Asean needs to be more 'people-centred' to be relevant: The Jakarta Post

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (centre, front) with ASEAN delegates as well as Ambassadors to Myanmar of the USA, Japan and China pose for a family photo during the Commemorative Ceremony of 50th Anniversary of ASEAN in Naypyitaw, Myanma
Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (centre, front) with ASEAN delegates as well as Ambassadors to Myanmar of the USA, Japan and China pose for a family photo during the Commemorative Ceremony of 50th Anniversary of ASEAN in Naypyitaw, Myanmar on Aug 14, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

PENANG (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - While more and more individuals have become aware of Asean's existence, few understand what it does and perhaps even fewer identify themselves with it.

This begs the question of what good Asean is if its citizens fail to appreciate its existence.

Asean leaders recently celebrated its 50 years. In 2015, under Malaysia's chairmanship, the leaders agreed to adopt a declaration to make Asean a people-oriented and people-centred organisation.

This declaration is in a way an acknowledgement of the organisation's shortcomings in spite of its achievements. One of Asean's biggest achievements is its ability to cultivate a culture of dialogue and consultations that have encouraged member countries to exchange ideas and deal with their differences, and in so doing build confidence and overcome distrust. Southeast Asia has been able to remain peaceful and Asean's diplomatic and economic standings have increased over time - which its people should appreciate.

Yet gratitude comes more from a direct than an indirect relationship.

A people-centred Asean is not merely about explaining to the wider population what the community is. New spaces must be opened up for people to experience Asean and be part of the process.

One area that Asean has shown efforts is the youth sector, where various programmes are being implemented to promote Asean awareness and provide youths with the opportunities to contribute to its development.

Inclusivity is the key to generating appreciation for Asean. However, selective inclusivity, for example supporting participation by those willing to subscribe to Asean's ideals while being reluctant to engage those who criticise, will not likely produce desired results.

Since 2005, the Asean Peoples' Forum and the Asean Civil Society Conference (ACSC) that represents civil society organisations (CSOs) that take a critical look at issues such as human rights, discrimination and inequality, justice, democratic process and good governance, have not been able to meaningfully engage Asean.

Their 2016 statement read, "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". After 12 years the Forum and many of its members remain outside of the listed "Entities associated with Asean".

They have also criticised a number of Asean mechanisms that support the "people-centred" notion including the Asean Charter and the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). They even wanted to create their own Asean People's Charter.

Therein lies the contention and disconnect between an elite-driven Asean and cause-driven CSOs like the People's Forum. Asean produces statements that show the organisation's forward thinking, but are short in delivery.

Asean's test of its resolve in transforming itself into a people-centred body representing a community of 625 million people cannot only be measured by the number of people-to-people exchanges across the region, or how cheaper goods and services from reduced tariffs have benefited the public.

More imperatively its resolve to become people-centred must be measured by its ability to listen attentively and work with CSOs to genuinely overcome human security threats. Those threats include displacement of people, kidnapping and disappearance of people, corruption, land grabbing, exploiting and trafficking migrants, impunity, environmental degradation, sexual discrimination, extra-judicial killing - and more.

A classic example is the failure of the organisation to address the alleged atrocities against the Rohingya and their displacement. How can Asean become people-centred when the Rohingya issue could be kept out of their agenda in the name of non-interference, while it was actively discussed in the UN Human Rights Council of which Indonesia and the Philippines are current members?

The unimproved situation of the Rohingyas and their land confiscation were among issues highlighted by Yanghee Lee, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, after her latest visit to Myanmar in July 2017.

Lee even appealed to Asean "to take a 'non-indifference' stance" on Myanmar. Asean's silence has indeed been deafening.

Worse, reports indicate a growing threat from Islamic State (IS) supporters willing to get involved in support of the Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar as IS expands to Southeast Asia.

Asean keeps mum over allegations of human rights violations and its human rights arm - the AICHR - has no jurisdiction to protect victims despite its purpose to "promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of the peoples of Asean".

What CSOs consider as issues fit for discussion at the regional level are at times viewed by the Asean elites as "sensitive" and under the purview of individual member states. This disjuncture must be bridged if Asean is to positively transform itself.

One way to bridge the division is to develop rigorous spaces for consultations at differing levels between Asean officials and civil-society movements. Genuine rather than superficial engagement is of utmost importance to develop mutual trust and to bring people-focused issues to the fore.

A people-centred Asean enforces effective regional governance by working with multiple levels of non-state actors regardless of their political orientations to address threats to peoples' wellbeing.

For this purpose Asean should establish robust mechanisms to not only protect its citizens but also uphold their right to live in dignity.

The writer is an associate professor at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia and is an associate fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.