Tuesday, September 19, 2017

How to make ASEAN truly people-centred

The other day State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi minced no words, saying that a viable ASEAN Community would need people’s support – moving toward the people-oriented and people-centred community laid out in the ASEAN Charter and ASEAN Vision 2025.

However, as the group celebrated its 50th anniversary on August 8, a frequently asked question throughout member countries was, ‘What is the difference between the ASEAN-oriented and ASEAN-centred community?’ For the public, these two people-focused principles just use different words to say the same thing. But in ASEAN circles, the two terms are quite dissimilar, both in meaning and connotation.

Strictly interpreted, the term ‘ASEAN-oriented’ would apply to all initiatives coming from the top, or from government/state sources. It was introduced and discussed by senior officials when they were drafting the ASEAN Charter in 2008.

Officials from the more conservative ASEAN member states are more comfortable with it, because in their systems the government plays a crucial rule in initiating policies and implementing them.

However, all the charter drafters, deep down, held a noble and wider objective, and that was to come up with a people’s charter that would place ASEAN citizens at the centre of the policies and programs of the regional association. Original ASEAN members Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia preferred the concept of a people-centred community, which gave a better feel to those who are familiar with the aims and purposes of ASEAN.

After lengthy debate, ASEAN leaders meeting at the 2014 Summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, decided to use both terms next to each other in official ASEAN documents.

In retrospect, such was the first tussle that policymakers had to contend with when they wanted to turn ASEAN, an association comprising 640 million people, into a people-oriented and people-centred community.

For the supporters of the ‘people-centred’ concept of ASEAN, this approach focuses on the role of citizens, either working in non-governmental organisations or representing the grassroots, in initiating ideas and projects that serve their communities without needing or seeking sanction from local governments or government departments. The public’s involvement in community projects would give them a strong sense of ownership of their development.

‘ASEAN Vision 2025’ – which outlines more than 500 action plans that aim to truly transform ASEAN into a people-oriented and people-centred organisation – also includes measures to transform ASEAN into a democratic community promoting and protecting human rights.

It was in 2005 when Malaysia, as ASEAN chair, started the interface between ASEAN leaders and representatives of ASEAN-based civil society organisations. This was perceived as an excellent way to have leaders and other stakeholders in the ASEAN project communicate with each other directly. However, judging from the past decade’s experience, this interface at times turned into shouting matches, with the naming and shaming of ASEAN leaders. This animosity tarnished the original purpose of the interface between governments and civil society and holds lessons for ASEAN and civil society advocates, who are reviewing this relationship after more than a decade.

In the future, both sides need to start consultations early and adopt a broader outlook to make the most of interactive dialogues. It is also urgent that agreements on themes and consultations be discussed and prepared beforehand. A better understanding of the ground rules will make future rounds of this interface far smoother – and far more fruitful.

Beyond rules, processes and formats, however, a better and wider understanding and appreciation of the role of CSOs in assisting states and promoting improved quality of life in the region, as well as protecting human rights and dignity, would serve ASEAN well, given the wide mix of political environments among its member states.

Beyond these venues, ASEAN citizens must be empowered through capacity-building programs that aim to increase their awareness of opportunities and challenges generated by greater, deeper integration with the ASEAN Community and bring ASEAN closer to the level of everyday lives.


Kavi Chongkittavorn is editor-in-chief of The Myanmar Times.