Making Asean a People’s Asean

For three long days, November 5 to 7, the broad civil society movement in Southeast Asia is holding the annual Asean People’s Forum. The theme of the APF is “Southeast Asian People Solidarity for an Inclusive, Cohesive and Responsive Community.” This theme takes off from the official Asean 2020 theme—“Cohesive and Responsive Community”—adopted by the Asean Leaders as the guide in the work program of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for this year.

The word “inclusive” matters. For the last half a century of its existence, the Asean has been holding an Annual Summit of Asean Leaders minus the participation of representatives of grassroots organizations: formal sector workers, informal workers, farmers, fisherfolks, landless rural poor, vendors, micro entrepreneurs, small businessmen and indigenous people. And yet, the Annual Summit of Asean Leaders is usually accompanied by a Business and Investment Summit organized by the Asean Business Advisory Council, which enjoys formal official accreditation by the Asean. In fact, ABAC was organized in 2003 to provide “guidance” to the Asean in the promotion of Asean economic integration, now popularly labelled  as Asean “economic community” building.

Also, the Asean Leaders’ Summit is followed by a bigger Summit involving the so-called “Dialogue Partners” of the Asean, which, in reality, are the governments of Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and China. In recent years, new “Dialogue Partners” have joined: United States, European Union, India and Russia. These “Dialogue Partners” have been the sources of funds for some Asean projects such as the development of blueprints for economic integration/liberalization, propagation of high-yielding agricultural seeds, systems for the mutual recognition of goods and skills and so on.

In the last two decades, Asean talks/engagement with the above “Dialogue Partners” have been transformed into negotiations for the establishment of “Free Trade” arrangements between the Asean (individual and regional) and the “Dialogue Partners.” The trouble is that the “Dialogue Partners” have differing ideas on how to develop such arrangements because they have their own “national interests” and “priorities” to uphold. This is at the roots of the failure of the Asean to finalize the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, supposedly the blueprint for the world’s biggest “free trade agreement.” No RCEP signing after a decade of exhausting negotiations!

India’s Mahendra Modi was brutally frank when he withdrew from the RCEP talks last year. He said he cannot sacrifice the interests of Indian manufacturers and farmers, who had been worrying how Chinese products would flood India’s market once the RCEP is concluded. And on the sides, Japan has been silently lukewarm to the RCEP idea because China has emerged as the visible leader of the proposed RCEP. Instead, Japan has been pursuing an alternative Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The CPTTP is based on the old Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) proposal of Barack Obama, which Donald Trump abandoned.

At any rate, the critical issue is what is in store for the ordinary “Asean citizens” in a liberalizing Asean under the framework of an “Asean Economic Community” (AEC), which is being pushed by the “Dialogue Partners” to evolve into a  bigger FTA based or linked to their differing visions of global and regional integration? This has not been fleshed out by the Asean in various AEC documents. It is simply assumed that the AEC project will benefit everyone on the assumption that the AEC will generate jobs and welfare for all.

This is where the broad civil society movement from the 10 Asean members (plus Timor Leste) play a central role. As representatives of the people at the grassroots, the CSOs are able to surface the issues encountered by the people and their communities under the processes of AEC/FTA-driven economic and trade liberalization. These are the people issues that they bring in in the annual Asean Civil Society Conference, which has been re-christened as the Asean People’s Forum or APF.

Thus, the APF 2020 has a long agenda that is markedly different from the agenda of the Asean Leaders’ Summit. In the 36th Asean Leaders’ Summit 2020, the focus was on the following: plan of action for economic integration, digitalization and supply chain connectivity, and human resources development.

In contrast, topics covered by AFP 2020 are as follows: people’s solidarity in response to global challenges such as Covid-19 pandemic, ecological sustainability of the region, fate of Mekong River and the people dependent on this mighty river, people-led community building and networking as alternative forms of regional integration, Asean economic integration processes and their impact on the people, racial discrimination and religious extremism, peace and security amid a global health crisis, social protection for the informals and migrant workers, health and safety and dignity of workers, people’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, cultural and arts sector responses to Covid-19, climate emergency action, pathways to transformative solidarity economy, human rights and social justice, fight against illegal trade of wildlife and forest products, just and equitable low-carbon energy transition, respect for the basic rights of workers, defending the rights of indigenous people, success stories in advancing transformative social protection, songs and struggles of cultural and arts workers, transformative business partnership based on respect for people’s rights and women’s and child advancement, and fulfillment of the 17 Social Development Goals (SDGs) by all the Asean countries.

The last topic, SDGs, is important because the news on Asean fulfillment of SDGs is bad. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, which is based in Bangkok, has been coming up with reports that all the Asean members are falling behind the SDG targets. ESCAP’s Secretary General, Armida Alisjahbana, said that the region “is not even moving in the right direction” when it comes to the fulfillment of the SDGs.  Progress has been slow or stagnant in the following: no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, life below water, life on land, and partnership building to meet all the SDG goals by 2030.

There is also “retrogression” in three major SDG goals—decent work and economic growth (goal 8), climate action (goal 13), and peace, justice and institutions (goal 16). On the last goal, how can improvements be made when most of the Asean governments and leaders have become more and more autocratic? On goal 13, ESCAP is able to monitor that there is a “continuous loss of forests” in the region. Decisive measures to stop and phase out GHG-emitting power plants are also lacking.

As to decent work deficits, this is the natural outcome of what the Asean trade unions and CSOs have been decrying: the Race to the Bottom among big corporations to invest and locate in production/business sites where workers’ rights are muzzled and where economic planners have been marketing “cheap labor” as come-on to would-be investors. Despite a series of positive Asean Declarations on workers’ rights, social protection and health and safety, deficits in decent work are mounting because this Race to the Bottom is untamed in a liberalized and globalized economic arrangement where no formal rules are instituted or enforced.

This is why the annual APF and the various campaign advocacies of the Asean civil society movement in the economic, social, environmental and political spheres play indeed a critical role. They are needed to conscientize and transform Asean as a People’s Asean.

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