(Posted by CAAI News Media)
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Oct 19 (IPS) - A summit of regional leaders due to begin in Thailand on Oct. 23 has brought into relief a rift within the 10-member bloc about the space that should be given to civil society voices at such a gathering.
This political faultline comes at a time when the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) moves ahead to reinvent itself as a rules-based, people-centred regional body by 2015. An ASEAN charter came into force in December last year in this effort to create a body that closely resembles the European Union (EU) in some ways.
ASEAN, whose members include Brunei, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, was initially established in 1967 at the height of the Cold War to serve as a bulwark against the spread of communism.
Thailand, as the host of the 15th ASEAN summit in Cha-am, a resort town south of Bangkok, was hoping to cement a permanent place for an encounter between government leaders and representatives of the region’s non- governmental organisations (NGOs), said a diplomatic source.
For now, the summit’s agenda still says so. A meeting between the two groups is still on the cards from 11:50 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. on the opening day of the Cha-am meeting.
Yet the reality is otherwise, the diplomatic source from a South-east Asian country revealed to IPS. "Objections have been raised by Laos, echoing the concerns already expressed by Myanmar and Cambodia," the diplomat added. "The relevance of this engagement between ASEAN leaders and civil society is to be downgraded."
A well-informed Thai columnist on South-east Asian affairs has shed more light on what appears to be a move by countries that have no semblance of a democracy -- or ones that come down strongly on critical voices at home -- to convert this NGO-ASEAN leaders engagement into an informal exchange.
"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," wrote Kavi Chongkittavorn in a commentary this week in ‘The Nation’, an English-language daily.
"Last week, at the ASEAN Joint Coordinating Meeting in Bangkok, a landlocked member proposed any such meeting in the future, including the forthcoming Cha-am summit, should be optional," he wrote. "ASEAN senior officials quickly took up Vientiane’s idea, which reflected the high anxiety held by their leaders since the historic event last February during the 14th ASEAN summit."
When pressed if this move did signify a "downgrading" of this meeting at future summits, a senior Thai foreign ministry official offered a diplomatic response. "We would like to see civil society participation at the ASEAN summit as a permanent pillar," said Vitavas Srivihok, director general of the ASEAN affairs department. "But we have to take a realistic approach, respecting the political development and internal process of each ASEAN country."
"Next year this meeting may come in the form of a seminar, a dinner or a reception," he adds, referring to the 16th summit to be hosted by Vietnam, one of the two ASEAN countries governed by communist parties. Laos, the region’s poorest country, is the other.
But that is not all that exposes a reluctance by ASEAN leaders to meet NGO representatives at the summit. A selection criteria of who speaks on behalf of civil society has been introduced, giving authority to the foreign ministry from, say, military-ruled Burma to approve who makes up the NGO delegation from its country.
"All the names of civil society representatives have to be sent through foreign ministries. Our colleagues from Myanmar, in particular, wanted this," Vitavas confirmed. "But this is not true with all countries. Thailand will give our civil society the full freedom to nominate their names."
Little wonder why NGO leaders are alarmed at this turn of events, marking a slide backwards from the benchmark that was set in February, when Thailand hosted the 14th ASEAN summit in Cha-am.
Using deft diplomacy, the hosts succeeded in holding for the first time in ASEAN’s 42-year-history a formal, face-to-face meeting between government leaders and NGO representatives that lasted 20 minutes. Strong protests by Burmese Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein and his Cambodian counterpart, Hun Sen – both of whom threatened to walk out of that meeting – had to be accommodated, denying the presence of the Burmese and Cambodian NGO delegates at this interface.
"We were hopeful that the success of the last ASEAN summit would be repeated. We wanted the interface to be institutionalised," said Yuyun Wahyuningrum, the East Asia programme manager of the Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development, a regional lobby group. "But we are disappointed at what we are hearing. Making this meeting optional will be downgrading its importance."
"The new selection criteria is also a problem," she said in an interview. "It is creating a climate of fear among civil society activists coming from countries like Burma and Laos."
"Why are the ASEAN leaders afraid of us?" she asked. "We are trying to build a dialogue. This interface is important to make civil society visible as our commitment to the people-centred ASEAN mentioned in the charter."
A watered-down civil society encounter with the region’s leader will expose the credibility of ASEAN, added Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, who moderated the dialogue between government leaders and NGO representative at the last summit. "It comes at a critical moment when ASEAN is trying to make itself an inclusive, people- friendly body, than a club for government leaders and bureaucrats."
"The ASEAN charter is being violated by this effort to ignore the importance of civil society," he told IPS. "It will end up bankrupt if it keeps doing more of this."