Getting to know Asean

HEART & MIND By Paulynn Sicam

What are you doing on this long holiday, this entire week of no school and little work while the government hosts the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the biggest event in the region today? 

Every year, the chairmanship of ASEAN is rotated from country to country in alphabetical order.  It was our luck to be in line for the honor of hosting ASEAN’s 50th anniversary.  It should be a grand celebration but due to security concerns, we, the citizens of the host country, have been locked out of the events. We have been instructed to keep out of Roxas Boulevard, the Mall of Asia, the Philippine international Convention Center and its environs and NLEX on certain days and times. Clark is off-limits. The airport warns of flight delays since priority will be given to heads of state and their parties flying in and out of Manila. All traffic will be stopped or diverted when they use our roads.

With tight security in the summit venues, only the rats and cockroaches in the meeting areas can get past the thousands of cops and soldiers guarding the events.

We do have a front seat on the proceedings, via television and social media, if we’re interested.  But I doubt that many will be watching. The students are drowning in homework dumped on them by their teachers to make up for the many days lost from Duterte’s past and present instant holidays.  Labor is restive, annoyed at the forced no-work days even in work places far away from the summit venues. 

I asked a couple of millennials what they know about ASEAN and they knew next to nothing.  They could not even spell out what ASEAN stands for.  It seems ASEAN and the benefits that the summit will redound to the Filipino have not been adequately discussed on the level of the citizenry. All they know is the great inconvenience of the country’s hosting of the ASEAN Summit.

What we should know about ASEAN is it is mostly about regional security and economic integration. Its most ballyhooed accomplishment thus far is the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 that is expected to animate the US$2.6 trillion ASEAN market of over 622 million people, described as “the third largest economy in Asia and the seventh largest in the world.”

The AEC Blueprint 2025 is aimed at achieving “a highly integrated and cohesive economic community” that is “competitive, innovative and dynamic; with enhanced connectivity and sectoral cooperation; and a more resilient, inclusive, and people-oriented, people-centered community, integrated with the global economy.”

The words used in the AEC Blueprint are an improvement on the language of the ASEAN Declaration of 1967 and the Treaty of Amity in 1976 that spoke of “economic  growth, social progress and cultural development” for a “prosperous and peaceful  community,” but not of individuals; and “mutual respect and non-interference,” but not of democracy and freedom.  However, in the context of ASEAN today, positive words like “inclusive,” “people-oriented,” and people-centered” are just words whose value to its leaders, 100 percent of who are authoritarian, still needs to be tested.

Over the years, civil society organizations have tried to engage ASEAN on vital non-economic issues such as human rights, gender, migrant rights, and the like. But ASEAN is hardly welcoming of CSOs with liberal ideas on such “annoying” matters.  It would rather talk about more “essential” concerns such as economic integration, markets, and bottom lines with like-minded investors and business leaders.

Responding to pressure from the international community, ASEAN finally created a regional human rights body, the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), but gave it such a weak mandate, it has had no positive effect on the human rights situation in the region.  And human rights have not been seen on ASEAN’s agenda since then.

To be sure, ASEAN has brought benefits to its citizens. The member countries are at peace with one another. Exchanges among artists and scholars have enriched the cultural and intellectual life of the region.  The ongoing ASEAN integration in education that seeks to address the mismatch between education and jobs in the ASEAN economy has created a regional consciousness amid cultural and religious diversity. And the visa-free travel within the region for ASEAN citizens is a real boon to tourism and regional solidarity.

Fifty years into its existence, ASEAN has undeniably had an impact on the region. But with its present composition of hard-core autocratic leaders, it has a long way to go to truly represent its peoples’ aspiration for democracy, individual rights, and freedom.

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