Written for The Diplomat
One of the major projects of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is the establishment of an ASEAN Economic Community, which aims to integrate Southeast Asia’s diverse economies, a region with 600 million people and a combined gross domestic product of $2.4 trillion. But several civil society organizations are moving to postpone the AEC and calling for a rethinking of its framework, which they claim is biased in favor of corporate interests and the traditional elite.
The AEC is defined by four pillars: Creating a single market and production base, increasing competitiveness, promoting equitable economic development, and further integrating ASEAN into the global economy. To synergize the region’s markets and production hubs, this would entail the free flow of goods, services, investments, capital, and skilled labor. Proponents argue that if the integration succeeds, the region could become the fourth largest economy in the next few years.
But for Philippines-based think-tank Ibon Foundation, the current model of the AEC could further impoverish the poor while facilitating the “aggressive foreign corporate takeovers of the region’s resources.” It added that overall, the AEC is detrimental to ordinary people because it will lead to an erosion of sovereignty, diminishing access to social services because of a stronger push for liberalization and privatization, greater inequalities between and within ASEAN countries, skewed labor mobility, job insecurity, increased land and other resource grabs, and the undermining of local small-scale farmers.
Ibon Foundation cited the investor-state dispute settlement provision of the AEC as an example of a one-sided protection measure in favor of corporate power, since it gives investors the right to sue government when their profits are in danger.
The research center warned that AEC could worsen the “uneven and inequitable economic growth” in Asia because it continues “old logic of the neoliberal model of development” characterized by “a race to the bottom in lowering labor, environmental and other regulatory standards and taxes, and in changing national laws to create a business-friendly environment.”
During the ASEAN People’s Forum recently held in Malaysia, various civil society organizations signed a statement echoing the concerns raised by Ibon Foundation. “The liberalization of the labour market has increased the number of precarious jobs and will continue to adversely impact the rights of workers,” an excerpt from the statement.
The groups rejected ASEAN’s development model for regional integration because it promotes “unequal trade and investment agreements negotiated and agreed to by member states (that) fail to guarantee redistributive, economic, gender, social and environmental justice, or accountability.”
As an alternative framework to the AEC, Ibon Foundation proposes that the integration must transform the ASEAN into a region that is “truly people-centered by abandoning the market-led growth strategy and focusing more on people’s concerns such as food sovereignty, climate change, and respect for human and collective rights.”
“Solidarity, cooperation and complementarity among states should be pursued instead of economic competition,” the group asserted.
And since the AEC is not yet fully implemented, civil society groups are urging for a more comprehensive and democratic consultation with all stakeholders so that negotiations about the proposed regional integration will not be restricted to government parties.
It is only by building a strong regional bloc with popular public support that ASEAN can successfully advance its agenda in the ongoing talks for greater economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific such as the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
The AEC concept is an important one, and is needed to boost the region’s economic potential. But to repeat the recommendations made by Ibon Foundation and other civil society groups, this AEC must be reconceptualized to genuinely empower the people.
ASEAN Urged to Review Non-Interference Policy
Written for The Diplomat
Malaysia’s former foreign minister thinks it’s time to review the policy of non-interference which has guided the Association of Southeast Asian Nations since its founding in 1967.
Dr Syed Hamid Albar, who was foreign minister from 1999 to 2008, made this recommendation during a civil society conference in Kuala Lumpur held a few days before the 26th summit of the ASEAN. Malaysia is the current chair of the ASEAN secretariat.
“We need to seriously think about reviewing and redefining ASEAN’s non-interference policy. We need to recognize that even in international diplomacy, there are limits on non-interference, especially when the serious impacts of a problem goes beyond national boundaries, or when it involves serious international crimes,” Syed Hamid said.
He also added that “ASEAN needs to change in order to be more responsive and resilient to the myriad and fast-growing challenges” that the region faces today.
The former minister didn’t mention specific controversies that could have been resolved through direct action by ASEAN member nations but other speakers in the conference hinted that some of the pressing issues in the region like the continuing persecution of the stateless Rohingya people already require an intervention.
“Over years, ASEAN has been ridiculed as the toothless tiger. If Kuala Lumpur winds up the annual meeting, glossing over the Rohingya issue, then ASEAN will certainly have to bear the shameful stigma of ridicule for many more years to come,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.
For Yab Mohamed Azmin Ali, chief minister of Selangor in Malaysia, the “conspiracy of silence” with respect to the human rights violations committed by member states should end now.
“On this altar of neutrality we watch with folded arms the slaughter of innocent women and children. On this platform of non-interference, we turn a blind eye to the massacre of ethnic minorities or abandon them as state-less peoples,” he said during the conference which was attended by more than 1,000 activists and leaders from various civil society organizations across the region.
Aside from the Rohingya issue, there are other pressing concerns that ASEAN can and should address as a united body. These could include the worsening problem of human trafficking, the need to protect migrant workers, the increasing number of laws that restrict media freedom, and economic inequality amid the ongoing initiative to integrate the region’s diverse economies. All of these issues were tackled during the ASEAN People’s Forum. Another major topic is the urgency for ASEAN to react to China’s land reclamation activities in the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea.
Interestingly, one of the workshops in the conference called for a “Junta-Free ASEAN” and an ASEAN free of political prisoners “so that the voices and choices of the people can displace all forms of dictatorship and strengthen solidarity for democracy and social justice across the Region.” This is obviously in reference to Thailand’s military-backed government. But the issue of human rights abuses is applicable not only to Thailand and Myanmar but to other ASEAN members as well. Even the host nation Malaysia is accused of using archaic laws to harass and detain opposition leaders and critics of the government.
What should be done when everybody within ASEAN is unwilling or reluctant to act on sensitive issues? Again, we turn to Malaysia’s Syed Hamid who proposed to transform the regional grouping “from being a state-driven institution to an integrated people-centered community.” He advocated a greater role for civil society in ASEAN since he is confident that these groups “can come up with innovative, sustainable and cheaper solutions than just the governments working by themselves.”
But with regard to proposed reforms involving the ASEAN, AKP Mochtan of the ASEAN Community and Corporate Affairs advised civil society that “expectations should be realistic” since “change in ASEAN can only be achieved through agreement by the 10 Member States.”
However, the ASEAN leader is confident that regional integration efforts will succeed in the end including the ambitious goal of creating a single economic bloc. “Community building is like a marathon without a finishing line: we simply must continue.”
There are many proposals and counter-proposals put forward today in relation to ASEAN. It is hoped that the lively discussions inside and outside the ASEAN Summit venues will continue to focus more on empowering the marginalized and ordinary residents of Southeast Asia.