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Understanding the Reformed ASEAN

Saturday 21 March 2015, 1130 – 1300, Auditorium 1

Kelly Gerard
University of Western Australia

Kelly Gerard
University of Western Australia

ASEAN now appears a far cry from its former self: after decades of rhetoric but limited substance on economic integration, the ASEAN Economic Community will commence in 2015 with reduced restrictions on the flow of goods, services, capital, and labor. More remarkable, however, after decades of being known as a ‘club of dictators’, ASEAN has embraced greater political integration through commitments to the rule of law, democracy, and human rights, enshrined in pivotal agreements including the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Community Blueprints. Despite these various commitments at the regional level and ASEAN’s creation of policies and agencies in the pursuit of its reformed objectives, it has consistently failed to act accordingly. This ‘implementation gap’ is captured in its consistent lack of a response to human rights and rule of law violations—notably, the Thai coup in May 2014, the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the enforced disappearance of high-profile Laotian environmental activist, Sombath Somphone, in December 2012. Building on recent contributions to ASEAN and regionalism scholarship, this panel critically engages with ASEAN’s recent trajectory. Rüland considers national and regional channels for the representation of Indonesian business associations and SMEs, given anticipated negative impacts on their livelihoods as a consequence of the AEC. Rother highlights the new transnational political spaces that have been opened up by migrant rights activists in Southeast Asia. Gerard examines ASEAN’s rhetoric and implementation of the rule of law, and how its limited capacities pertain to domestic political exigencies.

Paper 1: The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and Indonesian Domestic Responses

Jürgen Rüland
University of Freiburg

The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is scheduled to start by the end of 2015. If implemented according to the blueprints, it will have far-reaching repercussions on the economies of the region. Small and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs) are expected to bear the brunt of the AEC and its envisaged market-opening. In Indonesia business associations, labor organizations and NGOs not only fear the flooding of the domestic market with foreign products leading to bankruptcies of SMEs and the loss of jobs, but also environmental damages, land grabbing and other adverse repercussions for the living conditions of less advantaged social groups. Yet, ASEAN provides limited channels for stakeholder groups to represent their interests, irrespective of the far-reaching socioeconomic changes associated with the AEC. ASEAN is as far away from a people-oriented and participatory regional organization than it was at the time when member governments signed the ASEAN Charter. While there is increasing research on NGOs and their attempts to build a “participatory regionalism” (Acharya), there is very little knowledge on how other stakeholders such as SMEs and business representatives pursue their interests. Drawing from fieldwork conducted in recent years in Indonesia, this paper explores how Indonesian business associations and SMEs, especially those representing sectors relying on the domestic economy, respond to the AEC; the channels available to pursue their members’ interest; and the impact their lobbying has on decision-makers in the government and in ASEAN. The study thus contributes to the fledgling research on the democratization of regional organizations and other international forums.

Paper 2: Migrant Civil Society in Southeast Asia – Regional Democratisation from Below?

Stefan Rother
University of Freiburg

Space for civil society activism within the ASEAN region is constantly changing; while civil liberties and human rights seem to be on the decline in several of the member states regional civil society is presenting itself organized as rarely before, as could be witnessed during the 2014 ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC) in Myanmar. But while the meeting was marked by a record attendance, access to consultations with governments remains a constant struggle. As a consequence, transnational civil society has established its own independent networks in the region. This paper argues that these networks have the potential to create an ‘Alternative Regionalism’ from the ground up and contribute to democratisation from below by representing the interests of marginalized groups. As a case study it analyses the new transnational political spaces opened up by migrant rights activists in Southeast Asia. These networks are giving voice to particularly disenfranchised groups, since migrants’ interests are often neither represented by their states of origin or destination. Even if there are negotiations between ASEAN member states such as Malaysia and Indonesia or Cambodia, the discrepancies in economic resources and “supply and demand” of migrant workers lead to very uneven bargaining power. This results often in non-binding “Memorandums of Understanding” that do not address the rights of migrant workers. This paper will discuss the efforts of migrant civil society for a regional and global rights-based to approach to migration and their cross-sectoral ties with other rights-based networks in the region.

Paper 3: The Rule of Law and the New ASEAN

Kelly Gerard
University of Western Australia

ASEAN has undergone a transformation since the late 1990s. It has intensified its commitments to regional economic integration through the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community by the end of 2015 and it has also created a range of new agencies to manage various recent political commitments, notably to the rule of law in the ASEAN Charter that was signed in 2007. The explicit inclusion of the rule of the law in the ASEAN Charter followed UN reforms from 2004 that recognised the rule of law as interlinked with democracy and human rights.  ASEAN’s commitment to the rule of law raises numerous questions, given the grouping’s historic preference for an exclusive and minimalist approach to regional governance and states’ domestic policies and practices. Through comparison of ASEAN’s rhetoric and implementation of the rule of law and an examination of domestic political exigencies, this paper critically assesses this apparent turn within ASEAN towards greater political integration. Drawing from recent interviews conducted with policymakers, ASEAN Secretariat officials, and NGO representatives, the paper contributes to the limited scholarship on the relationship between ASEAN’s reform agenda and domestic socio-political conflicts. It argues that the gap between ASEAN’s rhetoric and practice indicates the Association’s considered embrace of some liberal reforms, as opposed to a significant shift in its trajectory.

Paper 4: Constructing Norms: The Power of Language in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration

Kevin Villanueva
University of Leeds

The 10 ASEAN Member Countries launched the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights in October 2009, a little less than a year after the ASEAN Charter was ratified in December 2008. Article 14 of the Charter provided for the establishment of what was then curiously called a “human rights body”. In November 2012, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration was adopted and signed. These events transpired just over a decade after the Asian Values Debate reached its apogee in the mid 1990s, and over four decades after the founding of the organisation in 1967. It took long before the ASEAN leaders recognized the principle of human rights, on the one hand; and it was a brief interlude between the clamor of Southeast Asian governments for deferential treatment on account of culture and identity and the formal establishment of the first Asian human rights mechanism, on the other.

Why did ASEAN respond to normative pressures from human rights actors on the eventual establishment of a human rights regime? The study looks deeply into the validity of the following hypothesis: ASEAN agreed to an international human rights regime because rights discourse was able to accommodate contradictory notions of human rights and the different social and political orders of the organisation, its member states, interest groups and civil society. The use of text and discourse gave rise to the admissibility of what would otherwise have been, or constantly branded as, a “Western liberal project”. Rhetoric is change: one cannot say what one cannot do, one cannot write that which (almost always) one cannot commit to do. “Reform” does not happen without the representational and constitutional power of language; this proceeds either before the fact when the intention is expressed or post-facto when change is verified, and indeed, during the fact, when change is manifested.