batam island, Indonesia – The Asean People’s Assembly seeks the same results as the leaders of its member nations: peace, protection of human rights and the improvement of social conditions.
But the more than 200 institutional leaders and NGO workers who gathered here last month showed a certain lack of faith in the ability of these leaders to solve such problems.
“Governments are always saying they are of the people, with the people, and for the people,” said Prince Norodom Sirivuth, one of the assembly participants. “But then 1.5 million were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. So we must be cautious.
“Many people in Asean countries do not know what Asean means to them. So there is a need for communication, education and consultation.”
Kavi Chongkittavorn, a delegate from Thailand who is managing editor of The Nation, a daily English-language newspaper in Bangkok, was less optimistic. “There are around 500 Asean officials,” he said. “How can they speak for 500 million Asean people?”
Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Alternate Asean Network on Burma, questioned Asean’s stated policy of non-interference.
“The non-interference policy is nonsense,” she said. “They have interfered with the most negative impact. When people got killed and tortured, they did not interfere. Millions of people have been killed and lost their homes. Why does Asean keep quiet about these situations?
“For example, in Cambodia the Khmer Rouge is gone, but there are still problems. If Asean helps, it can reduce conflict.”
It was the first meeting for the APA, which is based on the rationale that community building within Asean must include all sectors of society, not just governments. The APA also wants to serve as a watchdog over Asean activities.
“We want the leaders of Asean to give a report card to the people to tell us what progress they have made in 350 meetings a year, to indicate whether they have consulted their own people and NGOs in making a decision,” one participant said.
Concerning Cambodia, the group vowed “to urge the government to ensure human development of its people….We also urge the government to undertake an independent assessment of development projects to prevent destructive impact on the affected communities.”
Malaysian delegate Mohammed Ariff injected some humor into the meetings. He said Asean should stand for “Adhoc Security for Ambiguous Nations” and that AFTA—the Asean Free Trade Area—should stand for “Agree First and Talk Later.”
Simon SC Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said he would present the APA’s agenda to Asean leaders at a meeting in January.
“We are not here to try to bring down the governments,” he said of the APA, “but to strengthen the role of the people to help Asean leaders.”
Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid attended the second day of the conference and praised the group. “I’m very glad to meet real youth here,” he said. “Only the young can make changes to improve the nations.”