THE Philippines chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) this year and hosts the 31st Asean Summit and Related Summits.
Much has been made of the significance of Philippine leadership of the Association just as the 10-member State organization is celebrating its 50th year, which also coincides with the first in office of President Rodrigo Duterte. It is the fourth time for the country to hold Asean chairmanship since 1976 though.
There will still be events in December, but the highlight is the November 10 to 14 Summit which, based on the Asean Charter, is the supreme policy-making body of the organization and also traditionally attended by leaders of Asean partner countries the likes of United States, Canada, and China.
But what Filipinos know of and appreciate about the Asean at this time seem to be the events, the suspension of classes and work in select areas, and images and soundbites that mass and social have opted to drumbeat including Pres. Duterte’s serenade of US Pres. Donald Trump, Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau’s visit to a Jollibee outlet, and Sass Sasot’s confrontation of BBC journalist Jonathan Head.
The second half of the theme this year, “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World,” indicates an outward-oriented thrust but it is not clear what the areas of change alluded to in the first are. There was no change in the non-interference stance of the Asean, again manifested in the reluctance to mention the Rohingya in the Chairman’s statement in relation to Myanmar, and the non-commentary of Asean leaders on human rights challenges in the Philippines.
The one leader who dared bring up human rights concerns during the bilateral meeting with Pres. Duterte was not from the Asean. Prime Minister Trudeau’s courageous act of diplomacy was taken as a “personal and official insult” although he was spared verbal vilification during the Summit activities.
There will also be no change in the neoliberal trajectory of the Asean. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is being renegotiated this year, has been described by the research group IBON as a free trade agreement (FTA) that further harmonizes already liberalized markets for goods and services. IBON also pointed out that “decades of liberalization under previous FTAs and other neoliberal reforms in the economy have resulted in the underdevelopment of the Philippine industrial sector and the devastation of agriculture.”
Even the Philippines’s relationship with the US, deemed to have been put on another track by the critical pronouncements of Pres. Duterte in response to the criticisms of then Pres. Barack Obama,has been “fixed” from the perspective of Pres. Trump.
What is different under the Philippine watch seems to be the softening of Asean’s handling of China’s aggressive conduct in the South China Sea disputes—to the point that China has been viewed as the real winner in the 2017 Asean Summit. But then again this is not surprising in the wake of the much-vaunted Philippine pivot to China under Pres. Duterte. Pres. Duterte’s more conventional behavior during the Summit—as opposed to his inclination to curse and behave in a more volatile manner in other settings—and how this supposedly demonstrates statesmanship have been remarked on.
However, beyond conviviality with other world leaders, discerning leadership towards re-examining Asean regionalism would have been welcomed.
For so long, a regionalism oriented to respond to other economies and polities outside of the 10 countries has been the emphasis of the Association. As it moves forward past its golden year, it is high time for Asean to go beyond the official unity of the governments, and instead foster solidarity among the peoples and communities of the region. The Asean Charter states that it is inspired by “One Vision, One Identity and One Caring and Sharing Community.”
The peoples and communities of Asean have a lot in common. However, we do not only share aspects of traditional and indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage,but also current and emerging realities.
The problems that Filipinos confront are also felt across Southeast Asia. The Asean Civil Society Conference/Asean People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) 2017 outlined these in a statement: communities battling with corporate greed and power; militarization and the rise of atrocity crimes; human rights abuse in the forms of extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearances as well as attacks against indigenous peoples, LGBTI groups, and women and girls; depression of worker’s wages, unsafe and precarious working conditions, and violations of the freedom of association and assembly; vulnerability of migrant workers, particularly women, to greater risks; and the social costs of migration.
These problems are underpinned by the global agenda of privatization, liberalization, and deregulation, and are enforced through repressive measures by conservative governments and related institutions of the region.
Southeast Asians have to discuss, envision, work and struggle together towards an alternative regionalism that would defend and promote the interests of peoples and communities in place of the dominant version that advances neoliberalism and protects abusive governments from being challenged.
The Asean Charter inspiration would be better served if the Philippines had functioned not only as accommodating and gracious host, but also as an active convenor and facilitator of difficult discussions and actions that need to take place lest the Asean end up only being more of the same—or a worsening version of it—in the coming years.