This is an article written by EarthRights School Mekong alumni SIriluk, who attended the ASEAN Youth Forum and ASEAN Peoples' Forum in Phnom Penh. Photo Credit Mingla Charoenmuang
For the last few years, since the 2008 ASEAN Charter was drafted and commenced, its people began to pay more attention of what ASEAN is, what it can do, and whom it does for. ASEAN as an association of Southeast Asian Nations, and as an economic, political, and socio-cultural zone, ASEAN governments try to promote a further step of emerging SEA nations into a ‘community.’ As its slogan trying to achieve as ‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community’, it gains much of criticisms in terms of its attempt to free flow the labor market and emerge more free trade areas.
However, there is a positive aspect to look at, at the people-to-people level, we are from different countries - all trading and communicating all the time trying to understand each other’s cultures and political views, trying to work together to solve problems and to achieve an universal value such as human rights.
ASEAN Youth Movement
Late in March this year, I again had a great opportunity to attend ASEAN Youth Forum and ASEAN Peoples’ Forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I got to know more friends and to connect myself into a circle of concerned young and adult citizens who care about political and social issues in our ASEAN region. Also, for those who are willing to organize and to network as a cross-border and transnational working group in order to seek for solutions.
ASEAN has been focusing mostly on political and economic issues, and mostly at the governments level. Many groups of concerned and affected people in the society have been left behind. Also, there are yet not many have been involved in public policy decision-making procedure, especially the ASEAN youth groups. Therefore, this cause has drawn more various groups of people to work together, not quiet against ASEAN governments, but to try to work with them in order to bring a better, free and fair society for all, youth groups are included.
ASEAN young generation is now very active to engage themselves in the association. A group called ASEAN Youth Movement works with other national non-government organizations (NGOs), they organize an ASEAN Youth Forum (AYF) every year trying to bring many young people from different ASEAN countries to discuss about their critical concerned issues. Also, every year, they come up with an ASEAN Youth statement to raise the youth concerns to ASEAN governments. Moreover, thanks to the social media that helps and enhances ASEAN Youth groups to be more active cross borders through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Weblog, etc.
Hands Up for Environment!
Amazingly, the year of 2012 the Youth Statement firstly pointed out the immediate concerns and addressed recommendations about the environment, which comes along with the NGOs push for a fourth ASEAN pillar ‘Environment’ (three pillars are: political, economic and socio-cultural). In the last part of a seven-page long ASEAN Youth Statement, finally, there is a big highlight shining on ‘Sustainable Development in the Protection of and Responsibilities for the Environment.’ Also, the statement is a collective commitment of 4-year long team - work by over 400 youth who raised these issues and agreed upon. (The youth are from Southeast Asian countries, in addition, South Korea, the United States, and China).
[Retrieved from the statement:] ‘Development activities in ASEAN can be associated with natural resource and environmental exploitation. Its peoples, especially the youth, are facing challenges such as air and water pollution, soil degradation which are the basic needs for human existence. Massive exploitation of natural resources in ASEAN is brought about by development projects such as roads, highways, bridges, power grid, dams, mining, nuclear power plants, natural gas extraction etc.
These infrastructures may facilitate free flow of labor and goods but governments must also ensure the protection of environment and affected communities in the process. ASEAN citizens must be fully educated to responsibly manage and use natural resources and fully participate in decision-making processes related to development projects. We strongly call for ASEAN governments to create and support accessible platforms to discuss about the “Right of Our Earth.” As we can see this new input is actually involved in every topic, in every national and international level hot topic. For us to have a good life, we need a democratic policy-making procedure, operating, and evaluating in farming, trading, marketing, and consuming sessions.
Youth Fellows Speak Up Their Minds
Moreover, this year of has been remarkable for many changes, ASEAN gains more momentum as it becomes a hot spot of economic development for China. The President of PRC Mr.Hu Jintao has just came to visit Prime Minister of Cambodia Samdech Hun Sen in late March, and the global society keeps eyes on SEA because of political changes in the region. Many protests and people uprisings took place in both Thailand and Malaysia, including the release of long time house-arrested Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma/Myanmar.
There were about 16 youth came from inside Burma/Myanmar, and represented from many different ethnicities attending this 2012 ASEAN Youth Forum (AYF). I was impressed by how they organized themselves to come to Phnom Penh, to be in risk of attending such a political event in foreign country.
A fellow from Myanmar/Burma once said in AYF “we are not recognized by our government of coming here. We don’t know the future when we return to our home country what will happen to us. People think many things get better in Burma, but actually they are not. Many political prisoners still remain in prisons.”
This reveals that they bravely spoke and expressed their concerns and situations in the country freely without self-censorship (i.e. freedom of expression, freedom of media, environmental negative impact due to development projects, etc.), of course out from their origin country, still they tried to tell us what is going on in Burma. I feel that those young activists from Burma have already transformed their fear to courage in wishing to make such a democratic society to genuinely establish on their homeland.
Hence, one of my lesson learn from the forums, I had to say ‘in building ASEAN Community that means we all have to deal with our own and other people’s fear as well.’ Why? This is why.
Living In Fear, Still Walking Forward
During the last day of AYF, we were facing a big challenge in finalizing the youth statement. We were discussing and debating whether we should put a word ‘democratization’ or replace with other words, in this following sentence: “Engaging Young People at the Heart of Democratization, Peace Building and Conflict Transformation.
Above mentioned is a part of the seven-page ASEAN Youth Statement that was released and publicized at the ACSC/ASEAN People’s Forum (APF) 2012 in March 29, 2012 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. For about 100 young participants each year traveled to a different ASEAN hosting country, where they discussed over critical issues and concerns in their home countries and in our ASEAN region. Now ASEAN Youth Movement/Forum has made up their members up to 400 names already.
A few participants from Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Vietnam were afraid of putting the word ‘democratization’ into the Youth Statement, which they should approve as a part of group in drafting it, in other word when the statement released must already refer to their approval – would cause them trouble with their government officials.
As stating at the official nations’ names as Lao People's Democratic Republic, Kingdom of Cambodia, and Socialist Republic of Vietnam – none of these countries practically prefer democracy. Though, the word democratization is a process of making possible way to democratic society or democratic principle, no yet ‘democracy as a political and governance system of government.’ However, a couple of Laos and Cambodian youths said, they were afraid because any word with ‘democ…’ will not favor the government officials’ – they don’t want to hear that. Other participants disagreed to remove the word ‘democratization.’
The discussion was ongoing for a few hours, while the youths from Thailand and Myanmar encouraged that ‘we should not fear to voice out our desires, needs, and concerns. We should respect on what we want in this statement that came from many youth in ASEAN countries for the past four years.’ Some youths raised a point that ‘democratic society’ is the thing we are working toward to achieve, and to make it happen. Also, we should democratize our society meaning involving more and more peoples’ voices and meaningful participations in building, creating, and shaping our desire community and country that we want!
However, if the word would cause any harm or insecurity threat to any friends, the whole youth group was willing to make a word withdrawn. At the end, after reviewing and clarifying definitions of democracy, democratic, democratization, good governance, etc. we came to the consensus to maintain ‘democratization’ in the Statement.
Diverse Societies With Common Fear
On that day, amazingly, the young activists from Myanmar/Burma didn’t disagree of putting ‘democratization’ in the Statement. The country where has been embedding the political fear and suppressing the freedom of expression, the government killed and put people in jail only they walked out on the street and protested peacefully – has also created a young generation who might take a risk in everyday life to voicing out their minds -- generation after generation who has their own government as an enemy. Eventually, their daily task is to conquer the fear in their mind as like the Buddha’s teaches the Buddhists were taught to do.
Nevertheless, the youth should not be blamed for this; the whole society should help to create a democratic-friendly environment for all. The young people from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand are not afraid to express because the countries have a certain level of freedom of expression to speak out or criticize their governments, though there is a limit for those countries as well to criticize a specific institution, or any thing involved with ‘National Security’. We are free, but not that ‘free.’
In other countries such as Laos, Cambodian and Vietnam, people have difficult time to criticize and to raise their concerns against the governments and the policies that affected them. The fear occurs and gives birth to more and more self-censorship. A young female from Cambodia told her fellows at AYF that her parents are so afraid of her talking or even mentioning anything about politics.
“Politics for my parents generation means killing, death, and horrible consequences. All parents would like to see their kids not to get involved in such an activism activity or politics at all.” She said. That talk is much involving the horribly historical event the ‘Khmer Rouge’ (1975 -1979) which millions Cambodian people’s lives were taken away.
For Laos and Vietnamese fellows, they seem to believe that the socialist parties and the governments aim to do only good things for the people. The socialist parties people are like father and mother of the nation and to the people. The people should not question them. A Vietnamese young fellow were debated with another Burmese young fellows that the street-protestors should not have a legal protection because what they do is abusing the law.
Arguably, many Burmese fellows explained that the people need such the legal protection to have a fair and just system and trial, not likely to be thrown in jail or to be killed by the ruling government when they disagree or disapprove of government policies and acts. “The people need to be protected by laws as well, and the law can be questioned and adjusted to make it more democratic and just.” A young Burmese AYF participant emphasized.
In addition, unfortunately, for about six participants from Lao PDR had been asked to leave the people-based AYF to attend other Youth Forum hosted by ASEAN governments, otherwise, at least of what I have heard, they would be reported to Laos government – who knows what could happen to them.
I personally think that all fear happens within a reason of long rooted fear in our political and social histories, however, from what I have experienced the youth power is arisen and they are about to conquer the fear and engage themselves more to the so-called ASEAN Community. Also, for us to eliminate the fear is not only the young generation alone to cope with, the whole societies of ASEAN must create a new environment (i.e. regulations, laws, policies, atmosphere, etc.) for the people to be able to share their opinions freely and to involve in society activity meaningfully to eventually make a better ASEAN community!