Examining the engagement between civil society and ASEAN in the ASEAN Charter process

Essay, 2008

33 Pages, Grade: A

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When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced that, after nearly 40 years of existence, it was finally going to draft the ASEAN Charter, civil society in the region heartily gave its blessings and eagerly cooperated with the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), who was tasked to prepare recommendations on the charter. But, when the grouping announced its signing, an active part of civil society called for a boycott and started to draft its own ASEAN People’s Charter. How did the interactions between civil society and ASEAN turn bad during the ASEAN Charter process and what is in the Charter that upset civil society? And is there any bright future for their engagement?

In looking at these questions, the essay examines the engagement between ASEAN and civil society in the ASEAN Charter process. This process is essential as it creates the ASEAN Charter, which sets the framework and lays the legal foundation for the regional grouping to reform in order to stay relevant. More importantly, it is a weighty part of ASEAN Community building - ASEAN’s most far-reaching project. The engagement between civil society and ASEAN in the charter process is, moreover, noteworthy as this is their first strategic interface and also the first serious test for the relations between the two. Yet it did not produce pleasant results.

The introduction is followed by the first section that provides readers with basic information about ASEAN, how ASEAN was born and how it has operated, expanded and developed over the years. My focus is on the ASEAN Way, ASEAN’s agenda-setting and decision-making as well as ASEAN Community building. The second section describes the fragmented, complex picture of civil society in Southeast Asia, which has insufficiently and unevenly developed under unfavourable conditions. The third is about the engagement between civil society and ASEAN, which has often been criticised by the former for being elitist and state-centric, prior to the charter process. I divide this section into two periods: before and after the Asian financial crisis. And the fourth - the most important in this essay discusses and analyses the engagement of ASEAN and civil society in the ASEAN Charter process, in which I examine the interactions between the EPG and civil society, the latter’s efforts to get access to the actual drafters (the High-level Task Force) and to the draft itself in spite of the uncooperative attitudes of the ASEAN senior officials, as well as civil society’s reactions to the content of the charter.

Finally I sum up my examination and analysis in the conclusion, in which I argue that despite civil society’s disappointment, the engagement has made the ASEAN governing elite gradually become familiar with civil society’s participation in ASEAN policy formulation process. It can be considered an significant precedent for future interface. Besides, it was a good opportunity for both sides to interact and get to know each other’s concerns and viewpoints. During the process, civil society organisations (CSOs) also had chances to cooperate and coordinate with others, thus improving their strengths and advocacy skills.

ASEAN says it aims at being “a community of caring and sharing societies” by 2015. Nonetheless, the charter drafting process still showed the association’s top-down elitist approach to community building. 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.


ASEAN[1] was founded by five countries Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand in August 1967[2]. The grouping has since doubled its membership by admitting Brunei in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Laos, Myanmar in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999.


In the 1960s, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore were all nations in the making because they as sovereign independent nations came into the world only after the end of the WWII. The fact that ASEAN was at the beginning a group of newly independent (with the exception of Thailand, which was never a colony) developing countries made non-interference[3] the central tenet of intra-regional relations hardly surprising. Besides, smaller members such as Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei were consciously fearful of force and coercive measures from much bigger neighbours like Indonesia. As a result, non-interference, consensus[4], non-use of force[5] and non-confrontation became the key principles of the organisation (Acharya, 2001: 49 - 58).

On the surface, the process of consultations and consensus is supposed to be a democratic approach to decision making, but the ASEAN process has been managed significantly through informal contacts[6] among the top leaders, who often share a reluctance to institutionalise and legalise cooperation which can undermine their regime’s control over the conduct of regional cooperation. (Acharya, 2003: 379)

All of these features, namely non-interference, informality, minimal institutionalisation, consultation and consensus, non-use of force and non-confrontation have constituted what is called the ASEAN Way. (Acharya, 2003: 379)

Since the late 1990s, many scholars have argued 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[7]. 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, 2007d; Collins, 2007: 216).

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.

In terms of finances, member countries, rich or poor, contribute equally to the ASEAN budget. Although beffer-off members agreed to provide less developed ones[8] with additional funding to carry out various development projects on a bilateral basis, with poverty-stricken countries like Laos and Myanmar in its fold, this principle of equal contribution has capped ASEAN’s financial resources at the lowest level and further handicapped the organisation[9] (Lohman & Kim: 2008). To make up partially for the lack of money, it has sought external funding support from 11 dialogue partners and donour organisations for the operation of the ASEAN Secretariat and the implementation of its projects.


Apart from consultations and consensus, ASEAN’s agenda-setting and decision-making processes can be usefully understood in terms of the so-called Track I and Track II (Chai, 2003). Track I refers to the practice of diplomacy among government channels. The participants stand as representatives of their respective states and reflect the official positions of their governments during negotiations and discussions. All official decisions are made in Track I. Track II on the other hand refers to diplomatic activities that are unofficial and includes participants from both government and non-government institutions such as the academic, economic communities and NGOs (Kraft, 2002: 51). This track enables governments to discuss controversial issues and test new ideas without making official statements or binding commitments, and, if necessary, backtrack on positions.

Although Track II dialogues are sometimes cited as examples of the involvement of civil society in the regional decision-making process by governments and other second track actors (Acharya, 2003: 383), NGOs have rarely got access to this track, meanwhile participants from the academic community are a dozen think-tanks[10]. However, these think-tanks are, in most cases, very much linked to their respective governments, and dependent on government funding for their academic and policy-relevant activities (Acharya, 2001: 66 – 67). Their recommendations, especially in economic integration[11], are often closer to ASEAN’s decisions than the rest of civil society’s positions.

The track that acts as a forum for civil society in Southeast Asia is called Track III, which is essentially people-to-people diplomacy undertaken mainly by CSOs. Track III networks claim to represent communities and people who are largely marginalised from political power centers and unable to achieve positive change without outside assistance. This track tries to influence government policies indirectly by lobbying, generating pressure through the media. Third-track actors also organise and/or attend meetings as well as conferences to get access to Track I officials.

While Track II meetings and interactions with Track I actors have increased and intensified, rarely has the rest of civil society had the opportunity to interface with Track II. Those with Track I have been even rarer. In other words, the participation of the big majority of CSOs has been excluded from ASEAN’s agenda-setting and decision-making. (Caballero-Anthony, 2004: 577)

Looking at the three tracks, it is clear that until now, ASEAN has been run by government officials who, as far as ASEAN matters are concerned, are accountable only to their governments and not the people. In a lecture on the occasion of ASEAN’s 38th anniversary, the incumbent Indonesian President Dr. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono admitted:

“All the decisions about treaties and free trade areas, about declarations and plans of action, are made by Heads of Government, ministers and senior officials. And the fact that among the masses, there is little knowledge, let alone appreciation, of the large initiatives that ASEAN is taking on their behalf.” (2005)


Of all ASEAN projects, the most ambitious is the ASEAN Community, which is scheduled to be realised by 2015. 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 and in the region 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.


[1] ASEAN is one of the most remarkably divergent groups of states. 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 ethnicities, cultures, languages as well as political and economic systems are not less heterogeneous. They also lacked any significant previous experience in multilateral cooperation (Acharya, 2001: 47).

[2] 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)

[3] According to Amitav Acharya, the implementation of this principle in ASEAN has had four main aspects: (1) Refraining from criticising the actions of the governments of member states towards its own people; (2) Directing criticism at the actions of states that are perceived to constitute a breach of the principle of non-intervention. (3) denying recognition, sanctuary, or other forms of support to any rebel group seeking to destabilise or overthrow the government of a neighbouring state. (4) Providing political support and material assistance to member-states in their actions against subversive activities).

[4] The principle of consensus understood in the ASEAN context is not to be confused with unanimity. Lee Kuan Yew, who was Singapore’s founding father, once said: “When four agree and one does not object, this can still be considered a consensus and the four should proceed with a new regional scheme” without damaging the remaining one. (Acharya, 2001: 69)

[5] The principle of non-use of force in Southeast Asia means an agreement among its members to refrain from the use of force to resolve interstate disputes. (Acharya, 2001: 48)

[6] Carlos Romulo, the Foreign Secretary of the Philippines, was believed to have said: “I can pick up the telephone now and talk directly Adam Malik [Indonesia’s Foreign Minister] or Rajaratnam [Singapore’s Foreign Minister]. We often find that private talks over breakfast prove more important than formal meetings”. ASEAN leaders always believe that such informality was necessary in view of the diversity of views and positions held by member countries. (Acharya, 2001: 65)

[7] In other regional organisations such as the European Union, Mercosur or the African Union, the principle of majority-rule voting is employed to facilitate meetings and policy decisions.

[8] They are Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

[9] In May 2004, the ASEAN Secretariat announced that it was only able to pursue 35 percent of its projects because of the lack of funding, with activities, such as the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) project requiring 20 percent more funding (Lim and Walls 2004: 99).

[10] Track II activities in Southeast Asia mainly involve conferences, symposia, seminars and workshops on various regional issues.

[11] For example, ASEAN - Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS) has long supported an open economy for ASEAN and favored trade liberalisation. National and regional NGOs, on the other hand, are more cautious, fearing the possible adverse effects.. (Chandra, 2006: 77)

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Examining the engagement between civil society and ASEAN in the ASEAN Charter process
Humanitarian Strategies and Non- Governmental Organisations
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Examining, ASEAN, Charter, Humanitarian, Strategies, Non-, Governmental, Organisations
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Thi Thu Huong Dang (Author), 2008, Examining the engagement between civil society and ASEAN in the ASEAN Charter process, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/120420


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