The first of two ASEAN Civil Society Conferences to be held under Cambodia’s chairmanship took place in late March, alongside the first ASEAN Summit for 2012. The Cambodian government’s intervention in this event set a new benchmark for measures employed by ASEAN governments to oust civil society participation from official discussions. This event presented numerous challenges to Southeast Asian civil society groups, and provides insight into the current state of ASEAN-civil society relations.
The ASEAN Civil Society Conference has been held eight times under various titles, and is organised by members of the Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy (SAPA) network. This occurs in consultation with national civil society groups in the host country and the relevant ASEAN government where necessary. Consequently, it is considered the ‘genuine’ forum for Southeast Asian civil society organisations to present their ideas, network, collaborate on common areas and attempt to engage ASEAN officials on issues of concern.
The event shadows the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting and comprises a series of plenary sessions and workshops where participants discuss regional issues and collaborate in drafting a ‘People’s Statement’ addressed to ASEAN leaders. Participants also appoint a civil society representative from each country, who later participates in an interface meeting with ASEAN heads of state. In some instances, these meetings have lasted up to 30 minutes, as seen in Hua Hin in February 2009; at others the host government has not permitted the interface meeting to take place at all, such as in Singapore in November 2007. Here, the ‘People’s Statement’ was submitted to officials in the hope that it would be tabled during their discussions.
This year’s event presented a number of challenges to Southeast Asian civil society. The conference was held from 29-31 March at the Lucky Star Hotel in Phnom Penh, and attracted 1200 participants from 300 organisations across the region. The first obstacle the conference faced was the rival ‘ASEAN People’s Forum’ held at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall from 28-30 March. It was organised by a Cambodian organisation, Positive Change in Cambodia, which is widely perceived to have close ties to the Cambodian government. The event was supported and attended by senior Cambodian government officials, and some other ASEAN governments also supported the rival event. This was evident in the transfer of 30 Laotian delegates by the Laotian ambassador from the ASEAN Civil Society Conference to the ASEAN People’s Forum. The rival forum also divided civil society participants, who were forced to choose between groups viewed as independent and those portraying themselves as wanting to work with governments.
The second obstacle was the Lucky Star Hotel management’s opposition to a number of workshops. The management threatened to cut power and padlock the venue if particular workshops proceeded. These included workshops on Myanmar's current political and human rights situation and its planned ASEAN chairmanship in 2014, as well as land evictions, the expansion of mono-culture plantations and the protection of ethnic minorities’ rights to land. SAPA network members noted that it is difficult not to believe the Cambodian government had a role in these prohibitions. These obstacles came on top of delays in gaining access to the venue, following the slow release of necessary permits by Cambodian officials.
The third issue was the Cambodian government’s request that ASEAN member states nominate a civil society representative for the interface meeting, rather than allow civil society groups to conduct their independent nomination process. Only the Indonesian and Philippines governments consulted with independent civil society groups on this matter, and their representatives subsequently boycotted the meeting.
These events cast doubt on the credibility of ASEAN’s commitment to becoming a people-oriented organisation. ASEAN began promoting its efforts to build a community in Southeast Asia following the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and after the signing of Bali Concord II in 2003 the idea of a ‘people-oriented community’ became a buzzword. This was reinforced by the ratification of the ASEAN Charter in 2008, which committed member states to democratic norms and to the promotion and protection of human rights. After 30 years of having little to no impact on the lives of average citizens in Southeast Asia, these developments created the expectation of change. But the Cambodian government’s intervention in the ASEAN Civil Society Conference, and the support it received from other member states, belie the hollowness of these commitments.
Through these efforts, the Cambodian government has also demonstrated it rejects the value of civil society’s contributions to ASEAN processes. It disregarded their expertise in numerous areas relevant to the discussions of this ASEAN Summit, including drug and people trafficking, the plight of migrant workers, the environmental impacts of large-scale infrastructure projects, and disaster preparedness. The exclusion of civil society groups is likely to prove costly in the coming decades, both in undermining ASEAN’s efforts to distance itself from its previous image as an ‘old boys club’ and in not utilising civil society’s expertise in its ongoing reform agenda.