By Raksha Mahtani
The ASEAN Youth Forum (AYF) made history on 11th May as the first regional youth forum to engage with ASEAN leaders in an interface meeting at the ASEAN Summit 2014 in host country Myanmar. It hoped to include youth civil society voices from all member countries.
However, only 3 of the 10 member countries approved the ASEAN Youth Forum elected delegates – Myanmar, Philippines and Indonesia. The remaining 7 countries rejected the submitted names of the AYF representatives, choosing instead to replace them with government-selected delegates.
The question remained – could the AYF still continue to be representative of the region’s youth interests without recognition from member countries?
The AYF, also known as the ASEAN Youth Movement, came together 2 years ago. Since its beginning, the AYF has been consulting youth civil society representatives from around the region in an annual Youth Forum. Representing Sayoni, I was honoured to witness their regional participation in 2014 as the Singapore representative at the ASEAN Youth Forum and speak with the official delegates.
The most recent meeting took place on 21 – 23 March 2014, hosted at Yangon University in Yangon, Myanmar. Its welcoming host, the Myanmar Youth Empowerment Programme, mobilised youth volunteers from the city and surrounding provinces.
Its leader, Thet Swe Win, managed to organise with limited resources a Myanmar youth consultation, elect national representatives, and host regional representatives at the March regional youth forum. Similarly, Indonesia and the Philippines also held national forums to select country representatives to the AYF.
The outcome document of the March meeting was the Yangon Declaration, or the ASEAN Youth Statement 2014, that summarised the AYF’s goals: the promotion of non-discrimination, equality, protection, sustainability and inclusive development for the ASEAN youth community.
The importance of the ASEAN Interface meeting – 30 minutes in length – presented a chance for the ASEAN Youth Forum to engage with regional leaders, present their interests on a regional platform and seek inclusion in the outcome document and action plan of the 2014 ASEAN Summit.
Cambodian AYF representative Chau Sophon stressed the importance of regional engagement. She said, “Cambodian youth issues on youth unemployment and migrant labour remain unheard on a national level. These are issues I want our official delegates to represent.”
Cambodia was among the 7 countries to send government-selected delegates to the ASEAN Summit. The rest included Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei.
Determined to make full use of the Interface meeting despite these setbacks, the AYF engaged individually with the other official youth delegates in an open discussion. Without compromising the issues and language of the Yangon Declaration, the AYF delegates and the government appointed delegates came to a consensus to support the presentation of the Declaration at the Interface.
The Interface Summit took place Sunday, 11 May 2014, at 3pm, with Myanmar’s official delegate Phwe Yu Mon reading a summary of the Declaration.
The Declaration called for recognition of Southeast Asian youth voices. It took on an inclusive, rights-based focus in conjunction with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), both of which have been ratified by ASEAN member states.
More significantly, it called for youth participation in the Review of the Terms of Reference of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to ensure representation of youth interests within a regional human rights authority. With this, AYF hopes to bring cases of region-wide human rights violations to AICHR’s attention.
It also called for affirmative action within ASEAN countries to address the needs and aspirations of youth in the Post-2015 Development agenda for the region.
Stressing the values of meaningful participation, transparency and accountability, the ASEAN Youth Forum aim to represent youth communities left marginalized and vulnerable by state laws and policies. Such communities include: youth with disabilities, youth migrant workers, indigenous youth, youth of diverse sexual orientation, gender identities, and gender expression, young people living in poverty and/or conflict, adolescent girls and youth living with HIV.
At an informal networking session with ASEAN leaders, Philippines’ official delegate Phillip Willard said that the experience at the ASEAN Summit was incredibly fruitful on both a regional and local level.
Speaking with the Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino III, Willard elaborated on a national educational programme called Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) that has already been put in place to help marginalised youth communities to afford and access education. He added, “The President also invited us to join the effort and follow up with them to ensure that implementation takes place.”
Official Singaporean delegate Foo Shih Shun from the Singapore Youth Council found the experience to be very fulfilling, especially to be included as a shadow to Singapore’s delegation to the ASEAN Summit. In an interview, he shared, “Throughout the process, we learnt a lot about the issues on the youth and children, especially those that come from a low income background. Education really allows them to rise up and break out of this poverty cycle.”
Indonesian delegate Moren Hutapea also had positive feedback from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He commended the AYF for their initiative and enthusiasm and encouraged them to develop their relationship further to work towards integrating youth issues into the national agenda.
The effects of the Interface are yet to be seen.
Attempting to engage with official delegates could easily have worked against the AYF – the process could have otherwise compromised their rights-based focus at the mercy of individual state interests.
Should they even be engaging with government-selected delegates then if independent youth civil society interests are to be fairly represented? As it stands, ASEAN operates on consensus-based principles. With varying degrees of openness to youth civil society engagement in member states, region-wide measures – however successful – would be difficult to implement.
Nevertheless, the success of the AYF lies in its continued effort to claim regional spaces and lobby government-selected delegates.
“The Summit gave us a chance to discuss with the Malaysian Government about the chairmanship of next year’s ASEAN Youth Forum,” Willard adds. Plans for engagement on the 2015 consultation meeting in Malaysia are already being formulated – and representation is high on the agenda.
The collective voice of ASEAN Youth is more than just an echo now – it has been heard. Time will tell if compromise will factor into the agenda too.
Photo credit – The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, President Office