society  engagement with ASEAN has deepened over the years, its governments are still reluctant  to fully embrace the region’s diverse people’s movement, opting for “selective” engagement.

This was evident from  the civil society event held from 29-31 March in Phnom Penh to mark Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012 and the ASEAN summit.

This year the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) – an annual regional platform by civil society groups to debate ideas, formulate proposals for ASEAN, exchange experiences and undertake joint actions in the region – did not receive a warm welcome.

Instead, this year, four workshops organized by the ACSC/APF were forced to move from their main venue at the Lucky Star Hotel when the venue owners under pressure from the authorities did not allow these workshops to take place.

Three of the workshops dealt with land rights, evictions and environments issues and the fourth focused on Burma’s current political and human rights situation and the challenges posed to the country’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014.

Instead, there was confusion this year as the Cambodian government chose to recognize a government supported NGO meeting that saw participation by CONGOs and its representativesfrom the different ASEAN countries.

ACSC/APF started in 2005 during Malaysia’s chairmanship of ASEAN and has since been held in the Philippines in 2006, Singapore in 2007, Thailand in 2009, Vietnam in 2010 and Indonesia in 2011. The next summits in 2013 will be held in Brunei and in 2014in Myanmar.

The lesson drawn from this year’s ACSC/APF meeting is that ASEAN governments are practicing selective engagement with “approved” civil society groups.

Hence, if the Cambodian authorities pressured some of this year’s activities, it remains to be seen what will happen when Brunei and Myanmar host the ASEAN summits in 2013 and 2014.

Far from transforming ASEAN into a people-centered community, actions of certain ASEAN governments instead centre on interrupting the voice of the ASEAN people.

Such action shows up the continuous risk that the role of civil society will be “dumbed down” by ASEAN states, especially in areas pertaining to human rights.

Singapore’s delegation this year to the ACSC/APF was made up of representatives from MARUAH, Singaporeans For Democracy and Think Centre.

Dr. James Gomez spoke on the topic of “Three ASEAN Blueprints (Economic,Political-Security, Socio-Cultural Cooperation) – Human Rights Perspectives on the Implementation of the Blueprints” at the ASEAN Civil SocietyConference/ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) 2012