A new path for Southeast Asian civil society engagement with Asean

Civil society groups rally during an Asean conference —FOCUS ON THE GLOBAL SOUTH PHOTO

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) marks its 56th year in 2023 and holds its 43rd summit of leaders in September in Jakarta, the second such meeting of the year. 

Asean is guided by these principles drawn up in 1976: mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations; the right of every state to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion; non-interference in the internal affairs of one another; settlement of differences or disputes in a peaceful manner; renunciation of the threat or use of force; and effective cooperation among themselves.

These principles are noteworthy from the point of view of a nation-state and its governing classes. It suffers, however, from the absence of any reference as to how Asean relates to the peoples of its member-states and their overall well-being. The principles are exclusively state-centered and reveal a top-down approach to regional integration. How has Asean related to its peoples via the engagement with civil society organizations (CSOs)? 

Related: Southeast Asia’s dismal social conditions

Regional network

The main forum for civil society engagement with Asean is the Asean Civil Society Conference/Asean Peoples’ Forum (ACSC/APF). Formed in 2005, the ACSC/APF is a network of Southeast Asian CSOs and social movements to promote the issues and concerns of their constituencies—the workers, peasantry, urban poor, indigenous peoples, fishers, women, children, LGBTQIA+, older persons, rank-and-file employees, professionals, students, persons with disabilities, and migrants.

In engaging with Asean, the ACSC/APF has focused on organizing national consultations, dialogues with government counterparts, and  regional consultative meetings; crafting its annual statements; and holding annual parallel conferences and mass mobilizations. The network’s hope is that the engagement process will result in reforms and changes in Asean. 

Unfortunately, there has hardly been any progress in making Asean recognize civil society’s legitimate concerns, let alone seriously consider and implement the range of proposals presented at the annual summits of Asean heads of state. An internal ACSC/APF Ten-Year Review (2005-2015) concluded that “Asean and its member governments have been seen to be more comfortable with the private sector and academic and research think tanks than with civil society,” and that “individual Asean member-countries have consistently resisted and vacillated with regards civil society participation and engagement.” 

The ACSC/APF 2016 Timor Leste Statement noted the lack of attention to civil society concerns repeatedly raised in all official Asean gatherings. It also expressed frustration about “Asean’s prevailing silence and lack of attention and response to the observations and recommendations raised in all previous ACSC/APF Statements, particularly on issues related to development justice; democratic processes, good governance, human rights and fundamental freedoms; peace and security; and discrimination and inequality.”

In its 2015 and 2017 Statements in Malaysia and in the Philippines, respectively, the ACSC/APF criticized the development paradigm of Asean member-states which “has only bred greater inequalities, accelerated marginalization and exploitation, inhibited peace, democracy and social progress,” as well as spawned “economic, social, and environmental crises, extensive human rights violations, situations of conflict and violence, and wanton exploitation of natural resources that are overwhelming the region’s ecosystems.” 

The 2019 ACSC/APF Statement argued that “… the changes in Asean’s perspectives and its pronounced tilt towards prioritizing Southeast Asian peoples’ welfare have been more rhetorical than real.” It added: “Meaningful peoples’ participation in governmental programs, projects, and decisions are nowhere to be found. Indeed, Asean is seen … as working to preserve and expand the role of traditional political oligarchies and economic corporate elites.”

The 2020 ACSC/APF Hanoi Statement declared: “The Southeast Asian landscape continues to be dominated by political elites and corporate oligarchies and their neoliberal and market-oriented development strategy anchored on liberalization, privatization, and deregulation. This has spurred growth, but benefits are unequally distributed, thus marginalizing vulnerable sectors. Democratic institutions have yet to solidify and influence the direction of Southeast Asian political developments.” 

In its 2021 online gathering, the ACSC/APF cited four indicators of state authoritarianism in Asean: “weak commitment to implementing democracy, suppressing opponents, tolerating violent approaches, and shrinking civic space.” It said that during the Covid-19 pandemic, Southeast Asian peoples “shared common situations and concerns about exploitation and domination by their national elites, oligarchs and ruling economic class that strengthen the more authoritarian power of the state.” 


Asean’s rhetoric of being “people-oriented and people-centered” first expressed in 2007 is not matched by its actions and attitude vis a vis civil society. Its patronizing and condescending attitude toward CSOs is reflected in how it characterizes them. 

The 2012 Asean Guidelines on Accreditation for Civil Society Organization define a CSO as “a nonprofit organisation of Asean entities, natural or juridical, that promotes, strengthens and helps realise the aims and objectives of the Asean Community and its three Pillars—the Asean Political-Security Community, the Asean Economic Community and the Asean Socio-Cultural Community.” 

Similarly, the guidelines issued on Feb. 11, 2015, by the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights define CSOs as “the association of persons, natural or juridical, that is nonprofit and nongovernmental in nature, which are organized voluntarily to promote, strengthen and help realise the aims and objectives of Asean activities and cooperation in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Asean “encourages” CSOs to seek accreditation with it in order to be granted the “opportunity and privilege of participating in Asean activities.” Approval of accreditation, however, “… shall be based primarily upon the assessment of the positive contribution which such a CSO could make to the enhancement, strengthening, and realization of the aims and objectives of Asean … [and that] the objectives of the CSO’s activities should be consistent with the aims and objectives of Asean.”

Disdainfully, Asean does not recognize CSO participation as a “right,” only a “privilege and opportunity.” In 2012, Malaysian political scientist Helen Nesadurai observed that “Asean’s preference … appears to be for a civil society that will help it achieve the already established goals and projects of Asean’s governing elite rather than a civil society that will—through genuine, two-way deliberations—help Asean set these goals and agendas in the first place.”

In 2014, Australian political economist Kelly Gerard said “spaces for CSO participation are structured to prevent CSOs from contesting policy” and are merely “directed towards legitimizing [Asean’s] reform agenda.” She said Asean’s claim of becoming “people-oriented” is belied by the “limiting effect its engagement practices have on CSOs’ ability to advance an alternative agenda.”

Asean’s self-serving characterization of and attitude towards CSOs violate internationally accepted definitions and roles of these groups as independent and autonomous players with their own vision and goals that may not necessarily coincide with official state vision and policies. 


Even as the ACSC/APF continues to express dismay over Asean’s track record vis a vis its peoples, the network has also been hampered by an apparent misunderstanding and confusion about the real nature of the Asean project. In a 2016 press release, the network pleaded for Asean governments to recognize civil society, “not as a threat, but as an important ally in ensuring the realization of human rights for all Asean citizens, [which] is critical to the development of a sustainable Asean Community.” 

This equivocal attitude is further reflected in the 2016 ACSC/APF statement: 

“We reaffirm our commitments to monitor and engage in the Asean processes towards a people-centric Asean as member-states continue to aspire for political cohesiveness, economic integration, and maintaining a socially responsible, people-oriented and rules-based Asean. 

“For the peoples of Asean, the establishment of the Asean Community and Asean Community Vision 2025 signifies the premise and commitment of Asean towards a people-centered community.” 

The ACSC/APF’s ambivalence towards Asean reflects contrasting attitudes and a lack of consensus among the various groups within the network. Some see no recourse but to continue the engagement with Asean despite the lack of results. Others feel that continued engagement is futile and a waste of time and resources. In succeeding ACSC/APF gatherings, however, the push for an alternative regional process gained momentum even as engagement remained on the agenda.


By 2017, Southeast Asian civil society appeared to have realized the futility of seriously engaging the official Asean process in the same manner as before. In that year, the ACSC/APF in the Philippines moved towards acknowledging the need for an alternative form of engagement with Asean and, more significantly, for a new regionalism process. 

Sounding the alarm for “the shrinking space for civil society to effectively shape the agenda and policies of Asean and their respective governments,” the 2017 ACSC/APF Statement resolved to “… develop and adopt a new vision for engagement by civil society with Asean based on greater people-to-people interactions that will establish, expand and strengthen a new peoples’ regional integration process based on the alternative practices of peoples, networks, and organizations across the region’s societies.” 

To highlight the importance of developing a Southeast Asian peoples’ alternative regional integration, the 2019 ACSC/APF Statement identifies the task at hand: “Given that years of ACSC/APF engagement with the official Asean process have been met with lack of attention to the recommendations raised, resulting ‘in minimal outcomes in the substantive improvement in the lives of our people,’ to undertake a process for an alternative peoples’ regional integration based on the alternative practices of communities, sectors, and networks.” 

More significantly, the 2020 Hanoi ACSC/APF formally adopted a resolution: “… [I]n order to overcome and address the frustration and disappointment at the results of the 15-year engagement with the official Asean process, the ACSC/APF shall develop and adopt a new vision for engagement by civil society with Asean based on people-to-people interactions rather than state-to-state relations or purely market-oriented interactions. [And]… to lead the way forward to greater participation by Southeast Asian peoples in cross-border interactions and undertakings, this new vision shall lead to the establishment of a new peoples’ regional integration process.”

Some elements within the ACSC/APF, however, continue to cling to the old engagement ways and to give Asean governments the benefit of the doubt. But the main challenge is how the vision of an alternative regional process is to be concretely undertaken. The landmark 2020 resolution reiterates previous statements on the way forward: that it “shall be based on, among others, the alternative practices of peoples, networks, and organizations across the region’s societies.” 

It is now up to civil society organizations, social movements, and their allies and partners to take the concrete steps in realizing a Southeast Asian peoples’ alternative regionalism.

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