Asean civil society battles govt domination



JAKARTA – Civil society groups say Asean governments have again thrown cold water on any attempt at engagement and taken control of nominations and agenda-setting for Saturday’s Interface meeting between leaders of the two sides.

Thai NGO Coordinating Committee secretary-general Suntaree Saeng-ging said on Wednesday the Thai government, and many other governents, had independently appointed representatives and it was not clear who would attend.

Thai civil society participants at the Jakarta 2011 Asean Civil Society Conference (ACSC) and the Asean People’s Forum (APF) had chosen Sureeporn Yupa, of Disabled Peoples’ International Asia Pacific (DPI/AP), to represent Thailand during the May 7 Interface dialogue with the government leaders.

Ms Suntaree said should there be any problem with any individual NGO-selected delegates, Asean civil society would compromise by not sending those persons into the meeting room and the rest of the team would go ahead with the talks.

“But if the Asean governments still insist on sending their own nominated representatives to replace our chosen representatives we will boycott the Interface meeting,” said Ms Suntaree.

This problem occurred during Thailand’s chairmanship (2008-2009) when Cambodia and Burma strongly opposed the NGO-nominated list. As a result not all 10 NGO representatives showed up at the 15-minute formal encounter between the Asean leaders and the NGOs.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, however, met briefly with the unwanted delegates after the formal meeting.

Last year, when Vietnam was in the chair, there was no such “Interface” meeting and the parallel process under the banner of the Asean Civil Society Conference (ACSC) and the Asean People’s Forum (APF) failed the majority of the activists.

With higher expectations for the meeting under the chair of the normally open Indonesia, civil society groups were expecting at it to at least be on par with the Thai process, but this had not happened.

Jakarta had sent out a note to all Asean members on April 28 asking them to provide a list of the delegates by May 1. However, the ACSC/APF had planned to come up with their own nominations at the Jakarta meeting today.

The Foreign Ministry has also asked the Ministry of Social and Human Development to nominate a person.

Decha Chaithap, a Chiang Mai-based community development network organisation, was nominated by the ministry although he was not present at the NGO meeting in Jakarta. He therefore faces a strong protest by the strong hundred-member Thai civil society group here.

“Of course, compared to other countries’ lists the Thai government appointed person has stronger credentials … however, this is about the process not the result or the person,” one Thai participant here said.

Efforts to delist the nominee were facing difficulties as Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had already been given Mr Decha’s name.

The Burmese government has proposed Sit Aye, a senior anti-drugs official, to represent Burmese civil society while the independent Burmese NGOs had proposed Chiang Mai-based Aung Myo Min, from the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma.

As next year’s chairman of Asean, Phnom Penh has also pushed its own man, Moly Van, to represent the NGO face while independent NGOs have proposed Thun Saray, chairman of the Cambodia Human Rights and Development Association.

Jakarta was today busy sorting out a face-saving solution for the Saturday summit.

Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Alternative Asean Network for Burma (ALTSEAN), said it was farcical that the NGO-driven process had been hijacked by the governments and that a democratic host like Indonesia had to compromise with the more authoritarian voices in the regional grouping preaching about people-centered community-building.

Apart from Thailand and Cambodia, Brunei, Burma and the Philippine governments have also prepared lists of their own people for the Interface dialogue. However, Brunei had nominated a person also participated in the ACSC/APF meeting.

A number of workshops are being held today and tomorrow, discussing a wide range of issues including Burmese democracy, civil liberties, the role of th Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, energy and nuclear issues, gender equality and people with disabilities.

Chhaya Hang, director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, has said the plenary meeting touched upon so many overwhelming issues. He felt the Asean NGOs should prioritise their issues for discussions or communications with the governments.

“I think we should formalise or legitimise the role of the NGOs in Asean’s respective countries first. “Several countries including Cambodia have yet to fully recognise, if not legalise, NGOs although we’ve done a lot for the betterment of the people in various areas,” said Mr Chhaya.

Sodsai Srangsok, from Ubon Ratchathani Nuclear Watch, proposed that Asean should start engaging the people in their formulation of development and energy development policy programmes.

At the opening session, Indonesian vice president Boedinono declared that governments need civil society groups as a connective “tongue of the people”, to ensure a solid integration of Asean political, economic and social culture.

However, Mr Boedinono was reportedly uneasy when the NGOs presented footage of Aung San Suu Kyi’s message for democratisation in Burma.