Published on January 28, 2008
Except for Singapore, members have yet to come forward and fulfil their pledge. Indonesia and the Philippines have admitted that the ratification process in their respective countries could be difficult, if not impossible. Obviously, the state actors have failed to do their jobs; it is imperative that the non-state actors move in and take up the challenge.
Civil society groups based in Asean have to take the lead in ensuring that its citizens have an increased say in the overall scheme of things. In practice, they can transform the elitist Asean attitude downward to the grass-roots level. One could argue that this is the best time for them to work towards such noble objectives.
While the Asean Charter needs a green light from all members before implementation, the civil society groups already have plans for myriad programmes in place that could become operational with appropriate assistance and funding. The dilemma remains whether Asean bureaucrats will render support for these programmes.
After three years of intensive dialogue and engagement among themselves as well as with bureaucrats, the representatives of key regional civil society groups such as the Asean People's Assembly and the Asean Civil Society Conference show a better understanding of and sensitivity towards problems confronting Asean as a whole. After a period of adjustment, these two groups are working and coordinating their meetings and work programmes more than before. Currently they are capable of tackling cross-sectoral issues such as migration and human rights, which used to be the domain of top policy-makers, with doable solutions.
With Asean pledged to move from state-centric to more people-oriented, the role of civil society groups has become indispensable. Their representatives are constantly in the field, listening and bearing witness to day-to-day reality. The gap between independent and government-sponsored civil society groups is also narrowing. Asean leaders need inputs from their societies, apart from their own channels, to assess real societal conditions.
So far, there is no mechanism to guarantee a steady flow of input and consultation between state and non-state actors. In a way, it demonstrates the grouping's recalcitrance towards civil society groups. Most Asean members view them as a direct threat to their authority and sovereignty. Only a few members fully appreciate what the non-state actors are trying to achieve.
Asean leaders agreed to meet briefly with civil society representatives at their summit in Kuala Lumpur back in 2005. Credit should be given to Malaysia for such an initiative. Initially it was perceived as a one-off event. However, it was hard for the bureaucrats to ignore the useful and innovative inputs, even though they were not taken up as policies. The practice was continued at the summits in the Philippines in 2006 and Singapore last November, with some variations depending on the host country.
Thailand is planning more extensive consultations between the grouping's leaders and civil society groups at the summit this year. The Foreign Ministry has already established a good rapport with Thai civil society groups. But it remains to be seen if the host country can push successfully for the setting up of a permanent consultative process.
Asean should learn from the experience of European Union because of its more people-oriented programmes. The mindset of EU bureaucrats accepts civil society contributions as their own because they are realistic and reflect overall public interest. Therefore, taken together, the EU policy's formulations and implementations are more effective. It explains why, in comparison with Asean, the Europeans in general are more attached to EU.
The ability to listen to one another is also crucial. It has taken nearly four decades for the Asean bureaucracy to open up. The civil society groups must nurture this new open space. When some of the Asean civil groups called for a boycott of the Charter, it came as a shock to Asean leaders. Now, both sides are coming to their senses through trial and error. The new Asean secretary-general, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, is reaching out. His first dialogue with civil society representatives from all Asean members is scheduled in Bangkok next week. It is interesting that he is meeting them ahead of Asean foreign ministers. That is the way to go while the Asean Charter awaits ratification. But both sides have to be realistic and aware of each other's potential and limitations. Otherwise, 10 of the 15 objectives in the Charter concerning people's livelihoods and well-being will not be materialised.
The civil society groups must unite in their views and approaches. They must seize the bull by the horns and concentrate on key norms and values such as adherence to democratic values, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.