Mekong Alumni for a People-Centered ASEAN

Cambodia hosted the ASEAN Youth Forum (March 26-28) and ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People's Forum (March 29-April 1) in Phnom Penh prior to the 2012 ASEAN summit. This was Cambodia's first time to host the Forums. EarthRights School Mekong alumni from Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and China attended to continue their involvement in a growing collective current of ASEAN civil society advocates aimed at transforming ASEAN into a people-centered community. In the context of ASEAN, “People-centered” means: one, that the decision making process within ASEAN must be transparent and open for people, not secretly discussed among government officers behind a closed door; and two, that the principle of non-interference as stated in ASEAN Charter means that the ASEAN member states respect freedom of expression of the social justice movement, not that the governments maintain silence or do nothing to end human rights abuses committed by other member states.

The youth forum began with more than 100 participants from throughout Southeast Asia. They shared pressing issues affecting ASEAN citizens and discussed, debated and formulated a realistic youth statement and recommendations to ASEAN governments. They also brainstormed ideas to develop an ASEAN Youth Movement monitoring mechanism to follow up on recommendations in their youth statement.

The ASEAN People’s Forum, a collective effort of civil society to cooperate with governments for meaningful participation, was dismissed as no representatives of ASEAN governments attended. Three workshops were also canceled, due a “sensitivity reminder” from the hosting Cambodian government:

 - Promoting Regional Cooperation to Ensure a People-Centered ASEAN in 2014 in Burma/Myanmar

 - Expansion of Mono-culture Plantations in ASEAN: Impacts on Forest, Farmlands and People’s Livelihood

 - Promotion and Protection of Rights to Land, Territory, Natural Resources and Development of IP/EM

Additionally, the workshop on regional land rights and eviction was obstructed and pressured to move to another venue.

Reinforcing youth movement for ASEAN   

AYF and APF provided a platform to diverse groups to discuss shared concerns, where people learn and work together as a network to empower each other to further overcome challenges.

“I have many friends from ASEAN Countries concern impact issues on ASEAN Regionalization. I am very glad that the youth from ASEAN countries raised their voices to the governments to solve the problems in ASEAN. I think it's good that we have a chance to share our problems to the member state friends and colleagues. It can help us to connect the power of people in regional level in order to negotiate with the people who represents the ASEAN states and in a position that have a power to make a decision.” Tanasak (Thailand 2008)

“My impression during attending and participating AYF and APF is to get to know more friends and to connect myself and Mekong Alumni as an organization – into a circle of concerns young and adult citizens who care about political, socio-cultural, economic, and environmental 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.” Siriluk (Thailand 2009)

Democratizing ASEAN

Siriluk (Thailand 2009) said that “in general, ASEAN citizens are trying to gain more understanding about 'ASEAN' (as an association, economically regional zone, and as a community). This is gaining more momentum every year as ASEAN becomes a hot spot of economic development for China (the President of PRC recently visited Cambodia), and as the global community watches the political changes in Southeast Asia. Also, this is the year before Burma/Myanmar, which was under military rule for the past 40 years, will chair ASEAN. The political situation in Burma/Myanmar has recently changed dramatically. There are so many events happening in Burma/Myanmar at the moment, and there were about 16 youth representing many different ethnicities who came from inside Myanmar to attend the 2012 AYF. I was impressed by how they organized themselves to come to Phnom Penh, putting themselves at risk by attending a political event in a foreign country.”

Siriluk emphasized that “As a friend from Myanmar/Burma said at AYF, ‘We are not recognized by our government for coming here. We don’t know what will happen to us when we return to our home country. People think many things are getting better in Burma, but actually they are not. Many political prisoners still remain in prison.’ This shows that the Burma/Myanmar participants (including one Mekong Alumni) bravely spoke and expressed their concerns for and the situation in the country freely and without self-censorship. They spoke about freedom of expression, freedom of media, environmental negative impact due to development projects, and more. I feel that those young activists from Myanmar/Burma have already transformed their fear to courage in wishing to create a genuinely democratic society in their homeland.”

Kyi Phyo (Burma 2011) said that “some arrangements didn't work and the main thing was Cambodia didn’t allow some issues. Because of strictness, participants couldn't have a chance to discuss and raise their issues. The government should be more open and give a space to civil society to inform the real situations happening in ASEAN countries. I am a little bit wonder that non-interference policy of ASEAN, sometimes, such kind of policy doesn't work especially when we talk about democracy norms. ASEAN countries needs be democratic and transparent. Otherwise, we can't get a concrete solution while discussing about our issues.”

Create safe environment for freedom of expression

Zuo Tao (China 2011) said, "I think facilitating skills and how to creating a good and safe environment for people to express opinion is very important. I hope the forum could get more support from academics and influential leaders from the civil society by which we could become more reliable and practical concerning the drafting stage of the statement. And I suggest that maybe we can try to invite government officials and mainstream Medias to come to the forum as well, for it may spread more information to the outside world as well as government to extend the influence. I think the civil society also should have even more openness towards government. If the criticize is based on fully created communicating channel by NGOs for government, then we will be stronger and more powerful to influence the whole system.”

Save the Mother Earth

Thien (Vietnam 2011) representing ASEAN Youth Movement spoke an importance of nurturing our nature at the ASEAN People’s stage. “The ASEAN Community must be sensitive to the growing problems of its environment. Mother Earth has provided us with important elements that keep us alive. It is our turn to take care of her. We have the shared responsibility to ensure that our natural resources are used correctly. Governments and its Peoples must act together in protecting and promoting the “Rights of the Earth”. This is our long lasting gift to the next generation of Southeast Asia. The Environment must be the fourth pillar of the ASEAN community.”