New vision for CSO engagement with Asean | Inquirer Opinion

New vision for CSO engagement with Asean

12:05 AM March 08, 2017

The Philippines hosts the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, as the latter marks the 50th year of its founding. Civil society organizations (CSO) across the region have long been challenging Asean to address issues that affect Southeast Asian peoples. The more prominent concerns are: 1) lack of popular participation in Asean decision-making; 2) rising inequalities between and among member-countries; 3) weakening democracies and rise of authoritarian governance; 4) human rights deficits and absence of sanctions against rogue regimes; 5) dominance of an elite-centered development strategy and failure to attain inclusive growth; 6) lack of a regional identity and unity; 7) weak social protection; and 8) continuing gender inequalities.

The main forum for CSO engagement with Asean is the Asean Civil Society Conference/Asean Peoples’ Forum (ACSC/APF). Formed in 2005, the ACSC/APF has focused on organizing national consultations, dialogues with government counterparts, regional consultative meetings, crafting the ACSC/APF annual statement, holding a parallel conference, mass mobilizations, and an interface with Asean leaders.


The results have been disappointing for CSOs. An internal ACSC/APF review (2005-2015) concluded that “individual Asean member countries have consistently resisted and vacillated with regards civil society participation and engagement.” The ACSC/APF 2016 statement bemoaned “Asean’s prevailing silence and lack of attention and response to the observations and recommendations raised in all … ACSC/APF Statements.”

Given the frustrating outcomes of years of engagement with Asean, what is needed now is a new vision by CSOs for 2017 and beyond. ACSC/APF must now think and act outside the Asean box and initiate a process of establishing a regional integration model that is based on people-to-people interactions rather than state-to-state or market-oriented interactions.


Southeast Asian peoples have long been engaged in alternative and nonmainstream practices that encompass economic, political, social, and cultural aspects. At the economic level, examples are: people-to-people trade through cooperatives; reviving local markets by building forward and backward linkages; social enterprises; sustainable food production systems, organic farming, agro-ecology, biodiversity, zero-waste production, community-based renewable energy systems; and vernacular architecture.

On the political front, the new vision would entail expanding CSO networks on environmental issues, human rights, and peace and human security. At the local level, this means looking into alternative modes of governance that are participatory and popularly based. In the social aspect, self-help groups have long existed and local networks have coordinated their social protection activities. On the cultural aspect, artists and performers engage in exchange programs in order to share the richness of emancipatory Southeast Asian cultures.

The ACSC/APF strategy for the new vision is to build on these existing alternative practices and, through its network’s members, work for a new paradigm of regional integration from below. While the normal modes of engagement with governments are to continue, this will no longer be the main focus of ACSC/APF’s work.

The real challenge facing ACSC/APF today lies from outside and beyond the Asean process.  While Asean remains locked in a market-centered and state-supported process, civil society must be tightly interconnected with grassroots initiatives and the creative practices of real peoples struggling to carve a more dignified life for their families and communities and for the future.  ACSC/APF has to take up this challenge or continue to be mired in the old ways that have proven ineffectual and counterproductive.

Eduardo C. Tadem, PhD., is coconvenor of the Philippine National Organizing Committee of ACSC/APF 2017, president of the Freedom from Debt Coalition, and professorial lecturer of Asian studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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