With Cambodia holding the ASEAN chair, it’s an important moment for all 10 member countries to think about what it means to be part of ASEAN.
Is ASEAN to be a private club for member states’ governments? Or a vehicle for aggressive development and corporate expansion?
Or perhaps an inclusive regional body that considers the interests of its people first, that puts people before politics and profits?
Any such ambitious vision must be founded on core principles. What should ASEAN’s core principles be?
The European Union was founded on the principles of peace and economic co-operation, but ASEAN should have loftier ambitions.
Peace should never be taken for granted, but the region has been largely blessed with it since the turn of the millennium.
There are still areas of concern – fighting in northern Burma, piracy and terrorism in Indonesia and the Philippines, spats between Cambodia and Thailand, disputes over the South China Sea – but there’s no reason to doubt ASEAN’s ability to work through such issues.
As for the economic outlook, the majority of ASEAN is booming and Cambodia is fast catching up with the pack.
Where ASEAN can really take a lead and establish a legacy is by putting its people at the centre of its development, with social and economic development going hand-in-hand.
To do that effectively, ASEAN must focus on three core principles: human rights, democracy, and transparency and accountability.
With human rights at the centre of ASEAN, fear would be removed from the equation.
Despite the overall sunny outlook and the impressive distance the region has travelled in a short time, fear is all too present.
Fear of losing one’s livelihood; fear of going to jail on the slightest of pretexts; fear of bringing a case to court; fear of police and other supposed law enforcers; fear of speaking one’s mind, of questioning authority; fear of violence, mistreatment and death.
But this is no way to live.
ASEAN is a region brimming with potential, with people, ideas and natural resources. The future is bright, and it belongs to all people in ASEAN.
Human rights must be enshrined in a regional declaration.
ASEAN citizens should call for a fully transparent consultation between their governments and civil society before that declaration is finalised.
If people want the right to assemble freely, that should be reflected in the declaration. If they want the right to be consulted before their land is taken away, that should be reflected.
If people want to be free to speak their minds, the declaration should not remain silent.
But a declaration that honours international human-rights principles and covenants is only a halfway house. Without an enforcement mechanism at the national level, human rights are merely high ideals.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s statements early this year offer little hope: ASEAN, he said, would not interfere in the affairs of member states.
But if ASEAN considers sovereignty rights absolute, it will be unable to ensure protection of its citizens’ human rights – or, for that matter, resolve political crises in the region.
For the human-rights declaration to be effective, ASEAN needs a human-rights commission.
Any national of any ASEAN country should be able to take a human-rights violation case to this commission, if domestic remedies are not available or not forthcoming.
Human rights are too important to leave to the whim of governments. The people of ASEAN need to take ownership of this issue, and demand that their interests are represented and protected.
As for democracy, no body can be people-centred if it doesn’t listen to its people. Parents claim to know what’s best for their children, but why should the people of ASEAN be treated like children? Why should they not be listened to?
Democracy leads to ownership.
If people can choose their leaders and institutions, those leaders and institutions automatically have increased legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
Those same leaders and institutions then belong to the people, and society as a whole moves forward.
Younger generations have something to strive towards, knowing they, too, can take part.
Without democracy, people view the government as alien, something imposed and resented. Younger generations see pitfalls rather than opportunities, and development becomes the preserve of the few.
A democratic ASEAN requires democratic member states.
Some, such as Burma, seem to be making tentative steps towards democracy; few, however, are genuinely democratic.
ASEAN citizens must call for serious political and democratic reforms, manifested in free and fair elections in every member state.
It is high time citizens chose their destinies and were fully represented at national and regional levels.
But democracy is not just about holding elections; it means – quite literally – “people power”.
Genuinely democratically elected governments should merely be the representatives of the people.
Many ASEAN governments entirely contradict this principle: they do everything they possibly can to stifle people power.
The rule of law, freedom of the press and an active civil society are also signs of a healthy democracy.
ASEAN should ensure reform in all these key areas.
The third core principle – transparency and accountability – is simple: if people are to be at the centre of ASEAN, they need to be informed and respected.
Freedom-of-information legislation should be enacted across the region.
People have a right to know, and should be able to access information that affects them.
Without transparency and accountability, corruption flourishes. It enables those in authority to choose not to do the job they are paid to do, unless someone pays them more.
Transparency and accountability, even at the grassroots level, meant people do what is expected of them.
As a result, the state earns the trust of the people and society blossoms.
Without transparency and accountability, international investment also suffers. Foreign companies thinking of investing in developing markets will think again if the economic landscape is riddled with risks.
Such principles should be at the heart of ASEAN and enshrined in the human rights-declaration.
GDPs, profits and glass towers will rocket skywards, but between the cracks will fall millions of people who live in fear and misery, who have no money, no land, no voice.
By honouring these principles, ASEAN can set an a example to the world.
Ou Virak is president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.