Civil society leaders from around the region, scheduled to meet with ASEAN heads of government in Naypyidaw, have refused to participate in the interface meeting scheduled for Sunday, citing interference from some Southeast Asian governments.
The half-hour meeting is an initiative of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF), an independent organising body for regional civil society actors, and the ASEAN summit. It is intended to give civil society actors a voice within the ASEAN process, but has been subject to political pressure from national governments in the past.
“We reluctantly withdraw from this interface [because] three ASEAN member states are poised to substitute three delegates of civil society with their own nominees,” the steering committee of ACSC/APF said in a statement.
The governments of Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore rejected the delegates selected by the ACSC/APF, but did not announce their hand-picked replacements. Out of solidarity, delegates from the remaining seven ASEAN states have chosen to not participate in the meeting.
The chosen delegate from Burma, Dr. May Shi Sho of the Karen Development Network, was accepted by the Burmese authorities, although Naypyidaw – and other governments – has attempted to name its own delegates with close ties to the state at past meetings. The ACSC/APF staged a similar walkout at the 2009 ASEAN summit in Hua Hin, Thailand, where five countries rejected the ACSC/APF-appointed delegates, including Burma, officially known as Myanmar.
Cambodia has long been particularly hostile to the ACSC/APF. At the 2012 iteration of an annual “People’s Forum” held before the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, the government applied pressure on the venue hosting the forum to censor panels, and organised a simultaneous alternate forum at a different location with delegates sympathetic to the government.
“For the Cambodian government to reject the nominees, we’re very sorry to hear that, and very disappointed that they’ve disregarded the CSO [civil society organisation] process to select the delegates to work with the government,” said Thida Khus, the executive director of Silaka, a Cambodian NGO, and the ACSC/APF’s chosen country delegate to attend the interface meeting.
The consensus-based principles on which ASEAN operates come into conflict with the varying degrees of openness to civil society engagement that member states are willing to accept, she argued, making bloc-wide standards difficult to enforce and reducing engagement with civil society to the lowest common denominator. “We have trust in the ASEAN process, and we understand the difficulties among ASEAN governments to come up with consensus [based] principles,” she said. “But we also have a belief that, because of [these] principles, they have not been able to prop all the member states up to the same level.”
To ensure that independent civil society voices are represented in the meeting, the ACSC announced four stipulations that the ASEAN summit would have to follow if the meeting were to proceed, including a provision ensuring the ACSC/APF’s right to “self-select” delegates, which Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia did not follow.
“The reason we commit to these principles is that we believe that the ACSC/APF process is a civil society process, not to be intervened upon by member governments of ASEAN,” said Corinna Lopa, a member of the ACSC/APF’s steering committee. “We need to be able to [discuss] the issues and the aspirations of the peoples of Southeast Asia, without the intervention of their governments.”