Strange as it may seem, the Asean's People Forum in Yangon last month turned out to be the biggest ever gathering of civil society groups in the region. Since the inaugural forum in 2005 in Kuala Lumpur, no such meeting attracted such a well-attended crowd of nearly 3,000 participants from all Asean countries including Timor Leste representing over 400 organizations of all sizes. The joint statement at the end of three-day meeting demonstrated how these non-state stakeholders perceived their roles and interests in shaping the future of Asean Community – only 613 days away. Issues related to sustainable development, environment protection, democratization, better mechanisms for human rights protection were highlighted. The Asean leaders could no longer take them for granted as they used to.
Asean's most important objective is to create a people-centred community of 630 million citizens with shared norms and values. It is still an empty promise. At present, it is not possible to transform Asean from a top-down to bottom-up structure due to the fear factors among the Asean leaders – some are less democratic at heart. They view the civil society groups as troublemakers, pursuing objectives determined by funders abroad, without given credence to local concerns and wisdoms. At the Yangon meeting, local environmental groups were vocal on mega projects.
Only a few Asean leaders have open minds and desire to engage other stakeholders than their counterparts. At the upcoming Asean Summit in May, President Thein Sein could be the game changer as he has already agreed to meet with the representatives of Asean-based civil society groups for 45 minutes followed by another meeting with youth groups during the Asean Summit scheduled next month. Now it is incumbent on Thein Sein to convince his counterparts to join him in an interface with selected civic representatives. Countries like Vietnam and Laos prefer to meet with non-governmental organisations under their government's patrons.
When Malaysia chaired Asean in 2005, former prime minister Abdullah Badawi initiated the interface as he wanted to loosen up Asean a bit. The first encounter went well with all the good intentions. Representatives from civil society groups read out their wish-list to the Asean leaders and gained their commitment. Unfortunately, nearly a decade has elapsed, it still has not produced expected outcomes.
Since then, the interface format has been altered – sometimes to avoid face to face encounter – to fit political atmosphere in the respective Asean chairs even though the people's forum continued. Depending on the chair's consent, some restrictions were placed on the themes of discussions as well numbers and choices of participants.
Originally, these meetings were supposed to be held ahead of an Asean Summit to ensure their inputs would be given directly to the leaders for consideration – similar to the inputs provided by Asean business leaders. However, any Asean chair has the pejorative to frame the discussions and issues and whether to give prominence to the Asean people's voices. In the previous three people's forums in 2010, 2012 and 2013, their inputs were handed to senior officials.
The "real" interface between the Asean leaders and nongovernment organizations occurred in Hua Hin in 2008 when former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva chaired the meeting. Two dozens of non-state representatives from Asean were allowed to meet face-to-face with their leaders. The Thai leader also met separately with the representatives from the Burmese civil society groups in exile. At the time, Prime Minister Hun Sen was not happy with the arrangement as the Cambodian delegates were not chosen by the government.
At the Yangon's forum, the plight of Rohingya was not touched upon. Local human rights groups and activists were told by Nay Phi Daw to avoid discussion over this sensitive topic. Since June 2012 after a series of communal conflicts in Rakhine State, the Rohingya has been dominating the global news headlines. Asean wanted to raise the issue and find a region-wide solution but Myanmar opposed the move. The ongoing census taking process in Myanmar also does not recognize the rights of Rohingya. This ethnic group is not allowed to register.
Fast forward to the two future meetings in Malaysia next year and Laos in 2016, civil society groups have already discussed preparations, focusing on potential issues and obstacles. They initially identified Kuala Lumpur's attitude toward gay and lesbian rights as problematic and Vientiane's case, the fate of the well-known activist, Sombath Somphoune, disappeared in December 2013, remains a red herring that the civil society groups would pay attention.