Put people at Asean's heart

Put people at Asean's heart

I was just a child when the strongmen from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand announced the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the mellow Thai resort town of Bang Saen in 1967.

Back then, few people paid much attention to the bureaucrat-run, security-dominated (and later statistics-filled) discussions, outside of a few corporate executives. Asean was an organisation of authorities, by authorities and for authorities.

Until the past decade or so -- as the winds of democracy started to blow and communication technology and budget air travel brought people together in exciting new ways. As Asean turns 50, things have really started to change.

I agree with Kobsak Chutikul, a retired ambassador and currently secretary-general of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council, that we cannot rest on our laurels, especially in this defining year of change.

"The assumptions on which Asean was built, such as multilateralism driven by the state, globalisation, corporate free trade, and essentially a liberal world order, are now under challenge," he says.

Fifty is just a number, and applies only to half of the current members, after all. Brunei joined the club in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999. So, let's not spend too much time patting ourselves on the back.

Mr Kobsak sees the current global malaise manifested in a backlash against liberal globalisation, disconnection between the grassroots and multilateralism, religious and cultural intolerance, and rising atavistic nationalism. These phenomena can also be seen in Southeast Asia.

Asean talks a lot about "people-centered" development but has not done a good job of securing grassroots understanding and support, he says.

Meanwhile, the Asean obsession with non-interference is becoming a stumbling block to meaningful change. The Asean Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), launched in 2009, is one group that believes it cannot do its job if it is prevented from responding to concerns raised in various corners.

Edmund Bon Tai Soon, Malaysia's AICHR representative, says a fresh communication procedure is needed to help the group "engage more on human rights challenges in the region".

There have been a few forums to take stock in this 50th anniversary year and discuss the immediate challenges Asean is facing -- from the new US presidency to the post-Brexit EU, the rise of China and India, and so on.

But Akihiko Tanaka, a professor of international politics from the University of Tokyo, believes it's also a time to focus on practical activities, such as trade.

"Though Japan would love to flex its muscle with its partners to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership, reality tells us that the best way is to push forward the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)," he said in Bangkok last week. "And it's to the benefit of China, Japan and Indonesia to add flesh and bones to it."

He also favours a vigorous effort to reach a swift conclusion on a code of conduct for resolving disputes in the South China Sea.

Lastly, he said, Asean must not slow down its drive for connectivity as it is the only way to make the region vibrant and relevant again.

The means pursuing even more ambitious investments in maritime and continental links, said Mr Tanaka, who used to work with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

"Revisiting the plans and making them not just intra-Asean but connected on to India and Bangladesh is necessary," said the scholar with the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia.

He also made a plea for Asean members to smarten the Asean secretariat -- with a merit-based system instead of rotation by nationality -- so the Jakarta-based bureaucracy can respond better to policy challenges.

And lest you think that decades in journalism have made me grumpy and cynical, let me say that I too have a place in my heart for Asean.

Over the years I have seen many politicians and low-profile officials in various member countries working quietly and tirelessly to defuse touchy situations such as border conflicts, and on genuine community-building.

The young generation today may not realise that just three or four decades ago, we were still trying to sabotage one another in a toxic atmosphere of ideological or ultra-nationalistic competition.

So, it's in the best interests of all of us to make Asean work by engaging, commenting and helping it to be more effective and caring for the people, not just state and corporate interests.

With love and solidarity to all those who walk this path.

Achara Ashayagachat

Senior reporter on socio-political issues

Bangkok Post's senior reporter on socio-political issues.

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