Claiming their Space - Critical voices from the ASEAN people’s forum 2012

 Press conference at the APF 2012, photo by hbs

April 11, 2012
Elaine Haller

The people of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) have held their 8th Peoples Forum (APF) /ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC) in Cambodia from March 29-31, 2012 in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia where the ASEAN Summit took place beginning of April.

ASEAN was founded in 1967 and currently includes ten member states, namely Brunei, Cambodia Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In the past, the Association has been a loose collaboration of very diverse countries, but has set the goal to become one community by 2015 and fully establish its three pillars- the political, economic and socio-cultural pillar. The constitutional base of ASEAN is the ASEAN Charter, which was ratified by all member states in 2008 and transformed ASEAN from a loose grouping of nation-states to an intergovernmental organization. The Association holds yearly meetings in one of the member states and in 2012 the summit’s host is Cambodia.

Before the three day civil society conference took place, the event was overshadowed by the Cambodian government’s attempt to create confusion among members of civil society by hosting a parallel event with the same title in order to prevent critical and productive dialogue between ASEAN civil society groups. To this counter event, the ASEAN governments selected “government-friendly” civil society organizations (GONGOs) to meet with ASEAN representatives at an interface meeting and discuss matters approved by the governments. Such an interface meeting is the only opportunity for civil society to directly communicate with representatives and lobby for their issues. Press statements by civil society organizations of Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia therefore condemned and boycotted the interface meeting due to the undermining of the process of civil society and its disregard for meaningful engagement. Furthermore, the owner of the hotel in which the APF for the ASEAN civil society took place, was pressured to cancel the forum. Additionally, more than 20 Laotian civil society members were barred from exiting Lao in order to participate in the forum. Eventually, they were picked up from the border by representatives of the Lao embassy and brought to the government’s forum. But despite all those obstacles, the forum continued as planned.

Diverse people, diverse issues

The topic of this year’s APF was how to turn ASEAN into a people-centered community and how to ensure people’s participation in policy- and decision-making.   The forum was indeed a people-centered event, because representatives of the governments of the host country as well as other ASEAN member states were absent in spite of an invitation to join. Nevertheless, the first day started with around 1,200 participants coming together for a colorful opening. Members of grass root organizations, civil society, NGOs and INGOs as well as activists, academics and media attended the plenary and discussions.

Critical voices, like the one of the Indonesian Mahmud Syaltout warned of the economic integration of ASEAN by 2015 and advised the members of civil society to carefully monitor all economic ratifications and integrations. In addition to the three pillars which have been established for ASEAN - the political-security, economic and socio-cultural - Dr. James Gomez, the Executive Director of Singaporeans for Democracy (SFD), strongly encouraged the participants to demand a fourth ASEAN pillar, the environmental pillar. He argued that due to the many environmental issues, the fourth pillar is needed to comply with the necessities of civil society. Gomez also warned that civil society’s participation at policy level is under constant threat of exclusion, and that the ASEAN governments have adopted what he calls the practice of “selective inclusion” when cooperating with civil society which includes certain  civil society organizations such as the ones invited to the forum organized by the government  and leaves out government-critical ones.

On the second day, participants engaged actively in thematic workshops on issues such as natural resources, climate change, indigenous people, ethnic minorities, women’s rights, child and youth rights, education, health, persons with disabilities, migration, democracy, peace and security, trade union and labor as well as agriculture. The workshops covered some of the divers problems ASEAN civil society is facing.  

Four more workshops were planned, but were forced by the Cambodian government to move to a distant location and were eventually cancelled. Also, the venue of the forum was threatened that power will be cut off if the workshops would go ahead as planned. Three of the affected workshops were on land rights, eviction and environmental issues and one workshop focused on Burma’s current political and human rights situation and the challenges this poses to the country’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014. “Not only are we facing eviction from our land, we are now also being evicted from this civil society process”, so Seng Sokheng, member of the National Working Group of the Community Peace Building Network. This year’s ASEAN summit host Cambodia was criticized throughout the event for trying to undermine the voice of the people and to limit freedom of expression: “We planned to hold our workshop at this ACSC/APF to talk about the challenges of creating an open space for independent civil society, using the example of Cambodia to learn lessons to use in Burma in 2014. The lesson we have learned is that ASEAN countries do not respect freedom of expression”, so Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership. “If this is happening here in Cambodia, imagine what will happen in Burma [which will be the host country for the ASEAN Summit in 2014] where the right to freedom of expression is already violated on a daily basis.”

The general tone of the plenary was more positive, underlining the strength and unity of the ASEAN people and their will to work together to reach the goals of civil society. The main goals include the increase of participation of civil society in the policy making, increase the accountability of the ASEAN leaders, the inclusion of a gender lens in the policy-making, the establishment of a fourth ASEAN pillar concerning environment  and a people-oriented ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights (ADHR).

ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights

The ADHR was one of the main focal points of discussion in the workshops because it touches upon issues such as gender, minority and migrant rights  Currently, the ADHR is only a draft, but is supposed to be finalized by July this year which seems to be an inadequate rush for such an important document. The draft was done by the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), an official ASEAN commission, without consulting civil society. “The Working Draft […] discloses worrying tendencies among the drafters which […] would provide the ASEAN people with a lower level of human rights protection than in universal and other regional instruments. There is a heavy emphasis on concepts such as duties, national and regional particularities and non-interference - all of which may be abused to legitimize human rights violations.”, states the official press statement of the APF.

The workshop “Round-table Discussion on ASEAN Human Rights Declaration”, which was one of the workshops with the most participants, criticized the draft in several points as mentioned above, mainly because of the lack of including women’s rights and the rights of lesbians, gay, bisexuals , transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people. Furthermore, it was argued by Shanti Dairam from the Southeast Asia Women’s caucus on ASEAN that including exceptions based on regional context and culture in the ADHR draft could violate people’s human rights, because those so-called “ASEAN values” are set by those in power, the majority of them men who are used to limit the freedom of women and LGBTIQ, as well as to deny human rights.

Monitoring implementations of recommendations

The outcome of the APF 2012 is a recommendation list which will be passed on to ASEAN representatives. Generally, ASEAN representatives are urged to have regular interface meetings with true representatives of civil society concerning issues chosen by civil society. Also, a focus was placed onto the issues of land rights and migrant workers’ rights. For the future, participants are advised to closely monitor the actions and policies of ASEAN governments in order to see if the recommendations will be picked up and included in future policies. In addition, participants were requested to lobby for the recommendations at the national level and to increase awareness of the relevanceof ASEAN for civil society. Also, the organizers called for the establishment of a working group to implement a follow-up mechanism on recommendations and policies.

Despite the substantial outcome, the APF 2012 was criticized for being too centered on the host country Cambodia, thus leaving not enough space for other countries’ issues. Also, the organization and logistics was criticized for not giving enough time for adequately planning. Criticized was furthermore the little progress that has been made in this year’s APF in comparison to previous years.  Nevertheless, a follow-up forum is planned for November 2012 to be held in Cambodia again.

The question if ASEAN will be a people-centered community remains and is even more in doubt due to the violations of the right to freedom of expression. Silencing the voices of the people of ASEAN at the APF 2012 shows that representatives of ASEAN are not ready to be or do not anticipate a real people-centered community. As the final statement of the APF concludes, “…the ACSC/APF emphasizes that ASEAN can only transform into a people-centered community if all human rights of the people are respected, including the freedom of expression, assembly and association. The legitimacy of ASEAN rests on its people. The genuine participation of ASEAN people is of paramount importance in community building.” Despite this lack of cooperation of the ASEAN body, it was made clear that civil society organizations will continue to fight for people’s participation in creating a just and sustainable community within ASEAN. What is evident is that ASEAN deserves more international attention, not only for its economic developments, but for its growing civil society and for their call for human rights and social justice.


Elaine Haller works at the Southeast Asia Regional Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Bangkok (

Link: Official Website of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations