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World | National

ASEAN irrelevant to most residents of region - lawmakers

(From left) Member of Parliaments U Shwe Maung of Myanmar, Charles Santiago of Malaysia, and Charles Chong of Singapore at the town hall open discussion between civil society and parliamentarians in Kuala Lumpur on April 22, 2015. (photo by Veronica Uy,
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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is irrelevant to most people living in the region, parliamentarians from member-countries of the bloc said at a dialogue with participants of the ASEAN People’s Forum here Wednesday.

As proof, Charles Santiago, opposition member of parliament of Malaysia, cited a survey of the ASEAN Secretariat in 2013 which found that three of four people in the region do not have a real understanding of ASEAN.

“The impression is ASEAN is an elite project, a business ASEAN. The Senior Officials Meetings promote business. Business is the most pressing motivation. The economic pillar is the most advanced pillar. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that. There’s simply not a fair balance between business ASEAN and social ASEAN,” Santiago said.

U Shwe Maung, an MP in Myanmar representing the Rohingya minotiry, agreed with Santiago and said his constituency does not know about ASEAN. “Their main concern is the open prison where they live. What is important to them is their citizenship rights,” he said.

Most of the 1.3 million Rohingya in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, which has a population of 50 million, are considered stateless. Over the last couple of years since the Myanmar military rulers have tried to move toward democracy, Buddhist attacks on Rohingya communities have killed hundreds of and sent 140,000 to refugee camps where they live without access to adequate health care, education, or jobs. Around 100,000 have also fled Myanmar.

For Charles Chong, Deputy Speaker in Singapore, ASEAN is irrelevant to its people because “many do not really care about ASEAN, as they look to government for economic development.”

Chong also admitted that ASEAN parliamentarians, who are normally the "conscience of the people," have become distracted by having to get elected and concentrating on their constituencies when they should also think about all of ASEAN. 

A parliamentarian from Indonesia said that when she told her political leaders about attending the dialogue on ASEAN, she had to explain to them what ASEAN is about.

Negative relevance

When ASEAN is relevant to the people, it is usually in the negative sense.

Kraisak Choonhavan, of the Democrat Party Thailand, said people in the region get to know of ASEAN through infrastructure projects by ASEAN member countries.

Choonhavan cited the case of the Don Sahong Dam being built in the Laos part of the Mekong River by a Malaysian company, Mega First Corp. Berhard.

This project, he said, is an example not of “cooperation, but ASEAN destruction.” He said Cambodian opposition senators and Thai and Viet NGOs oppose the dam because of what they see are its eventual effects: blocking fish routes and affecting the nutrition and livelihood of millions of people dependent on the Mekong River. 

This type of economic development that ASEAN is pursuing requires genocide, normally of ethnic groups, Choonhavan said.

“This is not America. This mode of development that is most harmful is over,” he said.

Establishing a social ASEAN

To make ASEAN relevant to the people in a positive way, the lawmakers from the region said a “social ASEAN” must be pursued and make regional integration fair.

Responding to a question from Maris dela Cruz of the Network for Transformative Social Protection on how to establish a social ASEAN, Malaysia’s Santiago listed these ways:

  • a region-wide implementation of ILO core labor standards, like decent wages
  • access to social protection in all ASEAN countries
  • social dialogue
  • affordable access to food, housing, health care, and other basic social services
  • an enforceable ASEAN declaration on the protection of migrant workers

“A social ASEAN is one where people matter where the fruits of integration are distributed among the people,” he said. “If governments can reach agreements on investments and reduction of tariffs, I don’t see why they cannot do these, as these are basic to life and living.”

Santiago said the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection of Migrant Workers has been a work in progress for the past 10 years whose passage is imperative as millions of people from the region travel to other countries to work.

“Domestic laws do not protect migrant workers. We need this to be enforceable,” he said.