The disconnect between leadership and society is perhaps the one thing that this diverse grouping shares. Even after calling attention to such important matters to heads of governments, the most highlighted agenda issue for the leaders’ summit was discussing a common time zone and the launch of the commemorative coins.
Posted on 29 April 2015 – 07:05pm
Last updated on 29 April 2015 – 11:15pm
Natalie Shobana Ambrose
IT has been a busy week for Malaysia as Asean chair. Last week Malaysia hosted the Asean Civil Society Conference/ Asean People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) which saw members of civil society from the region converge in Kuala Lumpur days before the 26th Asean Summit where the grouping’s leaders gave each stakeholder group 20 minutes of undivided attention to address questions and to listen to issues. The optics of which looked very good – to start the summit by hearing what the people want, especially following the opening ceremony speech about making Asean “People Centred” – in line with Malaysia’s chairmanship theme “Our People, Our Community, Our Vision”. In diplomatic speak, the interface meetings were an effort by government officials of Track 1 and the non-state actors of Track 2 to meet in the middle to bridge the divide for a greater good – the Asean Community.
Issues raised at the interface between Asean civil society representatives and heads of governments included “rising inequality and poverty, disappearances of human rights defenders, the acceleration of death penalty executions; the dangers of unmitigated free trade agreements; widespread corruption, increasingly fragile peace processes, the growth of religious extremism, land and natural resource grabs, the Rohingya stateless people, declining democratic practices, police brutality and unprofessional conduct within the region; discrimination, lack of coherent commitment to address climate change, the glorifying and strengthening of repressive colonial laws, and exploitation of migrant workers”.
Yet, one has to wonder if the interface meeting was merely whitewashing when the very next day after raising issues of the violation of civil liberties and death penalty executions, Malaysia arrested (and released after posting bail) Bersih 2.0 chairman and member of the organising committee of the ACSC/APF Maria Chin Abdullah for participating in a #KitaLawan assembly a month before and Indonesia went ahead with its second mass execution of the year – death by firing squad for eight convicted prisoners whose 11th-hour pleas for clemency were rejected.
The disconnect between leadership and society is perhaps the one thing that this diverse grouping shares. Even after calling attention to such important matters to heads of governments, the most highlighted agenda issue for the leaders’ summit was discussing a common time zone and the launch of the commemorative coins. One has to wonder how such issues make it on the agenda when in countries like Malaysia, working hours and workday-weekdays vary between states. How big a task and how necessary would it be to ask whole countries to change their clocks? Is this really an important issue to be given prominence?
Such lack of sincerity in issues raised at the summit is what devalues the grouping and shines a glaring light on the disconnect between leadership and reality. One can argue that other discussions were too sensitive to be made public perhaps, then the question becomes if Asean claims to be people-centred, then there should be openness of matters being discussed and resolutions made at all levels including at the Track 1 level also.
Having worked for the Asean Secretariat briefly and previously on different Track 2 diplomacy platforms mainly with think tanks and civil society, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing the different levels of sincerity of intent to realising a better Asean for everyone.
For some, the goal is about creating mechanisms or being proud that Asean and its governments are now forced to expand their talks to broader issues than security and economy but are required to attend and address meetings relating to climate change, trafficking and human rights, to name a few issues.
Indeed this is a big achievement especially for a grouping that is politically, economically and socially so diverse. And so, the idea is that if the mechanisms are in place, that’s all that matters. Let’s pat ourselves on the back and check off this to-do list and highlight the fact that Asean has come a long way and evolved beyond what the founding fathers had envisioned it to be.
But it is not the fact that mechanisms exist but rather the scope of its mandate and how it is exercised and implemented that determine its viability and survival.
As long as the leaders on Track 1 treat the people on Track 2 as children who need to be shushed and only allowed to speak when spoken to, the great divide will remain. And this is the biggest disservice to Asean as a group and its people as a whole.