Malaysia’s Chairmanship and Civil Society Engagement in ASEAN

Malaysia Prime Minister's Palace

Malaysia Prime Minister’s Palace

Ahmad Rizky M. Umar, Researcher, ASEAN Studies Centre, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia

As Myanmar’s chairmanship in ASEAN will be ended this year, we are now looking forward to transfer the chairmanship to Malaysia next year. Malaysia will host ASEAN Summit as well as most of regional forum in ASEAN.

In line with the ‘formal’ processes, Malaysia will also host the annual ASEAN People’s Forum/ASEAN Civil Society Conference (APF/ACSC). In this forum, many civil society organisation will gather, discuss, and announce their positions on emerging regional issues in Southeast Asia, including ASEAN.

Nect year’s ASEAN People Forum will be important for two reasons. First, we are getting closer to ASEAN Community, which will be established by 2015. The forum will determine how ASEAN civil society consolidate themselves to respond the upcoming ASEAN Community.

Second, this forum is important to prove whether ASEAN can be a ‘people-oriented’ organisation, as recently acclaimed by the Charter since 2007. If ASEAN want to be consistent with this jargon, it should be able to connect its people with the state and widening participation from grass-roots in the formal decision-making processes.

Since 2003, ASEAN has been institutionalised into a more complex form of regionalism. There has been three community inside ASEAN, which are aimed to be established by 2015 –ASEAN Political Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community, and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.

From year to year, the institutionalisation is getting more complex. For example, ASEAN has made a new regional Human Rights regime with the establishment of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. This similar trend has also happens in other sectors, particularly in economic sectors.

However, in the other side, recent institutionalisations in ASEAN have also created a bureaucratic-technocratic tendency within the Association, particularly in the form of ASEAN Secretariat. Within this institution, ASEAN decision-making process is incorporated in a bureaucratic platform, which leaves only a little room for people’s participation.

This phenomenon leaves a critical question: is there any room for civil society to participate and getting involved in ASEAN decision-making process? If ASEAN is acclaimed as ‘people-oriented’ organisation, how ‘people-oriented’ is it in terms of people’s participation?

The ‘people-oriented ASEAN’ will be proven true if it open chances to speak, participate in decision-making process. In terms of participation, we have to consider participation not only in terms of ‘formal’ or ‘instituionalized’ participation, but also how the ‘subaltern’ –those who are marginalized and not able to politically express themselves— speak.

As we are getting nearer with the upcoming ASEAN Community, which is aimed at gathering all Southeast Asian countries to a ‘people-oriented’ regionalism, this problem should be taken into account.  Without creating spaces for any interest group to speak, we will only have an ‘elite-driven’ ASEAN which is, of course, not ‘people-oriented’ at all.

The ASEAN People Forum (formerly ASEAN Civil Society Conference), which is held annually as side programs of the Summit, can be an alternative room for the people to speak. Firstly launched in 2005, this forum was organised by Non-Governmental Organisations under SAPA to create a new ‘alternative regionalism’ in Southeast Asia (Chandra, 2009).

At the beginning, the Conference has been greeted by ASEAN Leaders. Malaysia, as the host of ASEAN Summit 2005, facilitated the forum in Universiti Teknologi Mara and invited the Conference’s representative to the Summit to present the result before the Summit. It was a good beginning.

However, as the time slowly passes by, relations between NGOs and ASEAN leaders weakened. There is still no room allocated for civil society to engage in decision-making process, particularly at the summit.

For example, as has been pointed out by Kelly Gerard (2014), several civil society organisations from Cambodia and Myanmar has been rejected by the government. Many decisions also ended up as policy recommendation, because there is no room for civil society’s representative to engage at the summit.

Thus, there has been a paradox. While ASEAN aims to create a ‘people-oriented ASEAN’, or, according to Amitav Acharya, ‘creating a participatory regionalism’, the decision making process at ASEAN itself has been closed for its society.

It becomes a main problem in ASEAN today. If we still want to build a ‘people-oriented’ ASEAN, the upcoming ASEAN People Forum should be able to deal with that. ASEAN People Forum cannot be a ‘talk shop’ anymore; the result should be progressive. I hereby proposed two steps to resolve the problems.

Firstly, making the ASEAN People Forum as a place for dialogue between the ASEAN Leaders and the ASEAN People –not only civil society, but also other interest group or minority entity in Southeast Asia. The organiser should invite the ASEAN Leaders –or high-ranking officials in ASEAN Secretariat—to make sure that the result of this forum is heard by ASEAN Elite Ranks.

Secondly, building some institutional hubs to accommodate people’s aspiration in  ASEAN decision-making processes. The ASEAN People Forum is not enough to accommodate ASEAN People’s interest, so that it should be widened through the creation of an ASEAN Parliament, to make sure that the the people can speak and be represented in ASEAN.

Thus, we shall welcome Malaysia’s chairmanship in ASEAN with a homework to make sure that the ASEAN people, including the subalterns, can speak and be heard by ASEAN Leaders. This homework is left to the participant and should be advocated more seriously.

I believe that if ASEAN People Forum can be more inclusive and dialogic, the Forum will not be an annual ‘talk shop’ anymore; even we can optimistically see a more ‘people-oriented ASEAN’ in the future. However, to make it worth, the participant should be more aware with people’s participation in the upcoming ASEAN Community.

The ASEAN People Forum 2015 should deliver a message –that the ASEAN People wants to be heard in the upcoming ASEAN Community. Thus, let the ASEAN People speak in Malaysia next year!