KUALA LUMPUR - The co-chair of the civil society forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is voicing a blunt plea to the leaders of the regional organization, saying, “Hey, take us seriously because we are serious about supporting and defending the people of ASEAN.”
Jerald Joseph and other top representatives of the ASEAN civil society conference and ASEAN People’s Forum vented their frustration Thursday at a news conference attended by only a handful of the hundreds of reporters accredited to the 27th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur.
“We are your people ... we are not imported. We live here. We breathe daily the issues. We struggle trying to fight for our rights,” Joseph said to the reporters in the hope they would relay the message to the ASEAN leaders who have rebuffed their requests for meetings.
"It is a little sad" none of the leaders agreed to spare even 15 minutes to hear civil societies’ concerns, said Joseph, a Malaysian human rights activist.
The Philippines did consent to have one of its ambassadors meet Thursday with some ASEAN civil society representatives, and three European Union states engaged them in a 90-minute dialogue the previous day.
“There’s a lot more space and respect for civil society in Europe,” Joseph said.
Out of sight
If the civil society representatives were not totally out of mind, they were relatively out of sight. Their event was held three kilometers from the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center, the main summit venue.
The civil society organizations’ nine-point outcome statement is an anomaly at ASEAN summits, which seem to deliberately avoid any provocative decrees.
“Given the apathetic and dismal response by ASEAN to the interventions and recommendations of the ASEAN civil society in the last 10 years of engagement, we are compelled to question the meaningfulness of the rhetoric on people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN,” the statement said.
“We’ve been repeating it for 10 years,” Joseph said. “It’s like a broken record. We want something for the machine that plays the record to start working.”
"It’s like trying to nail jelly to the wall or banging our heads against the wall," said Phil Robertson, Asia division deputy director at Human Rights Watch, in a speech Wednesday at the civil society conference. "It’s a dialogue where one side talks, the other side pretends to listen."
In principle, ASEAN, the region’s primary political and economic organization, does not interfere in the internal affairs of its member states. That has led to criticism that portrays the forum as an ineffectual talking shop where serious regional diplomacy or conflict resolution are eschewed.
Eighteen documents, ranging from statements on climate change to regional maritime cooperation, are to be adopted by the ASEAN leaders, according to host Malaysia’s foreign affairs minister Anifah Aman. In addition, the leaders on Saturday are to sign a convention against human trafficking.
The summit will also inaugurate the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC, equivalent to the world's seventh-largest economy and intended to create a highly competitive single market and production base with a population exceeding 600 million people.
The civil society groups have reservations about the AEC, contending the regional economic integration plan “does not hold corporations accountable for violations of human rights and social and environmental standards.”
Little hope for change
Activists and others have little expectation such concerns will be reflected in the final ASEAN communiqués.
“Most governments in the world don’t particularly want to be told what to do by non-government organizations,” said Grover Joseph Rees, former U.S. ambassador to Timor-Leste. “Several governments in this region have a theory that if you’re not connected to the government, you’re somehow illegitimate.”
Reese, who has participated in numerous ASEAN civil society conferences, noted Southeast Asia’s “still-Marxist governments, Vietnam and Laos, which have their own fake non-governmental organizations, which in fact are here in this room. And they make independent NGO’s illegal.”
That was also the situation in Myanmar until recently, and Cambodia also “has a lot of fake NGO’s, which show up at these meetings,” Rees said.
Some observers, however, also see ASEAN civil society as partly responsible for its own ineffectiveness during the past decade as its outcome statements focused more on attacking multinational corporations rather than criticizing governments.
Left-wing NGO’s “were not particularly interested in protecting victims of left-wing governments,” Rees said.
The civil society forums have also sprinkled their documents with demands considered abrasive by ASEAN bureaucrats and diplomats.
Focus on human rights
Lately, observers have noted the civil society organizations’ outcome documents have moderated a bit.
“They’ve been getting more focused on human rights, less focused on boutique issues,” said Rees. “But that doesn’t make the ASEAN governments any more willing to listen.”
The civil society conference and people's forum will not try to voice their concerns at next year's summit in Laos. After the Lao government prohibited such topics as human rights to be raised, the non-governmental organizations decided to move their 2016 events to Timor-Leste.
In Laos, there is an "absence of assurance of a safe space for open and constructive discussions," said the groups' outcome statement.