One significant development in Kuala Lumpur is ASEAN’s interface with civil society. For the first time in its 38 years, ASEAN leaders welcomed representatives of civil society to their hallowed business meeting. That is, for 15 minutes, a civil society rep read a statement prepared and approved in a wider civil society conference held several days earlier, and Summit chair Malaysian PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi gave an initial response and assurances that the ASEAN leadership takes civil society involvement very seriously.

How serious, and whether such interface happens again, remains to be seen. But participating civil society organizations did not disappoint and delivered what, if given the space, can be a basis for an intensive engagement with ASEAN. Below is the full statement submitted by the civil society conference to the ASEAN leaders on December 12th.

Civil Society Presentation to ASEAN Heads of State and Government
11th ASEAN Summit
Kuala Lumpur Convention Center
Monday, December 12, 2005

The Right Honourable Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Prime Minister of Malaysia and Chairman of the 11th ASEAN Summit, His Majesty,Your Excellencies, Heads of States and Governments, and the Secretary-General of ASEAN.

I speak on behalf of my colleagues here from all ten ASEAN nations and together we represent the participants at our ASEAN Civil Society Conference that was held at UiTM from December 7 to 9, 2005.

This is the first time ASEAN civil society has been invited by ASEAN Heads of State to interact and present the conclusions of their deliberations to the Summit itself. We welcome this unprecedented gesture, and would like to convey our deep appreciation to ASEAN Heads of States for this long awaited opportunity. We hope this historic development will become a regular part of the program of future ASEAN Summits.

To complement the 11th ASEAN Summit’s theme of “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”, we chose as our theme “Building A Common Future Together”.

Excellencies, the following are the ten main issues and proposals we would like to bring to your attention:

One: Access to Information

Civil society participants recognized the need for more openness and transparency at all levels of the ASEAN power structure in order to secure greater accountability and allow civil society to effectively play their roles as watchdogs, monitors and early warning systems.  Towards this end, the deep feeling was that civil society was not getting access to accurate, relevant and timely information on matters of concern to the people.

As a first step toward opening up ASEAN to the people, we urge the Eminent Persons Group already established to deliberate the ASEAN Charter, to involve civil society and other interested groups through public hearings in all ASEAN countries so that we can ensure that there are benchmarks in developing an ASEAN Charter and that these are in conformity with international standards and reflective of universal values embodied in ASEAN’s religions and cultures.

Two: Participation in Decison Making

Despite its 38 years of existence, ASEAN does not have mechanisms in place to engage civil society. This is a major stumbling block to achieving the ASEAN vision of integration and community building.

We call for the immediate review of current accreditation procedures to allow for all segments of civil society and all stakeholders to be part of ASEAN. This will remove impediments to meaningful engagement and bring ASEAN closer to the people. Some suggestions in this regard include:

• Establishing a mechanism composed of civil society organizations independent from the governments and other influences. This will help to systematically channel civil society inputs to the ASEAN Secretariat and other ASEAN processes.
• Helping to build the capacity of civil society to address regional issues. Here, we wish to state our willingness to work towards strengthening of civil society organizations in countries where there is such a need. We appreciate the importance of adopting a balanced, rational and principled approach to challenges confronting ASEAN.

Three: No Community Without the People

The notion of an “ASEAN Community” has remained elusive and illusory because the organization is perceived as being overly bureaucratic, elitist and top-down in its approach.

We urge that the existing ASEAN Parliamentary Caucus be strengthened with a view to eventually transform it into the ASEAN Parliament that can carry the voices of all ASEAN peoples.

Four: Vision Without Implementation

Despite numerous Vision Statements, Plans of Action and Declarations that  ASEAN leaders have committed to, significant segments of society remain weak and vulnerable and continue to be denied their basic human rights.

We urge the ASEAN Summit to take firm and concrete steps to implement all its commitments, including those for the protection of women and children as well as those under the ASEAN Security Plan of Action and the Vientiane Action Programme (2004-2010), including :

i. Establishing a network of cooperation among existing human rights mechanisms and initiatives. We welcome the proposal by the Malaysian government to work towards a regional human rights mechanism in 2006;
ii. Creating an ASEAN human rights commission which would serve as a channel for the articulation of human rights grievances at the regional level and as an avenue for proposing solutions to national governments;
iii. Developing an ASEAN instrument on the protection and promotion of the rights of workers, including migrant workers;
iv. Establishing an ASEAN Commission on the promotion and protection of the rights of women and children;
v. Undertaking effective measures to protect vulnerable groups including women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, refugees and migrant workers, and
vi. Continuing to promote and emphasize the role of education and public awareness in relation to human rights.

Five: Changing Nature of Challenges

There are far too many major transboundary challenges relating to the environment like the haze, health, especially HIV/AIDS and now bird flu, human security, migration and labor that the region is facing.

We urge the ASEAN Summit to reconsider the ‘ASEAN way” of dealing with these transboundary challenges so that swift and effective action can be taken in the interest of the people. The principle of consensus should not hinder ASEAN from acting decisively on behalf of justice when the situation so demands.

Six: Civil and Political Rights

Some parts of the region are burdened with the suppression of civil and political rights and continue to suffer under dictatorships. As a result, millions of people are denied social justice and human dignity.

This tragic situation has led to the stigmatization of the entire region and ASEAN is compelled to pay a heavy price in terms of its international credibility and is constrained in its ability to play a leading role in the regional and global arena.

The 11th ASEAN Summit should act immediately to end such suppression. It should harness all its resources to persuade all its members to adhere to a rules-based framework which gives priority to the rights and interests of the people and adheres to the tenets of good governance. The political empowerment of the people is essential for the emergence of a genuinely free and stable ASEAN community.

Seven: Trade in Justices and Inequalities

Rapid globalization, with its calls for deregulation, privatization and inappropriate liberalization, can create a race to the bottom, where social, environmental and labor standards are compromised.

To compound matters, ASEAN as a bloc is now pursuing trade and economic frameworks and agreements with non-ASEAN countries. The wide scope of these agreements that include investment, intellectual property, services, government procurement, market access, labor and environment is of growing concern as they contain commitments and obligations that are even more burdensome than those of existing WTO agreements.

We therefore call on ASEAN member states to :
• adopt economic and employment policies that satisfy the highest standards of social, economic, civil and political rights;
• consider institutionalizing civil society participation in decision making on socio-economic issues through an ASEAN Economic and Social Advisory Council;
• be open and transparent in the conduct of all trade negotiations;
• undertake comprehensive impact assessments of trade negotiations at the multilateral, regional and bilateral levels;
• maintain a strong position at the forthcoming Sixth Hong Kong Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization with regards to the liberalization of trade in services, based on the joint proposal of a number of ASEAN countries;
• defer any conclusion of bilateral free trade agreements with developed countries until there are broad-based consultations with all stakeholders;
• develop rules and codes of conduct to ensure corporate accountability among business entities in ASEAN;
• safeguard the rights of consumers and address consumer protection issues comprehensively;
• establish mechanisms for broad consultations with civil society organizations both at the national and regional levels and
• ensure trade justice and equity for all ASEAN peoples.

Eight: Environmental Sustainability

Despite a long history of cooperation and scores of legal instruments, the region is not on a path towards environmental sustainability. Environmental degradation in the ASEAN region is now being aggravated by human and man -made disasters.

We appeal to all ASEAN Member States to:

• Prioritize integrated natural resources management in all national development plans and strategies and work towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and targets;
• MDG implementation in the region should be premised upon the inter-linkages between all the Goals;
• Allocate adequate funds for implementing these plans and policies;
• Tackle corruption head-on;
• Regulate corporate behavior;
• Implement the Rio Principles; and
• Support the establishment of an ASEAN Civil Society Consultative Forum on Environment and Sustainable Development.

Nine: Empowering Women, Youth and Indigenous People

We identify several difficulties in relation to women, children, youth and indigenous people. Women, including female migrant workers continue to disproportionately bear the burdens of poverty, ill-health, violence and all forms of discrimination.

In some parts of the region there is a lack of opportunities for youth participation in decision making and a lack of decent productive work which in turn leads to social unrest, drug abuse and rising crime rates. This is totally unacceptable especially since demographics indicate that the majority of ASEAN’s citizens are young.

The unique needs and interests, special knowledge of our indigenous peoples and local communities, and their access to land and natural resources, in particular, are not being adequately safeguarded.

Our population structure demands that women, youth and indigenous people are adequately represented at all levels of decision-making processes within ASEAN.

Ten: The Role of Education and the Media in Forging an ASEAN Identity

The absence of a truly people-centered ASEAN identity is very glaring today.  Thus far, ASEAN has concentrated on political stability and economic goals. There is a need for a community driven, collective ASEAN consciousness to be nurtured through better and deeper understanding of our common history, culture and diversity.


In CONCLUSION, we the civil society are of the view that we have now arrived at a critical juncture in ASEAN’s evolution as an organization. We have this opportunity before us to transform ASEAN from an inter-governmental organization into a genuine people-centered community. We reiterate that there can be no ASEAN Community without the people. Civil society is eager to contribute towards this laudable goal which will help secure a more just and peaceful ASEAN for us and for future generations.