The Foreign Service Institute held the Mangrove Forum on International Relations titled “Partnering for Change: The Role of People in ASEAN at 50 and Beyond” on May 31, 2017 at the Marriot Hotel Manila in Pasay City. The event was attended by government officials, members of the diplomatic corps, civil society organizations, and academicians.
The Keynote Speaker was Civil Service Commission (CSC) Chairperson and former Deputy Secretary-General for the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Department Alicia dela Rosa-Bala. Assistant Secretary Ma. Hellen De La Vega of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Office of ASEAN Affairs delivered the opening remarks and Prof. Herman Joseph S. Kraft of the UP Department of Political Science served as discussant. Prof. Wilfredo P. Awitan of the UP College of Social Work and Development was the moderator of the open forum.
Chairperson Bala started her presentation by enumerating key milestones in the history of ASEAN in the last 50 years. First, the 1967 ASEAN Declaration was signed primarily to foster and promote cooperation in the spirit of equality toward peace, progress, and prosperity among the founding members of ASEAN. Second, the ASEAN Vision 2020, signed in 1997, was promulgated to advance the vision of ASEAN as a concert of Southeast Asian nations, outward looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bonded together in partnership and dynamic development, and a community of caring societies. Ten years later, the Cebu Declaration was signed to accelerate the establishment of an ASEAN Community by 2015. In the same year, the ASEAN Charter was ratified to give the organization the legal status and institutional framework. One of the purposes of the Charter is the promotion of a people-oriented ASEAN where all sectors of society are encouraged to participate in, and benefit from, the process of ASEAN integration and community-building. Lastly, the ASEAN Vision 2025, signed in 2015, is intended to consolidate and deepen the ASEAN Community as a people-oriented, people-centered Community where people will enjoy the fundamental rights and the benefits of community-building.
In explaining the three pillars of the ASEAN Community – namely the ASEAN Political-Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community, and ASEAN Socio-cultural Community, Chairperson Bala expounded that the threads that bind their blueprints together include the concepts of inclusiveness, resiliency, dynamism, being people-centered, and people-oriented, which are all significant in defining the role of the people in ASEAN. Chairperson Bala enumerated specific mechanisms and projects that have been put in place to bring ASEAN closer to the people. She also underscored the challenge of increasing awareness about ASEAN as a crucial factor in effectively engaging the people.
In expounding the distinction between a people-oriented and a people-centred ASEAN, Prof. Kraft explained that the former treats people as passive beneficiaries of ASEAN programs, while the latter treats people as a collective entity that needs to be actively involved in the community-building process. He identified the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) as a successful example of a process where there was a strong engagement between civil society groups and governments. Prof. Kraft added that the extensive consultations in the drafting of the terms of reference of the ASEAN Charter, and the wording of the ASEAN Charter itself marked an episode when a space was created for intensive collaboration between governments and civil society groups.
Prof. Kraft, however, noted the gaps in intensifying the engagement with the people of ASEAN, as decision-making largely remains a top-down process. Despite some good examples, Prof. Kraft noted that dialogue with civil society is not yet institutionalized in some sectors, and there is unevenness on how often interface takes place. He emphasized that people should have a sense of ownership or investment in the ASEAN process in order to generate genuine membership in the Community. At the same time, the initiative to be involved should not be left to governments. Civil society groups must also be assertive in engaging governments on issues that they themselves think are important.
During the open forum, it was highlighted that as an intergovernmental body, ASEAN’s strength depends on the success of its Member States. As decisions in ASEAN are done by consensus, compromises must sometimes be made to ensure the acceptability of its initiatives by all Member States, preventing disjunct in the implementation of ASEAN’s programs in the local, national, and regional levels to maximize the benefits for its people.