Every year, each country in ASEAN takes turn to be a rotating chair, organising glamourous, flashy, extravagant events that each host tries to prove that they have the ability and resources to organise the events.

The key feature of regional economic integration sees leaders for the countries in the region, bilaterally, regionally or internationally, initiate and/or sign free trade agreement (FTAs) among other cooperation and investment deals, even more and more from year to year. Efforts have been put to craft policies that are benefiting those who may have already been rich, powerful and/or well-connected, under the false promise that they would benefit the people.

FTA open more free markets, and competition in price, in quantity, in speed and of course in cost. The low cost means the very people who are at the core of the production chain but bottom in the supply chain would benefit less. It benefits the wholesalers, indeed.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, those who benefits from FTA, with their earning and saving and income, have access to all the best healthcare facilities and services available. The free trades have made vaccine-producing companies generate multiple times of profit. There is little sign of slowdown in their economic return.

What about people who work days and nights without even having access to social protection, and who work hard just to make ends meet in order for those engaging in FTA to maximise their profit? They were and are still in economic hardship, desperate for access to healthcare service and facilities. When many state agencies failed to provide the most-needed access to quality healthcare to all, daily foods and basic necessity need, it is the people’s neighbours, it is the people in the community, it is their friends, it is the civil society organisations (CSOs), it the community itself who come together in difficult time to support each other in a community-based format of mutual reciprocity.

In the case of Myanmar crises, when humanitarian aid did not reach the people who badly need them, it was the military junta who decide that their very people deserve nothing to live dignified lives. They would rather leave the people in the state of hunger, starvation, desperation and devastation. People-to-people, community-to-community, internally or cross-borders, are the ones who provide basic support and other humanitarian support to each other, so that their fellow human beings in conflict areas continue to survive.

ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People Forum (ACSC/APF), organised by the regional CSOs in Phnom Penh from November 3-5 of 2022, discussed alternative regionalism, among other themes including human rights, civic space, democracy; militarization or authoritarianism; social protection, decent work, healthcare for all; and peace and human security.

Alternative Regionalism was initiated in an effort to support people who not only fail to substantively benefit from FTA but fall victim to FTA, even more deeply impacted by the environmental pollution and climate change, just some of the examples of non-traditional existential threats to human security. Alternative regionalism is a regional integration alternative to the existing purely government-to-government regionalism. It is people-led, people-to-people and community-based.

More FTA at all levels would call for dictation for farmers and workers to follow the demand for the benefit of FTA, leaving them no freedom or choice, for farmers, under the framework of food sovereignty. Famers are no longer able to make their own choices for what crops to grow or what locally-available modes of production to employ, but made believe to follow the growing or emerging demand of global markets where those under FTA seek to benefits to a maximum in terms of control of the production process and even worse controlling the price. A good harvest does not always mean a good return. A drop in price could happen overnight under the collusion of those under FTA.

ASEAN Centrality has been a dominant concept in the day prior to the official opening of the ASEAN Summit and related meetings in Phnom Penh, and throughout the summit. However, this centrality – said to be for the good and benefits of ASEAN – hardly takes people into consideration, if at all. It still focuses on regional mechanism at government-to-government levels.

It is high time alternative regionalism be included as another important pillar as a people-led, CSO-led, community-based formats, and government-led.

Was the one community in the previous ASEAN motto ‘’One Community, One Destiny” only for the community of the governments and leaders? Or does the One Community include everyone? If it includes everyone including the people, Alternative Regionalism deserves a fair share to ensure that ‘One Destiny’. No more!

Fast forward, is ASEAN really moving toward ‘’One Vision, One Identity, One Community”, which is the current ASEAN’s motto? One Vision ought to be a vision that everyone should visualise; One Identity should aim for diversity and inclusion; One Community should be the real community of peoples, not just state agencies and leaders.

It is time Alternative Regionalism become a pillar to realise the ‘’One Vision, One Community, One Identity” for this Southeast Asian region.

Leang Sok

Phnom Penh