Monday, March 2, 2009

Asean and civil groups: revealing a fast learning curve

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation

AROUND MIDNIGHT Friday, the 14th Asean Summit was hanging in the balance. That same evening, Cambodia and Burma had already threatened to boycott the planned first dialogue between Asean leaders and Asean civil society groups at lunchtime. Suddenly, senior Foreign Ministry officials were having second thoughts about their whole endeavour to broaden the participation of civil society organisations. As the summit's host, when push came to shove, a choice had to be made. In this case, it was clear the Asean leaders would have precedence over the civil society representatives. After all, this was their summit.

But disaster was averted at the last minute when the civil society leaders soften their stands. Cambodia's and Burma's representatives withdrew from the list of 10 participants at the interface. Laos and Brunei did not have any representatives listed.

To make amends, Abhisit agreed to meet the two representatives at a separate place later on. I was in the room along with Pen Sommoly and Khin Omar, the two activists barred from the historic meeting 40 minutes earlier.

The conversation was amicable. Abhisit listened calmly to Omar, who told him of her plight and the struggle of the Burmese people. She pointed out that Burma had not committed itself to the Asean Charter. She urged the prime minister to continue his efforts and fight for Asean.

Pen, who was next to speak, was trying to overcome his shyness. His subject of concern was important, as it involved the future of Asean youth.

In response to their concerns, the prime minister said both sides had to work together and strike a balance between the state and non-state actors.

"We have to be partners and walk together - low and high," he said.

He stressed that since this is the first time for an extensive face-to-face dialogue between Asean leaders and civil group leaders, both sides were on a fast-track learning curve.

At that moment, on reflection, I knew that the dialogue between them would survive and become more institutionalised. He asked the civil society leaders to work out a modality for a proper channel. He was confident.

Such openness and optimism have been rarely seen within the Asean circle in the past four decades. Somehow, the Asean Charter and in particular Article 14 - the mandate to establish the Asean Human Rights Body - have become a new all-weather instrument to prod sensitive issues ahead. Despite the charter's imperfections, it has given the current Asean chair more room to exercise strategy and pave the way for the grouping's future.

One positive trend emerging from the summit was the fresh attitude of the incoming Asean chair, Vietnam. President Nguyen Minh Triet made a brief but sharp intervention during the interface with the civil society leaders. Apart from the chair, Triet was the only Asean leader to comment.

The Vietnamese President surprised everybody by welcoming the dialogue between his colleagues and the civil society sector - very much to the latter's amazement. He urged them to work out a modality for the institutionalisation of the interface - one of the civil society groups' demands.

Indeed, it was a smart comment as it certainly would generate a positive image and favourable comments for Vietnam in coming months.

Now that Vietnam has set itself a new benchmark, the Asean-based civil society groups will follow-up on his comment by increasing their engagement with Vietnam's nascent but active 2,000 civil society organisations, which are still dominated by government-linked groups.

Now the Asean civil groups are hopeful that with Asean under his chairmanship next year, voices of independent and progressive civil organisations would be heard and reflected in the summit's normal discourses.

One additional development to be discerned is the awakening of Asean lawmakers within the grouping. For decades, they have completely left it to their executive branches to handle.

A selective group of Asean legislators got together to form a caucus on Burma five years ago in Kuala Lumpur because they wanted to contribute to Asean's policy towards its pariah member, which keeps suppressing its peoples.

Now with the Asean Charter in force, Asean lawyers, mainly from more democratic members, have suddenly realised they cannot stand idle as before. They have to do more.

Back to back with the Asean Summit, six lawmakers from ruling and opposition parties in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia met over the weekend in Cha-am/Hua Hin to establish a new inter-parliamentary caucus on rights and freedom of expression.

The new caucus will fulfil the pledges in the Asean Charter and the three blueprints concerning political and security, economic and socio-cultural fields. These lawmakers have studied the blueprint for the Asean Political and Security Community in detail. They resolved to accelerate its action plans to transform the Asean Community with Asean citizens at the centre within 2,129 days.

Obviously, Asean bureaucrats no longer hold a monopoly on power in shaping the future of Asean like before. From now on, they have to reach out to the lawmakers and civil society groups and listen to their voices.

Abhisit has done a remarkable job at this summit. He and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya went out to build trust among the non-state actors, risking the chair's reputation. His fingers almost got burnt. But then common sense prevailed. Both sides acknowledged quite reluctantly that there are things they can do and cannot do in their future engagements. The key is to balance and respond in proportionate ways.

Abhisit's opening speech on Saturday said it all, that after the promulgation of the Asean Charter, Asean citizens have been awoken and they want a greater share, ownership and role in the Asean process. No more looking back for them.

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