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The role of civil society in the building of an ASEAN community

Alexander C. Chandra, Jakarta

The recent Roundtable Discussion on the Prospects and Challenges in the Building of an ASEAN Community, which was organized by the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), shed light on the importance of civil society in the making of an ASEAN Community.

Although the building of this community is supported by some civil-society organizations (CSOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) throughout the region, many elements of the society are unaware of this project.

In reality, however, even those Southeast Asian CSOs and NGOs are still very indifferent about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its integration projects. The only reason they lend their support toward the building of a region-wide community is the increasing push by the regional elite to enhance regional integration in Southeast Asia.

During the aforementioned discussion, officials from Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have stipulated that ASEAN and its member governments have actually agreed to open up the participation of Southeast Asian CSOs and NGOs in the building of an ASEAN Community. It is up to those CSOs and NGOs to take up this opportunity.

Reality, however, depicts a different picture. The fact that there are limited numbers of Southeast Asian CSOs and NGOs that pay a lot of attention to the making of an ASEAN Community is mainly due to the lack of active and popular socialization of information regarding ASEAN and its activities. Dissemination of information is, indeed, a classic problem of the association, which, just like many regional integration projects in the world, tends to be elitist in nature.

It remains a question as to whether Southeast Asian CSOs and NGOs have really failed to seize the opportunity presented to them by ASEAN and its member governments to get involved in the Association’s decision-making process.

Many academic studies have revealed that it is the failure of ASEAN to actively campaign about its activities. If one were to ask, for example, any Indonesian CSO or NGO whether they have ever been asked to be involved in ASEAN’s decision-making process, the answer would simply be “no”.

One fact remains that there are not many CSOs and NGOs that focus their activities on ASEAN. The ASEAN Secretariat and ASEAN member governments should realize this.

On the other hand, Southeast Asian CSOs and NGOs should equally pay greater attention to ASEAN and its activities. They should realize that a strengthened regionalism in Southeast Asia could complement various activities that they perform within various layers of society.

Nevertheless, there were some Southeast Asian CSOs and NGOs that had prepared a statement of recommendations in the building of an ASEAN Community for the policy makers in both ASEAN Secretariat and its member governments prior to the aforementioned Roundtable Discussion.

In that statement, entitled The Building of a Just, Democratic, Transparent, and Accountable Community for the People of Southeast Asia, there were 12 recommendations given by Southeast Asian CSOs and NGOs. There are four points among the 12 that ASEAN should concentrate on if it is to proceed with its plan to build an ASEAN Community.

They include a more democratic ASEAN, the strengthening of the roles of the ASEAN Secretariat and its secretary general, wider and more comprehensive socialization of ASEAN integration efforts; and ensuring the effective use of ASEAN as a bargaining block in international fora.

First, there is undoubtedly a severe democratic deficit within ASEAN. Policy-makers in ASEAN should realize that ASEAN can no longer be an executive club for leaders of ASEAN member states anymore. Although a more democratic ASEAN might significantly slow down the integration process in Southeast Asia, any decisions achieved through a more democratic decision-making process would be more likely to represent the interests and needs of the people of Southeast Asia.

Second, the current role of the ASEAN Secretariat to initiate, implement, and monitor policies decided by the association’s member governments should be expanded. The role of the secretariat has to be changed, in such a way that the Secretariat is no longer responsive just to the member governments but also to the people of Southeast Asia.

This is where the role of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Organization (AIPO) should be relevant. Indeed, this body should be given a greater role and be considered in the decision-making processes regarding the future of regionalism in Southeast Asia.

Third, as mentioned earlier, the lack of socialization is the classic problem of ASEAN, which has created the gap between ASEAN and the people of Southeast Asia. It is becoming more important than ever for the association to not only intensify, but also consider making the socialization process popular.

Fourth, the use of a regional institution as a bargaining block has been the key rationale for many integration projects throughout the world. The success of ASEAN in this area has been somewhat mixed. Although ASEAN has been useful as a bargaining block in security matters, it has not been so in other areas of co-operation. ASEAN member states, for example, were often divided in their positions within the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Moreover, the pursuit of bilateral free trade agreements by individual ASEAN member countries could also have a negative impact on the overall cohesion of ASEAN.

Central to the above-mentioned recommendations, however, would be the willingness of ASEAN member states to allow greater participation of members of the civil society in its decision-making process on the one hand, and the willingness of Southeast Asian CSOs and NGOs to actively focus on the development of ASEAN and its integration schemes on the other.

The writer is a research coordinator at Institute for Global Justice (IGJ). He can be reached at

(;=2) Jakarta