Examining the engagement between civil society in Southeast Asia and ASEAN in the ASEAN Community building process

Essay, 2008

34 Pages, Grade: A-

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The reasons for building an ASEAN Community
The ASEAN Community building process



ASEAN’s agenda-setting and decision-making
The engagement between civil society and ASEAN before the Asian economic crisis
After the Asian economic crisis
ASEAN People’s Assembly

ASEAN Civil Society Conference and the Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy
The ASEAN Charter


The essay examines the engagement between civil society in Southeast Asia and ASEAN in the ASEAN community building process. It argues that in spite of initial efforts in mutual accommodation, both sides have been divided from within, which slows the engagement and gives it more form than substance. The efforts by ASEAN so far will only create a community of the governing elite, not a community of the people. Regional community building, just like nation-building, is very much a people-centered process. It is not a simple top-down chain of command and control.If ASEAN wants to establish a real community, it must change its modus operandi. It must be much more than an exclusive club for the governing elite by giving more space as well as power to civil society in its agenda-setting and decision-making.


A community is much more a cognitive than material construction; it is something that has to be believed in, sensed, and nurtured by the people. In Southeast Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is building an ASEAN Community, which is its most far-reaching project. Yet is it possible for a regional organisation that has been widely criticised by civil society for being remote to and detached from the people to establish a community of caring and sharing societies by 2015 as its statements indicate? And if yes, how?

Meanwhile, civil society has an important role to play in community building. Yet civil society in Southeast Asia is weak and fragmented. It has been excluded from ASEAN’s decision-making process. Can civil society contribute to ASEAN community building? And if yes, how?

This essay tries to answer these questions by looking at the engagement between civil society in Southeast Asia and ASEAN in the ASEAN Community building process. It begins with a summary of the ASEAN Community building process, which is followed by an examination of the role of civil society in community building. The third section introduces civil society in Southeast Asia. And the fourth is about the engagement between civil society and ASEAN prior to ASEAN community building. I divide this part into two periods: before and after the Asian financial crisis. Then I move on to the fifth - the most important in this essay which discusses and analyses the engagement between ASEAN and civil society in Southeast Asia in the ASEAN community building process.

Finally I sum up my examination and analysis in the conclusion, in which I argue that in spite of their initial attempts at mutual accommodation, both sides have been divided from within, which slows the engagement and gives it more form than substance. The efforts in community building made by ASEAN so far will only establish a community of the governing elite, not a community of the people. If it wants to create a community larger than that, ASEAN must change. The ASEAN governing elite must loosen their control and give civil society more space in the decision making process.


ASEAN[1] was founded by five countries Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand in August 1967. The grouping has since doubled its membership to include Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Of all ASEAN projects, the most far-reaching and significant is the ASEAN Community, which is scheduled to be realised by 2015.

The reasons for building an ASEAN Community

The process of ASEAN community building is a result of the considerable change in the association’s mission in the recent two decades. The end of the Cold War, the advance of globalisation, the rise of China and India in economic size and political influence as well as the Asian financial crisis have forced ASEAN to shift from its original preventive diplomacy of maintaining peace and harmony among its members to the constructive diplomacy of community building to cope with increasing political and economic competition in a globalised world.

In more details, one of the most notable threats to ASEAN members is China, whose robust economy is in direct competition with those of its Southeast Asian neighbours, especially in trade and foreign direct investment. Besides, in recent years, the sleeping dragon has shown more interest in enhancing its economic and political presence in the region, particularly in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Its awakening has increasingly drawn ASEAN states, which share the common fear of intrusive outside powers, into the long-term strategic competition between China and the United States in Asia Pacific (Neves, 2004: 162). To cope with China and avoid external intervention, Southeast Asian countries feel the need to act collectively and to lean on each other, so that they can have combined strengths as well as better bargaining power in both economic and political issues (Almonte, 2006). The same will work when dealing with an amalgamated or regional community such as the United States and the European Union, or with international organisations such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation.

Besides, in the time of economic globalisation and after it was hit hard by the Asian financial crisis, forming an economic community which develops a single market and production base with effective facilitation for trade and investment will help Southeast Asia improve its economic competitiveness and attractiveness (Almonte, 2006). In terms of political and security issues, internal ethnic and religious tensions (most dangerously in Myanmar, Southern Thailand, Eastern Indonesia and Southern Philippines) have led to cross-border instability, terrorism, illegal migration and drug-trafficking. These and other problems such as air pollution, avian flu, AIDS all require regional concerted and coordinated actions.

Against this backdrop, the future of the region and of ASEAN will be, to a considerable extent, contingent on the degree of success of community building.

The ASEAN Community building process

At its ninth Summit in October 2003, ASEAN announced its decision to establish an ASEAN Community comprising three intertwined and mutually reinforcing pillars, namely the ASEAN Security Community (ASC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) by 2020. In January 2007, its leaders reached an agreement to shorten the time frame to 2015. The ASC is expected to maintain and strengthen peace, security and stability and enhance ASEAN’s capacity for self-management of regional security. It will include maritime cooperation and fight against terrorism, but no plan for a regional military bloc or defence pact. Besides, member countries are free to pursue their own foreign policies and defence arrangements (ASEAN, 2003). Meanwhile, the mission of the AEC is to develop a single market and production base that is stable, prosperous, highly competitive and economically integrated with effective facilitation for trade and investment in which there is free flow of goods, services investment, skilled labours, and freer flow of capital. But it will not adopt a common currency like the European Union (ASEAN, 2007b: 4). And last but not least, the ASCC envisages a Southeast Asia bonded together in partnership as a community of caring and sharing societies. The ASCC Plan of Action contains four core elements: Building a community of caring societies, Managing the social impact of economic integration, Enhancing environmental sustainability, and Strengthening the foundations of regional social cohesion towards an ASEAN Community (ASEAN, 2004b). In 2005, member countries agreed to establish an ASEAN Charter, which would serve as the legal and institutional framework for the regional organisation and the ASEAN Community. Although it will not take on any supranational functions, with its ambitious goals, the ASEAN Community is believed to have far-reaching and important impacts on the lives of the people in Southeast Asia.

Unlike the European Union, ASEAN is still a pure inter-governmental organisation. It has no supranational institution (Ong, 2004) responsible for monitoring and facilitating the realisation of the ASEAN Community. Members rely on mutual trust and goodwill to fulfill integration commitments. However, a study by the three past secretaries-general released in 2007 showed that only 30% of commitments had actually been fulfilled (Fernandez, 2007), including those related to community building.

ASEAN officials admit the AEC is the simplest part, as it has clear objectives and benchmarks such as liberalisation and facilitation measures in the area of trade in goods, services and investments; recognition of educational qualifications; enhanced infrastructure and communications connectivity and the like. Yet, although much has been done[2], the regional economy is far from being effectively integrated. The ASEAN Free Trade Area agreement of 1992 directs their elimination, but non-tariff barriers remain largely in place. In addition, “Reforms of customs procedures and practices, required for the proper implementation of ASEAN trade agreements, have been uneven. The harmonization of product standards, necessary for an integrated market, is extremely slow. So is the conclusion of mutual recognition arrangements that would do away with multiple tests of traded products. Negotiations on the liberalization of trade in services, although mandated by the 1995 ‘framework agreement’, seem to be marking time. Transportation between or through ASEAN countries remains cumbersome and expensive, and the development of infrastructure is highly uneven. Communications within ASEAN are still fragmented”, former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino points out (2007: 5). As a result, the intra-regional trade share increased slightly from 22% in 2003 and 2004 to 25% in 2006, the intra-regional investment share in 2006 was the same as the average share of the 2002 – 2006 period (only 11%). Businessmen still view ASEAN as 10 different countries, with 10 different customs' authorities, rules and regulations, and 10 different borders (Taing, 2007). ASEAN trade officials themselves said the AEC blueprint, which was approved only in late November 2007 with detailed timelines, must be implemented swiftly and effectively if the 2015 deadline is to be met (Fernandez, 2007).

The security community is known to be more difficult to build. Although the likelihood of war between ASEAN countries has become remote, a set of important norms and values have been developed and shared, so far security and political cooperation within regional framework is mostly focused on highly selective and not highly controversial issues of common concern since several members have been obsessed with non-interference in the internal affairs and consensus in the association’s decision-making process. Many scholars argue that the principle of non-interference has blunted ASEAN efforts in handling the problem of Myanmar, human rights abuses and haze pollution in the region. Meanwhile, with the consensus-based approach, every member in fact has a veto and decisions are usually reduced to the lowest common denominator. There has been a widespread belief that ASEAN members should have a less rigid view on these two cardinal principles when they wish to be seen as a cohesive and relevant community. (Chongkittavorn, 2006, 2007b; Collins, 2007: 216)

The socio-cultural question is the most complex (Ong, 2004) because of the immense diversity in Southeast Asia. Member states include sprawling archipelagoes (Indonesia and the Philippines) and tiny city-states (Singapore); the world's fourth-largest country (Indonesia) and the 170th (Brunei); modern developed economies such as Singapore and agrarian backwaters like Laos. Their cultures, languages as well as political and economic systems are not less heterogeneous. However, the socio-cultural pillar has received the least attention and is the least developed among the three. The ASCC Plan of Action has vague objectives and no detailed implementation plan. Not many activities have been conducted so far. An ASEAN agreement on transboundary haze pollution has come into force, and some progress has been made in terms of mechanisms and local-community consciousness. Yet the haze problem still recurs every year. The effectiveness of an ASEAN response to an avian influenza pandemic is uncertain. Programmes to familiarise the people of Southeast Asia with one another’s cultures are dependent on external funding and, therefore, inadequate. Little is being done in informing the public or educating children in the region about ASEAN, although these are essential for community building (Severino, 2007: 5).

ASEAN says it aims at being a community of caring and sharing societies by 2015 (ASEAN, 2007a). But observers are skeptical about its feasibility. They disbelieve countries with protracted internal conflicts such as Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines will become caring and sharing societies in the next seven years. Not to mention the notorious human rights violations in Myanmar. At the 39th anniversary of ASEAN in August 2006, Jose Almonte, who is a respected analyst in the region, argued in his lecture that, “Even now - a full generation since ASEAN's founding - I think it fair to say that our peoples feel no personal intimacy - no moral commitment - no historical continuity - with each other.” In other words, there is almost no sense of community among the people in Southeast Asia[3]. Besides, the people and civil society have been excluded from ASEAN’s decision-making process. Until now, regionalism has been essentially elite-centred and politically illiberal, and the engagement of civil society minimal. To establish a community in the next seven years, the governing elite are urged to work hard to put their grand declarations into practice.

The most visible efforts by ASEAN so far are those related to the ASEAN Charter. After two years of deliberations and drafting, the Charter was signed on November 20, 2007. It is by all accounts as good a lowest common denominator as could have been expected, given the disparate interests, histories and sensitivities of Southeast Asian countries (Fernandez, 2007).

The Charter confers a legal personality on the association. It codifies all ASEAN norms, rules and values, including the cardinal principles of consensus and non-interference. It is touted as a means of getting members to take their commitments and ASEAN’s rules more seriously. However, the document lacks clear mechanisms for dispute settlement, accountability and redresss. It does not offer anything new to deal with Myanmar.

The Charter will also lead to a reformed structure of ASEAN. It states that several new institutions, including three Community Councils, the Coordinating Council, and the long-awaited ASEAN human rights body will be created and the roles of the secretary-general as well as the ASEAN Secretariat strengthened. But the time frames for the establishment of these organs are unknown.

From the summary of ASEAN Community building above, it is clear that this process is without three things: political will, regional institutions and the engagement of the people and civil society. In the scope of this essay, the last one will be the main topic. Is this topic important to community building to be written about?


A community implies a social, rather than purely instrumental, relationship (Acharya, 2004: 27). It is something that has to be believed in, sensed, and nurtured by the people (Collins, 2007: 209). A community can form precisely because the people of the member states begin to view one another as part of a greater whole. In security community formation, this notion of the people having important agency is also captured in Deutsch (1957), Adler and Barnett (1998)’s frequent reference to individuals, people and societies, we-ness and we-feeling.[4]

In community building, civil society which represents a proportion of the people and advocates for their interests plays a significant role for three main reasons:

First, to an individual, according to A.Z. Pelczynski’s interpretation of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, a civil society is not only “an arena in which man legitimately gratifies his self-interest and develops his individuality, but also learns the value of group action, social solidarity and the dependence of his welfare on others” (cited in Kumar, 1993: 379). This view is similar to that of Robert Putnam, who writes civil societies “instill in their members habits of cooperation, solidarity and public spiritedness... Participation in civil society organisations inculcates skills of co-operation as well as a sense of shared responsibility for the collective endeavours” (cited in Caballero-Anthony, 2004: 571). Membership and activity within civil society organisations (CSOs) therefore help to create a sense of community[5] in the individual, which is essential for community formation.

Second, at group level, civil society organisations share common concerns essentially rooted in assisting local communities, alleviating the miserable living conditions of the poor, the underprivileged, and looking into the plight of abused women and children, among others. CSOs also share the common objective of empowering these groups to fight for social justice, human rights, improved environmental conditions and a better quality of life (Collins, 2007: 210, 220). They fill the void that exists between the activities of the state and the market. And because these problems can be found in neighbouring states, CSOs can create coalitions and networks to find solutions together. A growing sense of solidarity, relatedness and mattering emerges from CSO activities and this bodes well for the creation of a sense of community via a bottom up process. Civil society groups can therefore act as conduits for the type of interaction Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett note occurs in the ascendant stage of security community formation (1998: 29 – 66).

Third, to varying degrees, CSOs can influence policy formulation and act as a significant constraint on the governing elite to make community building more people-oriented and democratic (Collins, 2007: 211). “[W]ithout a secure and independent civil society of autonomous public spheres, goals such as freedom and equality, participatory planning and community decision-making will be nothing but empty slogans”, argued John Keane (cited in Kumar, 1993: 385).

Yet how about civil society in Southeast Asia?


[1] Several reasons lay behind the formation of ASEAN: its members’ desire for a stable external environment (so that they could concentrate on nation building), the common fear of communism, their reduced faith in or mistrust of external powers in the 1960s, as well as the aspiration for national economic development; not to mention Indonesia’s ambition to become a regional hegemon through regional cooperation and the hope on the part of Malaysia and Singapore to constrain Indonesia and bring it into a more cooperative framework. Unlike the Europe Union, ASEAN has been made to serve nationalism. It has yet to become a sovereign-defying project. (Alagappa, 1998: 65 – 114)

[2] Almost all intra-ASEAN trade is now, at least on paper, free of duty. (Severino, 2007)

[3] Analysing the results of surveys and interviews he conducted in all ten ASEAN countries from May 2004 to July 2007, Christopher Roberts concludes that the process of embedding a sense of community will probably occur over the course of many decades rather than by the official goal of 2015. (2007, 6)

[4] Civil society is a contested concept. There is little agreement on its precise meaning, though much overlap exists among core conceptual components (Kumar, 1993). It is, of course, beyond the ambition of this essay to undertake a comprehensive review of the various definitions of civil society. In this essay, the term refers to organised non-profit groups who act, to a large extent, in the interests of neither political parties, commercial businesses nor the private sphere of family for the sake of social good. These groups include mainly registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women's organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, coalitions and advocacy groups.

[5] The most influential and cited definition of sense of community is that of D. W. McMillan and D. M. Chavis, to whom it is “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together” (1986, 9).

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Examining the engagement between civil society in Southeast Asia and ASEAN in the ASEAN Community building process
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Thi Thu Huong Dang (Author), 2008, Examining the engagement between civil society in Southeast Asia and ASEAN in the ASEAN Community building process, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/112866


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