An Alternative Regionalism
By Alexander C. Chandra
Regionalism is not new to Southeast Asia. After World War II, the region experimented with the formation of several groupings, from the USA-backed Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) to Maphilindo, named using abbreviations of its then three member countries: Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia.
These efforts culminated in the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 8 August 1967, in Bangkok. The founding members were the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
The fall of the Berlin Wall gave way to a multi-polarisation of global politics and the strengthening and emergence of existing and new regional political -economic arrangement s around the world. ASEAN attracted new memberships from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (also known as the CLMV countries), and now has ten members – all the countries in the region – except for the relatively new nation of Timor Leste, which will join by 2011.
Throughout the late 1990s and until today, ASEAN's scope has been expanding. Today, it covers a wide range of issues, such as security, regional trade issues, and an ambitious project on a so-called ASEAN identity. The launching of Bali Concord II, which calls for the acceleration and strengthening of ASEAN integration through the establishment of ASEAN Community by 2020 (later accelerated to 2015), put the grouping in an active mode for the first time in its history.
Yet, many of these initiatives fail to reflect the interests of wider civil society groups. Policy makers generally pursue these initiatives with little or no consultation with the public, and in general, only elite intellectuals and business people have been able to participate. For these reasons, civil society groups began to mobilise to reform the ASEAN. The mid-2000s was a turning point in their efforts: there was a strong call for a more people-centred organisation, an ASEAN that would, in effect, put people at the centre of its policy-making processes. The population of ASEAN member countries reaches 560 million people.
ASEAN responded slowly to people's demands. For example, late last year, with the launch of the ASEAN Charter, one of the most important documents that bind the member countries together, civil society groups had pushed hard for the removal of an outdated clause known as the ASEAN Way, which dictates the modus-operandi of the grouping. Apart from giving importance to the non-interference principle, the clause allows member countries to turn a blind eye to gross violations of human rights throughout the region.
Despite efforts, the final draft of the Charter essentially remains the same as it has been since ASEAN's establishment in 1967. Moreover, although the Charter also mentions the creation of an ASEAN Human Rights Body by the end of 2009, it remains to be seen how effective this body will really be.
As a development organisation, Oxfam has always been committed to making sure that the voices of poor and marginalised people are heard by policymakers; and Oxfam Hong Kong is taking the lead among Oxfam International in the effort to make ASEAN genuinely inclusive and developmental. Civil society engagement with ASEAN is critical to achieve sustainable, pro-poor development, and Oxfam sees that an alternative regionalism is needed, one that attends to poor people's basic needs and rights.
Early on, in 2008, Oxfam supported an initiative by the Southeast Asian Committee for Advocacy (SEACA) to organise a national level consultation within the CLMV countries, as the four countries are the least developed nations of Southeast Asia. SEACA and other groups helped enable poor people to make their needs and rights known: various actions in the CLMV countries were conducted in the run-up to the 14th ASEAN Summit in February 2009.
Oxfam has also supported the establishment of a new regional organisation, which opened in January 2009. Based in Jakarta, the ASEAN Peoples' Center has been in the planning for several years, and is especially needed now, with the recent launching of the ASEAN Charter and the strengthening of the ASEAN Secretariat, also based in Jakarta.
There is a lot of work ahead, by the ASEAN Peoples' Center and by Oxfam alike, to make sure that the needs and rights of the approximately 560 million people living in the ASEAN countries are accounted for in all of ASEAN's decisions. The process never ends.
See 'New Partner Organisations' section for a profile of the ASEAN Peoples' Centre. Alexander C. Chandra is currently Senior Policy Advisor on ASEAN with Oxfam Hong Kong, but will soon take up a new post of Southeast Asia Regional Coordinator of the Trade Knowledge Network.