ASEAN: Lost In the Lack Of Translation – Analysis

By Felix Sharief*

Coinciding with the 46th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), along with ASEAN Country Permanent Representatives (CPRs), convened a joint event in late August focused on the strengthening of ASEAN Community building through the implementation of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

The event featured the book launch of “ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) and the Phnom Penh Statement on the Adoption of the AHRD, and its Translations.” The book comprises translations of the Declaration and Statement from English to ASEAN’s nine national languages.

The first call to translate the Declaration came from the coalition of civil societies in the ASEAN region while the Declaration was still in the process of being drafted. The coalition urged the AICHR to translate the draft into the national languages and local dialects of the ASEAN countries in order to encourage broader public participation in the region. Since its creation in 1967, ASEAN used English as its de facto official language until 2007, when it was formally recognized through the ASEAN Charter. Article 34 of the charter now states that “The working language of ASEAN shall be English.”

It should be noted, however, that Southeast Asia is home to more than 600 million people with a wide range of languages spoken across the region. Only in Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore is English widely spoken by citizens and used as a working language by their respective governments.

Other countries in the region only use English as a second, or even a third language, and according to global language training company Education first, they do so with very low proficiency as measured by the English Proficiency Index (EPI). The citizens of Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam English hardly use English at all, and it is generally only used by foreign companies or organizations operating in these countries. ASEAN uses English as a matter of practicality. The ASEAN Secretariat lacks both human and monetary resources to translate ASEAN documents into the respective languages of Member States.

From 2003 to 2013, the ASEAN Secretariat produced more than 120 official publications. This figure does not include the official documents also produced by the respective Chairmanships. For example, in 2011 alone, the Indonesia chairmanship issued more than 110 documents. Despite this large number of publications, only two official documents are currently being translated into the ASEAN national languages – the ASEAN Charter and the recently published AHRD.

In 2009, during the 14th ASEAN Summit in Cha-am Hua Hin, Thailand, ASEAN encouraged its Member States to translate “The ASEAN Way” into their respective national languages. Ironically, the Leaders are more interested to translating the ASEAN anthem rather than the important documents which can support a more people-oriented ASEAN.

Translating ASEAN documents into the languages of Member States is crucial, because it will increase the participation of their respective citizens and provide them with a better understanding of what their governments have done and what ASEAN has achieved regionally. The experience of the European Union (EU) demonstrates that there is a significant gap among its own citizen’s understanding of the EU with diplomats and staff in Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Frankfurt due to language issues.

Under Article 2, Section 2 (L), the ASEAN Charter highlights the principle of respecting the different languages of the people of ASEAN so as to emphasize “common values in the spirit of unity in diversity.”

Though English has been used as ASEAN’s working language for nearly fifty years, the Secretariat must address the linguistic limitations inherent to the region if it wants to create a people-oriented community.  They could start by publishing translations of each of the ASEAN Community blueprints. Otherwise, how can ASEAN expect to create a unified community if its peoples are unable to understand the policies and regulations that the regional group has created to govern them?

In the coming years, by virtue of ASEAN’s growing influence on its citizens in the region, language issues should come under greater scrutiny.  In 2015, Southeast Asia will become a single economic market, and there will be increased regulation at a regional level. This in turn will require greater socialization and awareness among the 600 million people of ASEAN. The translation of regional regulations to all Member States’ national languages will be extremely important for this effort to succeed.

Translating official documents is not only an obligation of the ASEAN Secretariat. It is also the responsibility of every Member State to enhancing its citizens’ awareness and understanding of ASEAN. If these governments want to build a people-oriented community, it must address this demand. Otherwise citizen participation in the region will remain low, and ASEAN will remain a government-centric organization.

*Felix Sharief works as an ASEAN Research Analyst at the British Embassy in Jakarta. Previously he worked at the ASEAN Secretariat and the House of Representatives of the Republic of Indonesia. Opinions expressed are solely his own and do not express the views or opinions of his employer.