Asean leaders and civil society groups: Gap Widens

Posted by Kavi Chongkittavorn under ASEAN Watch on 13 October 2009

At the first interface in February 2009, the CSO called on the Asean leaders to treat them as partners and institutionalise the interface to ensure the full implementation of the Asean Charter and people-oriented community

THAILAND'S LONG STANDING plan to institutionalise the interface between Asean leaders and representatives of the more than 70 Asean civil society organisations (CSO) are crumbling. The noble objective of establishing a people-oriented Asean community will remain a pipe dream for the time being.

Last week, at the Asean Joint Coordinating Meeting in Bangkok, aa land locked member proposed any such meeting in the future, including the forthcoming Cha-Am summit (15th Asean summit), should be optional.

Asean senior officials quickly took up Vientiane's idea which reflected readily the high anxiety held by their leaders since the historic event last February during the 14th Asean summit.

With strong support from the majority of Asean members, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand decided to go with the flow. After all, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak would not be able to make it to the scheduled meeting with the CSO. Without them, the numbers of Asean leaders attending the event could further dwindle.

It is highly likely new Asean members (Laos, Cambodia, Burma) would be abstaining given unpleasant encounters in the past. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who almost boycotted the function, was much disturbed by the way the first interface was conducted including the selection process of CSO representatives, especially from his own country. Hun Sen wanted to have his hand-picked CSO representative, not a person chosen among the group.

So too did Burma object to the CSO representative from the Burmese in exile. In the wee hours, to save the interface, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya decided to hold a separate meeting with the Burmese group led by Khin Omar, a coordinator of the Burmese Partnership Network and Cambodian representatives, and Pen Somony, programme coordinator for the Cambodia Volunteers for Civil Society.

The attitude of the incoming Asean chair, Vietnam, to the upcoming interface remained to be seen. Hanoi's absence would certainly spell a death knell to promotion of the nascent dialogue process. At first encounter, Vietnam was forthcoming.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made news headlines by welcoming the idea of listing the interface between the Asean leaders and civil society into the Asean framework. He pointed out there must be a guideline governing such relations as stated in the Asean Charter.

Both Brunei and Singapore are not enthusiastic about the interface as their authorities have constantly questioned the legitimacy of CSO representatives and their mandates as non-state actors. In the 13th Asean summit held in Singapore, there was no such interface, only the CSO reports sent to the leaders via chosen representatives. At earlier summits in Kuala Lumpur and Cebu, there were brief face-to-face meetings between the Asean leaders and CSO members.

At the first interface, the CSO called on the Asean leaders to treat them as partners and institutionalise the interface to ensure the full implementation of the Asean Charter and people-oriented community. They urged the leaders to view them as partners in the grouping's planned integration.

To prevent any possible embarrassment this time, all nominated CSO names must be submitted in advance for approval by Asean senior officials. Each country can only submit one delegate, not two as originally proposed by Thailand. The scheduled informal summits with representatives of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Assembly and the Asean Youth are less controversial and will proceed as planned.

The CSO, comprising more than 70 organisations based in Southeast Asia, will hold a two-day people's forum beginning Sunday in Bangkok to prepare its input for the Asean leaders during the interface. In past months, the CSO has been critical of the terms of reference of the Asean Inter-governmental Commission for Human Rights.

Asean-based human rights activists would like to see the Asean rights mechanism focus on protection as well as promotion and maintain the same universal standards. For instance, the Asean members rejected strongly the idea endorsed by the CSO for periodic review and reporting on the human rights situation in all member countries.

Some Asean senior officials have blamed the CSO for moving far too fast instead of taking an incremental step by step. After all, it would take a long lead time for the Asean leaders before they came to accept the CSO's regular presence and views. Quite a few criticised the host for failure to rein in the CSO during the first interface.

Sad but true, on 23rd October from 11.50 am to 12.20 pm, it is possible less than half the Asean leaders will be attending the scheduled 30-minute meeting with the selective CSO members unless there are seismic changes in the leaders' mindsets. If the other half does not show up, the future of interface is doomed. Vietnam, as the next Asean chair, will certainly work closely with its successor Brunei in 2011 and Cambodia in 2012 to clip the CSO's ever expanding wings of progressive ideas.

Sources and Relevant Links:

The Nation Split between asean leaders and civil society groups widens 12 October 2009

VOA Southeast Asian Rights Groups Call for Better Dialogue With ASEAN Leaders 09 October 2009

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