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1 Mar, 2009

Surin Pitsuwan to Civil Society: “Hold ASEAN to Account”

Originally Published: 1 March 2009

The age of accountability in ASEAN took a quantum leap forward over the last week with ASEAN civil society organisations serving notice to ASEAN political and business leaders that they can expect vigorous scrutiny of how they implement the lofty principles and commitments.

The bitterness, frustration and anger was more than palpable during the three days of heavy-duty discussions at Chulalongkorn University as the activists railed against everything from the lack of transparency and consultation in drafting ASEAN documents, the plight of migrant workers, the military junta in Burma, the impact of free trade agreements, and many more.

Although this was the fourth such civil society gathering, it was by far the largest, bringing together an estimated 800 representatives from numerous activist groups, more than half from Thailand itself.

Delegates attributed this to the relatively higher degree of democratic freedoms enjoyed in Thailand and praised the partial funding provided by the Thai Foreign Ministry as an example of the tolerance that ASEAN governments need to exercise in providing civil society a platform, even if it means voicing critical opinions.

As the ASEAN charter, signed by the leaders only in November 2008, clearly begins with the words “We the Peoples…” and makes a series of commitments to human rights, freedom, democracy and social justice, ASEAN civil society has gained a firm legal foothold on which to demand accountability from ASEAN political, economic and business leaders.

ASEAN Secretary-General Dr Surin Pitsuwan and Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, in his capacity as the ASEAN summit chairman, spent nearly two hours with the activists last Sunday, hearing them vent their frustrations about the future directions of the 10-member regional grouping.

Although the tension was more than apparent, Dr Surin told the NGOs that as the new charter was signed by the ASEAN leaders in the name of the people of ASEAN, it was up to the people of ASEAN to make the leaders walk the talk.

Dr Surin sought to assure the activists that he saw them as partners in progress, and welcomed the watchdog and check-and-balance role they play. However, he was realistic enough to caution that changes must be made within the norms and regulations of ASEAN as a rules-based organisation.

He pulled out a copy of the ASEAN charter from his jacket pocket and repeatedly quoted from it to buttress his position. He called the charter “a skeleton, a collection of principles, purposes and legal framework for (ASEAN) to move forward into the future.”

He said, “Here I am talking to you, pleading to you, appealing to you to take the words and phrases in this charter seriously. They were written for you. They (the ASEAN leaders) signed the document in your name. All of you. Hold them to account. Hold the chair to account. Hold the leaders to account.”

He added, “I have to reach out to you. I have to reach to the people of ASEAN through organisations like yours, in the private sector, in the official sector, in the academic sector, through the media, in every way that we can reach out. Our hands are being extended. Whether or not you will extend your hands back to us, is up to you.

“I too feel that I need your help. I need your energy. I need your resources, your intellectual contribution because for me to drive this organisation alone is impossible.”

Dr Surin said the fact that ASEAN leaders for the first time will meet representatives from youth, parliament and civil society for half an hour each during the summit “means they are committed to the sacredness of this document.”

He added, “Don’t just blame the leaders and diplomats and the officials from now, as the space has been open for you,” he said. “From now on, if ASEAN is going to be only a talk-shop, all of us will share responsibility for not moving it forward as a people-oriented ASEAN.”

“We have to be very, very careful about certain things, but we have gone way beyond where we were before.”

He noted that while he himself had to report to the ministers and leaders of ASEAN, “the super bosses of these leaders and ministers are the people of ASEAN. You must push, you must share and you must also take the responsibility. I try to communicate across the political spectrum but I hope you will reach out to your own political leaders.”

He said that although economic integration was the goal, ASEAN would have to take time to “revisit and reset” all the economic issues facing the grouping.

This included juxtaposing the word “fair” with “free” in the conduct of international trade. “The ‘fair’ part of it has been lacking all around,” Dr Surin said, noting that the issue would be raised at the next G20 meeting.

He said ASEAN also needed to explore a “new model for economic development” that would require “a new thinking, a new beginning for our international economic and financial systems.”

Said Dr Surin, “The word sustainability has never meant so much to the international community. I think more and more people are thinking of the real balance between productivity and sustainability.”

Other wisdom-based concepts would also be explored. “Gross National Happiness is going to become more and more relevant. The ideas of sufficiency economy, living in the balance, living within our means is going to be an important set of new values for the entire national economy, not only for Southeast Asia.”

But the civil society representatives were not about to let Dr Surin get away. Insisting that they have heard numerous promises from the Secretary-General, whom they refer to as “Mr Teflon,” one Filipino activist asked him point blank: “How do we make you accountable for all your nice words? How do we strengthen the enforcement and implementation (of the ASEAN charter)?”

The question drew a round of applause. Clearly, the writing is on the wall.