Civil groups get ignored again
The 34th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) under Thailand's chairmanship is to wrap up today in what is known as a retreat. The grouping with 10 member countries made some progress on certain issues that deserve recognition, but there are some issues that are less than satisfactory, especially when it comes to the group giving the cold shoulder to civil society groups.
Thailand took over the Asean chair from Singapore and hosted the summit under the theme "Advancing Partnership for Sustainability". There will be a declaration of the leaders' vision for sustainability along with an operational plan to fix the problem of maritime pollution, among others.
On the positive side is a move from Thailand to further develop the concept of smart cities which was the highlight of Singapore's time as chair last year; and assigning the Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia (Eria) to study proposals for the topic "Asean Vision 2040: Towards a Bolder and Stronger Asean Community".
There is an expectation that Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations could be finalised this year.
But not all is well regarding the role of regional civic groups, which are collectively known as the Asean Civil Society and People Forum. It is reported that their calls from for an "interface" meeting with Asean leaders were rejected and a plan for a parallel meeting was aborted. This is a disappointment.
In fact, there has been no interface dialogue between the civil society groups and the Asean leaders for three years. The last interface meeting was in 2015 which took place at the summit under Malaysia's chairmanship. When the summit took place under Singapore last year, the meeting was restricted and isolated from the leaders.
Representatives of civic groups were told they needed approval from all 10 member countries for the interface meeting, but it turned out that only three member countries, namely Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, gave the nod.
Two countries turned away and the remainder were silent.
Yet the officials offered some kind words, saying they should not lose all hope.
The Thai Foreign Ministry said such a meeting might take place at the second summit in November, and, even though the civic groups could not meet the leaders this time, they could still discuss issues of concern with senior officials, it added.
One senior official said: "The door has not completely shut" and they could try again for the November summit, sending proposals for meetings beforehand.
But that could be just rhetoric, or worse, an empty promise.
The civic leaders have no intention of hiding their disappointment at being let down.
Suntaree Saeng-ging, regional coordinator of HomeNet Southeast Asia, said shortly before this weeks' summit that without the presence of the civil society groups, the event "would be just a ceremonial talk shop".
The activist insisted a strong social presence was needed at the summit to help ensure the voices of the people are heard.
In past years, Asean has faced a number of challenges, with some sensitive issues that could cause tension among member countries like the Rohingya and humanitarian crises, and investment projects by some businesses from bigger countries that have an adverse impact on the livelihoods of local communities and the environment in neighbouring countries.
Asean, which is run mostly by state bureaucrats, is known for its principle of non-interference in other members' internal affairs, but members of the bloc will face increasing demands to strike a balance between taking responsibility over good causes, especially when it comes to humanitarianism, while trying to minimise chances of rifts with the involved countries.
It should be noted that strengthened state-to-state ties among Asean member countries have resulted in repression or rights violations of activists, resulting in disappearances and even mysterious deaths like that of political activists seeking refuge in Laos.
This may be the reason for some Asean states to reject outright the participation of the civic groups in this summit.
But it's not right for the bloc to marginalise the civic groups which, given their work with the grassroots, are in a position to discuss policy issues in a participatory format.
Unless Asean embraces or incorporates the views of civic groups in its operation, the group's aspiration for being a "people-centred community" will be seen as derisive rhetoric and its motto of "leaving no one behind" will be challenged.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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