NONTHABURI - For the first time in five years, a formal meeting took place between Asean's foreign ministers and civil society groups as part of the Asean summit and related meetings.
On Saturday (Nov 2), nine civil society activists from eight Asean countries met Thailand's foreign minster Don Pramudwinai, his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah, as well as senior foreign ministry officials from six other Asean states to highlight the most pressing issues that were raised during the annual Asean Civil Society Conference held in September. The governments and civil society of Laos and Brunei were not represented at the meeting.
Ms Rachel Arinii Judhistari, who represented Indonesian civil society groups during the meeting, said she and her colleagues highlighted to officials the need to address the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, to look into environmental concerns, as well as examine the potential impact of the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact on Asean people.
"It seemed there was some willingness to listen to our suggestions on partnership building, but when we raised concerns about human rights and environmental issues this interest seemed to evaporate," she said in a statement released by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia).
The Asean Civil Society Conference is an annual gathering of civil society groups that is usually held in the country chairing the 10-nation bloc each year. During this conference, also called the Asean People's Forum, participants discuss the issues most important to local communities, which they bring up at a face-to-face meeting with Asean leaders during the summit.
The forum was started in 2005. Whether civil society representatives eventually get to have a formal meeting with Asean leaders depends on the country chairing Asean each year.
This year's forum was mired in some controversy after the Thai government, which was co-hosting the September event with civil society groups, wanted organisers to submit a list of participants for screening beforehand. The organisers baulked as this might expose some participants to persecution by their own states, so decided to fund the event themselves outside Bangkok. Over 1,000 people took part in the discussions.
In a press conference on Saturday, the activists expressed hope that Vietnam - which will become Asean chairman next year - will give support to the annual civil society gathering to take place during its term.