Civil Society refuses to cave in at ASEAN Summit

Marwaan Macan-Markar

Civil society representatives from South-east Asia’s developing democracies delivered an unequivocal message to the region’s leaders at a summit held here –  they will not succumb to the whims of governments that suppress political and civil liberties at home.

They did so by boycotting a carefully choreographed encounter between government leaders and civil society representatives at the summit of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN). Those who refused to participate at this meeting came from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, host of the 15th ASEAN summit that runs from Oct. 23-25 in this resort town south of Bangkok.

The countries that had representatives at this session on Oct. 23 ranged from military-ruled Burma, the city-state of Singapore ? ruled by one party that tolerates little criticism ? to Vietnam, which is under the grip of a communist government.

This followed a slap in the face for civil society by some ASEAN governments, which rejected half of a list of 10 civil society members who were chosen by their peers to participate in the face-to-face exchange between ASEAN government leaders and non-governmental organisation (NGO) representatives on Friday.

Among those whose names were axed by their own governments were Sinapan Samydorai, a campaigner for migrant rights in Singapore; Khin Ohmar, a Burmese political activist living in exile; and Nay Vanda, a human rights activist form Cambodia.

A nun from the predominantly Catholic Philippines was also a victim. Sister Crescencia L. Lucero failed to win a nod from the Philippine foreign ministry, surprising many activists, here given that the country is home to a vibrant civil society movement than the more repressive countries like Burma.

The Burmese government used the occasion to flex its muscle on what it defines as a civil society group fit to represent the views of the country?s oppressed civilians at NGO interactions with government leaders during the ASEAN summit. It nominated Win Myaing, a former police colonel who is a member of the country?s anti-narcotics association, to replace the ousted Khin Ohmar.

The treatment of NGOs at the summit comes at a time when the host country has been in the vanguard of pushing the new image ASEAN is attempting to create for itself as an inclusive, people-centred regional bloc by 2015. It follows the new rules-based ASEAN charter that all countries have ratified.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva opened the summit on Friday morning with a speech reminding delegates from ASEAN?s 10 countries about a pledge made to “build a people-centred ASEAN Community.”

Yet that proved to be empty rhetoric when it came to giving space at this summit to civil society, the group that serves as a voice for ASEAN?s 560 million people. The spoilers were the governments of Brunei, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.

“We are insulted by the attempts of a majority of ASEAN governments to pick and choose who among civil society can meet them and who cannot,” said Yuyun Wahyuningrum, who was to have represented Indonesian NGOs at this meeting with government leaders but opted to boycott it. “It shows the lack of commitment by these governments to make ASEAN?s goal of being people- centred. We are committed.”

“The future of these encounters during ASEAN summits is now weak,” she told IPS. “Such government interference in the role of civil society groups at this summit is not what we agreed upon when the process was being shaped for this encounter.”

Over 500 NGO representatives from across the region had met here from Oct. 18-20 to highlight issues to be addressed during the interaction with government leaders. They covered human rights violations, lack of democracy, development concerns, the environment and public health.

These issues were overshadowed by the boycott. “I spoke about the importance of civil society in the region if we have to have solidarity in ASEAN,” said Surichai Wun?Gaeo, a Thai academic who was the team leader of the NGO delegation that did meet government leaders. “I told them that civil society is committed to building such a partnership.”

The 30-minute meeting only saw one NGO representative ? from Vietnam ? speak, Surichai told IPS. “The Thai prime minister accepted our views and also respected the decision of the civil society representatives who chose not to attend.”

Thailand?s stance is consistent with the successful note it struck at the last ASEAN summit in Cha-am in February. At that 14th summit, ASEAN broke new ground by scheduling a formal face-to-face interaction between government leaders and NGO representatives for the first time in its 42-year history.

But hopes of repeating that unprecedented encounter was in question given the reaction of Cambodian and Burmese leaders, who had threatened to walk out if the NGO nominees from their respective countries attended that formal exchange. Thai premier Abhisit settled for a second meeting with the ousted NGO nominees in an effort to cement the host?s push for greater civil society engagement at ASEAN summits.

Yet that divide between how countries like Thailand and Indonesia view civil society against the likes of Burma and Singapore has now widened. “The countries that rejected the civil society representatives nominated by ASEAN NGOs have exposed themselves at this summit,” said Chalida Tajaroensuk, director of the People?s Empowerment Foundation, a Bangkok-based NGO. “They do not understand what civil society is and what our independent role means.”

“ASEAN is not about the 10 leaders and what they only think,” she told IPS. “They have to listen to us because we offer views and voices of ASEAN?s people. We represent the ASEAN community.”