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"The Case of the Missing Civil Society Organisations CSO at the ASEAN Summit", a Commentary by Hoang Thi Ha

Commentary 2016/57, 7 September 2016

ASEAN Leaders met with representatives from the business sector, youth groups and parliamentarians on the sidelines of the 28th ASEAN Summit yesterday in Vientiane, but civil society organisations (CSO) were noticeably absent this time. This does not come as a surprise since the intermittent convening of the ASEAN Leaders-CSO interface over the years has become a regular reminder of ASEAN’s uneasy relationship with CSOs in the region.

First convened in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, the interface was expected to provide a high-level channel of communication between ASEAN Leaders and grassroots groups, thereby allaying criticisms of ASEAN being too exclusive and elite-driven. With only up to 30 minutes of exchange, the significance of the interface carries more symbolism than substance. Nevertheless, it remains an important manifestation of ASEAN’s efforts to project itself as a people-centred, people-oriented organisation.

Alas, good intentions offer no guarantee of the desired outcomes, especially when the expectations and perspectives from both sides are too diverging. The whole process of ASEAN-CSO interface has been sporadically peppered with distrust and adversarial posturing. Before the Vientiane Summit, the ASEAN leaders-CSO interface was dropped from the summit programme in 2010 (Vietnam), 2013 (Brunei Darussalam) and 2014 (Myanmar). It was navigated smoothly in 2011 (Indonesia) and 2015 (Malaysia) but had some uncomfortable moments in 2009 (Thailand) and 2012 (Cambodia). The convening of the interface is subject to the discretion of the ASEAN Chair, and the prospect of institutionalising this dialogue looks dim.

At the center of this conundrum is the appointment process of CSO representatives to the interface. The ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF), the annual assembly of CSO from all ASEAN countries, takes upon itself the right to elect the representatives, some of whom may hold dissenting views towards ASEAN member governments. As a matter of procedure and to institute political safeguards, ASEAN required that all CSO representatives must be government-appointed, thereby warding off the critical voices which are considered alien to its quiet diplomacy.

Underlying this debate over government-appointed CSO versus independent CSO and the absence of the CSO interface at the Vientiane Summit is the lack of mutual understanding or accommodation between a growing civil society that wants more say in regional governance and the ASEAN way of inter-governmentalism. This year, the ACSC/APF chose to meet in Dili instead of Vientiane, arguing that they are concerned over possible restrictions on freedom of expression although Laos allegedly stated that they are willing to host the event. At the end of the day, the CSOs must reflect on yet another lost opportunity for engagement at ASEAN’s highest political platform.

Perhaps a more effective approach is for ASEAN to engage with CSO at the functional and sectoral level instead of focusing on “publicity exercises” at the Summit level. From disaster relief to education, human rights to social welfare, ASEAN bodies and relevant CSOs have undertaken modest but concrete steps to help provide an enabling environment for meaningful and constructive engagement to promote human security and human development in the region. This practical approach may not be headlines-grabbing, but has nevertheless proven to be more rewarding on the ground, in addition to building trust and raising comfort levels between both sides.  

ASEAN’s challenge is to change the prevailing mindsets on both sides – member states and CSOs – to build constructive partnerships towards a people-centred and people-oriented regional organisation. Differences between governments and civil society are to be expected, and therein lies the rationale for political spaces like the interface. What is needed now is a sense of openness and willingness to understand and respect each other’s roles and constraints.

Ms Hoang Thi Ha is Fellow at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.