(Activists protest the impact of free trade agreements (FTAs) during a dialogue session with Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya and ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan at the Fourth ASEAN Civil Society Conference on February 22. Photo: Jaruwan Supolrai.)

BANGKOK,Feb 22 – ASEAN wants to engage with civil society, and activists should be proactive in buttonholing Southeast Asian leaders to talk about issues of concern, Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya and ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan said today.

In a rare visit by Southeast Asian dignitaries to a civil society event, Kasit and Surin appeared at the Fourth ASEAN Civil Society Conference here to spruik the grouping’s new charter, and assure activists that governments would listen to them.

“Give me a call, I will return your call,” Surin told over 1,000 civil society members at a packed auditorium at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn Universty.

“Rest assured that we will work very hard to further promote the role of civil society here and in other nine ASEAN states,” added Kasit.

“We will push civil society into forefront, work with NGOs, foundations, and in time we will have full economic, social and
cultural freedom,” he said.

The ASEAN Charter, which went into effect in December 2008, has been under scrutiny by civil society, many of whom question ASEAN’s willingness to implement its lofty principles, especially its commitment to human rights and people’s participation.

Surin promised the charter would provide “a wide open space” for the participation of Southeast Asian people, and higher-level engagement with civil society.

His polished performance and Kasit’s reassurances were met with hard-hitting questions from activists, who formed long lines behind microphones to question them.

Questions touched on Burma’s detention of over 2,000 political prisoners, Vietnam’s food crisis, and the creation of a peace-building mechanism in the Philippines. Activists also asked how civil society members could hold ASEAN leaders accountable for their commitments.

The dialogue session was interspersed with outbursts from demonstrators highlighting rights violations from free trade agreements and in military-run Burma. Groups marched around the hall holding colourful signs and banners and shouting, “We don’t want an FTA!” and “Free, free, free Burma!”


(Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya addresses the Fourth ASEAN Civil Society Conference on February 22. Photo: Jaruwan Supolrai.)

Kasit and Surin were later presented with gifts of roti bread from Abdul Karam, a representative from the Rohingya ethnic group, and Khin Omar, a democracy activist from Burma. Selling roti bread is a means of living for some in the Rohingya community living in Thailand.

The Fourth ASEAN Civil Society Conference is due to issue a 72-paragraph document outlining recommendations on a slew of regional problems that will be presented to ASEAN leaders at their annual summit in Thailand later this week. – APF Media Team