by Kornelius Purba from Manila

The Jakarta Post, 9 Dec 2006

If a tropical storm had not threatened the Philippines, the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would have opened their four-day summit the resort city of Cebu on Monday. The summit has now been postponed until early January.

The bombastic, ambitious, theme “How to turn ASEAN into one caring and sharing community” of the annual gathering is a relevant one, as the 10-member regional group will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year.

To prove how much the leaders care for their people, summit host Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo invited the chairman of the ASEAN People’s Assembly, a group of civil society organizations in Southeast Asia, to present the results of the assembly’s two-day meeting in Manila, which was concluded last Saturday.

ASEAN was established in 1967, but the first People’s Assembly meeting did not take place until 2001, on Batam. Since then, non-governmental organizations have been allowed to participate in the ASEAN decision making process, although many ASEAN leaders listen only half-heartedly.

In an Oct. 16 letter, Arroyo asked People’s Assembly chairman Dr. Carolina G. Hernandez to make a 10-minute presentation and report to the ASEAN leaders on the results of the meeting Monday afternoon.

It is an encouraging sign of progress that ASEAN leaders agreed to be briefed by a representative of a group of civil organizations. However, the most the leaders can promise Hernandez is that they are in a “listening mood”, because the draft of their final declaration, to be issued after the summit, will have been completed by their foreign ministers before she gives her presentation.

Arroyo says that as ASEAN is to celebrate its anniversary, its leaders would like to further fortify its people-centered approach to ASEAN integration and the establishment of an ASEAN community by 2020.

ASEAN’s anniversary is on Aug. 8 next year, and Singapore is to host the celebrations. But do the people — ASEAN’s combined population is around 500 million — really feel attached to the association? Can they see its impact on their daily lives?

At the Cebu summit, the leaders will discuss various issues, including terrorism. Many parts of the region, particularly Indonesia and the southern Philippines are still regarded as breeding grounds for terrorists.

People’s Assembly participants, however, have different foci to the government leaders. During discussions at their meeting, several people warned that state terrorism was no less dangerous, than violent extremist groups. Malaysia and Singapore still maintain oppressive internal security acts and extra-judicial executions are common in the Philippines. Myanmar’s junta treats brutally those it regards as enemies of the state and the Thai military toppled a democratically elected civilian government in September. No matter how noble the reasons for the Thai military’s actions, a military coup is against the most fundamental principles of universal democratic values.

Theoretically, the regional grouping should have matured. The leaders have issued hundreds of declarations, commitments and action plans to bring prosperity, security and democracy to the population of Southeast Asia. But most of the decisions have been based on a bottom-up approach. Grassroots workers have been left to wait for the day they will be fully involved in the decision-making process.

It is difficult for ASEAN leaders to convince their people that the organization is vital to their lives when they cannot demonstrate the concrete results of the organization. Unless the leaders are willing to listen more, and implement what they hear, ASEAN will remain a strong organization only on paper.