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SOUTH-EAST ASIA: Civil Society Edges Deeper Into Regional Summit

Marwaan Macan-Markar

CHA-AM, Thailand, Feb 26 2009 (IPS) - In a nod towards greater engagement with people’s organisations, a summit of South-east Asian leaders in this resort town will slightly extend its customary face-to-face with civil society representatives.

The 30 minutes that civil society leaders from eight countries in the region will have with the 10 presidents and prime ministers on Saturday is, symbolically at least, an advance from past summits, where only 15 minutes were provided for such engagements.

This widening window is in keeping with the promise of a more ‘’people centred’’ Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 10-member bloc founded in 1967 to stall the spread of communism. In December, a new ASEAN charter came into force, making the regional alliance a rules-based entity and one that could hold governments to be more accountable.

The pledge to make it an inclusive body is part of the charter. And the theme of the summit held in this town south of Bangkok is ‘’ASEAN Charter for ASEAN Peoples.’’

The 10 members of ASEAN span the political spectrum, where space for a politically active and critical civil society and grassroots organisations is often not embraced by all. They range from Brunei, an absolute monarchy, Burma (or Myanmar), under the grip of an oppressive military dictatorship, Laos and Vietnam, both one-party states headed by their respective communist parties, and Singapore, a one-party state that crushes dissent and tolerates little opposition.

The only countries in the region where shades of democracy are visible are Indonesia and the Philippines, less so in Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, albeit with increasing space for political and civil liberties.

The 10 civil society representatives who will meet the leaders at the 14th ASEAN summit are from Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam and hosts Thailand.

‘’Issues running into three or four pages addressing concerns of civil society are up for discussion,’’ says Thitinan Pongsuthirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University who will chair the dialogue between the leaders and the civil society organisations (CSOs). ‘’The treatment of the Rohingyas by Burma-Myanmar, freeing the political prisoners there, the economic crisis, and the food crisis are some of the issues.’’

‘’CSOs also want to institutionalise this engagement. They want to make it a regular event at ASEAN summits, not a one-off meeting or one done off-and-on,’’ Thitinan said in an IPS interview.

‘’I have to give a lot of credit to the Thai foreign ministry for organising this dialogue,’’ he added. ‘’They have made an important push to make this a people-centred ASEAN.’’

Saturday’s dialogue is the culmination of a range of CSO activities held ahead in Bangkok over the week to drum pressure for the summit in Cha-am. A record 1,000 CSO representatives from across the region have been meeting since the last weekend to shape their agenda.

The key themes that CSOs rallied around during the ASEAN People’s Forum and the Civil Society Conference included the plans by ASEAN leaders to create a regional human rights body, the free trade agreements the bloc’s leaders are to sign with India, Australia and New Zealand, and how the region will be impacted by the global economic slowdown.

In a first for ASEAN, Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the regional bloc, and Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, representing the host country, participated in an hour-long engagement with activists on Sunday afternoon.

‘’I don’t think we are afraid of anything,’’ Surin told IPS. ‘’With the charter, every issue is open for discussion.’’

They are words that ASEAN activists are determined to use as guiding principle. ‘’We want to open the ASEAN process to everyone,’’ says Joy Chavez, a researcher at Focus on the Global South, a regional think tank and a Philippine national. ‘’The participation of CSOs here reflects that. Four years ago the number of participants would have been 20 percent (of the number attending the current ASEAN summit).’’

The spirit of accommodation on show at the summit is coming in for praise by long-time observers of ASEAN. ‘’For the past four decades, ASEAN has seldom heeded, let alone listened to, the voices of ordinary people,’’ writes Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior editor and columnist for ‘The Nation’, and English-language daily in Thailand.

He credits Malaysia for ushering in the change when Kuala Lumpur hosted the ASEAN summit in 2004. ‘’(The Malaysian leader) initiated the meeting between ASEAN leaders and civil society groups and, in the process, provided input to them directly. That first encounter ignited the civil groups’ interest in ASEAN.’’

The meetings that followed in the Philippines and Singapore mirrored this shift in relations between government leaders and CSOs. Yet such an opening has not ended the distrust CSOs have of the region’s governments and, consequently, are reluctant to cheer the welcome mat being rolled out on Saturday by ASEAN leaders.

‘’Civil society groups that have tried to engage their governments on ASEAN Charter-related issues such as human rights and democracy have been subjected to serious and even brutal retaliation in member states such as Burma, Laos and even the Philippines,’’ says Gus Miclat, executive director of Initiatives for International Dialogue, in a statement released on Wednesday.

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