Human Rights, Transparency, Accountability Are on Agenda for Annual Civil Society Conference of Southeast Asian Nations

Starting Wednesday, over 1400 representatives of grassroots and community groups and national, regional and international non-governmental organizations will convene in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for the 10th Civil Society Conference (ACSC) and People’s Forum (APF) of the ten countries that form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

These civil society groups and organizations, representing 620 million people in the region, collectively will send a message urging governments to do the following:

  • Be more responsive to civil society concerns domestically and in the region.
  • Be more transparent in decision-making domestically and regionally.
  • Be more open, consistent and frequent with civil society engagement.
  • Be more accountable and take actions to address human rights violations domestically and as a region.

ASEAN was formed in 1967. Member countries have different political ideologies, governing systems, cultures, languages, ethnicities, and religions. Their governments committed to economic cooperation, political security and regional development while preserving their cultural norms and values. They also established a policy and practice of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states – a policy that has severe implications for the practice of human rights in the region.

The ACSC/APF takes place across a varying landscape of human rights in the ten countries: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

For instance: most of the ASEAN states suppress freedom of expression and information, peaceful assembly and association, and the right to form civil society organizations. 

While most have laws against gender-based violence such as against domestic violence, family violence, rape and sexual harassment, these laws are often poorly implemented.  Many women in marginalized groups, including lesbians, bisexual women and gender non-conforming persons cannot access these laws and have no protections from violence in both the public and private spheres.

Some national laws prohibit and criminalize same sex relations between men and between women, or have laws that explicitly criminalize male homosexuality but remain silent about lesbianism.  In some countries, homosexuality and gender variance was never criminalized. 

No country has a national anti-discrimination law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Many vulnerable and marginalized groups have no protections from multiple and cross-cutting discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnicity, nationality, economic status, HIV status, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Religious intolerance and extremism are not denounced while at the same time the beliefs and practices of religious minorities are threatened and suppressed.

The conference is taking place ahead of two major upcoming events that will change the lives of people in the region.

In November 2015, the ASEAN governments will launch the “Roadmap for an ASEAN Community” – an intergovernmental agreement to build a unified ASEAN identity, economy, culture, and society.  The first phase of this plan involves economic acceleration, narrowing the development gap between member states, and creating a single ASEAN economy. ASEAN governments will receive large funding from the United States, European countries, Japan and China. 

In December 2015, ASEAN governments will launch the ASEAN Community’s Post 2015 Vision “with the aspiration to a Southeast Asian region bound by One Vision, One Identity, One Community.”

For both these grand initiatives, ASEAN governments have publicly committed to ensuring a “people-centered” vision and practices. 

However, in reality, as civil society actors in a pre-conference statement to ASEAN governments pointed out: “The people of ASEAN suffer from authoritarian and military regimes, increased militarization, violence and armed conflict, unlawful foreign interventions, lack of fundamental freedoms and human rights violations, undemocratic processes and poor governance, development injustice, discrimination, inequality, religious extremism, and intolerance.” They are demanding to reclaim the ASEAN community for the people.

During 65 workshops taking place over the three-day conference and people’s forum that ends Friday, these issues will be discussed along with ways to ensure civil society engagement in the monitoring and implementation of the roadmap and post 2015 Vision for an integrated ASEAN community.

Follow the conference online, including a live webcast at http://aseanpeople.org/