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The promise and perils of democratising Asean

The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) has committed to being a regional organisation that serves the interests of its people. Although often criticised as being detached from the masses, Asean has stepped up efforts to engage its 645 million-strong community.

Foreign ministers of  Asean member states with Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh (far right) at the opening ceremony of the 50th Asean Regional Forum in Pasay City, the Philippines, on Aug 5. Critics decrying Asean’s elitism ignore the reality that Asean is a creation of its member states. Photo: Reuters

Foreign ministers of Asean member states with Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh (far right) at the opening ceremony of the 50th Asean Regional Forum in Pasay City, the Philippines, on Aug 5. Critics decrying Asean’s elitism ignore the reality that Asean is a creation of its member states. Photo: Reuters

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The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) has committed to being a regional organisation that serves the interests of its people. Although often criticised as being detached from the masses, Asean has stepped up efforts to engage its 645 million-strong community.

Openings have been made for civil society organisations, business leaders and the youth to engage the heads of state and government at Asean summits. The Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights meets regularly with civil society groups, which also meet policy officials under the auspices of the Asean Forum on Migrant Labour.

These measures may still fall short of the Asean citizenry’s expectations of greater inclusion in regional processes.

But Asean’s hands are bound by its organising principle as an intergovernmental organisation. Herein lies the dilemma for its “people-oriented, people-centred” aspiration.

In 2006, the Eminent Persons Group on the Asean Charter recommended the term “people-centred Asean”. Senior officials drafting the charter agreed instead on “people-oriented”.

The decision to merge the two approaches did little to reconcile these separate ends of a long continuum, and raised unrealistic hopes for a more democratic Asean. The people-centred approach implies bottom-up inputs from discussions or processes led “by the people”. It shakes up Asean’s intergovernmental foundation, in which regional cooperation is undertaken by governments “for the people”. These governments comprise elected representatives “of the people”.

Perceptions of what constitutes representation create the criticism that Asean processes are disconnected from people’s aspirations.

Although Asean documents have highlighted the vision and commitment to engage more with the people, expectations differ on how this engagement will be carried out.

Asean governments view civil society’s role more in implementing Asean decisions, and engage civil society groups in functional aspects of project delivery or as volunteers in regional responses to disasters and emergencies.

On the other hand, civil society wishes to have a larger role in the decision-making process.

Since 1967, states have led the setting of Asean’s community-building objectives. It is unlikely that decision-making on regional affairs will be transferred downwards overnight. Even the Asean Charter, which binds member states to comply with regional commitments, stipulates that the heads of state/government make the final decision.

By this token, pooling sovereignty via an Asean Parliament, where the people would have direct input into Asean processes and decisions, is far-fetched at this point.

Critics decrying Asean’s elitism ignore the reality that Asean is a creation — warts and all — of its member states. In its fullest sense, democratising Asean would entail allowing South-east Asians to bypass national governments for decisions, and use regional mechanisms to impose conditions on a member state. This runs counter to a key principle of inter-state relations that Asean has upheld since its founding: Non-interference in domestic affairs.

Viewed from this perspective, it becomes clearer why broadening the participation of citizenry in regional affairs may seem anathema to Asean governments. They have noted the lesson of how populist refrains bemoaning that the fate of the United Kingdom is decided by Brussels and not Westminster, ultimately led to Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Deeper political integration in Asean will not happen by pooling sovereignty. Asean at 50 will continue to keep the current boundaries of its political and security cooperation. However imperfect, the top-down approach still allows Asean governments to represent and protect the collective interests of their people.

But continuing with this approach gives neither cause nor rationale for Asean member states to sideline the voices and concerns of the people. Proponents of a more transparent and inclusive Asean must choose the right battleground for this worthy cause. This lies at the national level.

The task of representing South-east Asian voices and interests in Asean’s intergovernmental structure rests with each government. Though not all local and national issues can be addressed regionally, people’s concerns can and do find traction when communicated through their national governments.

For example, there are differing national responses to curb the spread and ensure treatment of HIV/Aids, even though Asean as a grouping has acknowledged the need to do so since 1992.

The Asean Task Force on Aids consistently engaged with civil society groups to coordinate national inputs to regional actions. These efforts culminated in summit-level commitments for combating HIV/Aids at the 7th Asean Summit chaired by Brunei in 2001.

This illustrates Asean’s lengthy gestation process, which requires many interactions at multiple levels within countries. Yet, this is how national positions on important regional issues are prepared: Through consultations before and after regional negotiations.

The manner in which inputs from the wider populace are sought and incorporated differ, however, across different member states and systems. This is because Asean resonates differently among and within the region’s populations.

In this respect, the socio-cultural pillar of the Asean Community has seen more marrying of top-down implementation with bottom-up inputs. Civil society and non-governmental participation is regularly included in activities related to social welfare and safety, labour and employment, health, women, children, youth and the elderly.

Bridging the various disconnects via Asean’s people-centred approach will thus start with increasing the range, frequency and quality of national-level discussions on regional directions. This can help boost a sense of ownership in regional initiatives, and allow policymakers to calibrate national responses to regional issues.

Some Asean countries have started putting this into practice. Singapore and Malaysia have sought to engage their citizenry via national conversations among policymakers and citizens from different walks of life to discuss issues and problems causing strains in society.

Myanmar’s National League for Democracy government has initiated a people-centred foreign policy emphasising people’s participation in economic and social development. Laos is engaging with donors and Asean partners to ensure its programmes are Asean-consistent.

These practices serve as the building blocks of a future Asean community that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Moe Thuzar and Nur Aziemah Aziz are lead researcher (socio-cultural) and research officer at the Asean Studies Centre, Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, respectively. This is part of a series of commentaries TODAY is running to mark Asean’s 50th anniversary.

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