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The ten nations that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pledged to unite as a single regional market and production base in 2015.
The goal is to create a region with free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labor and the flow of capital.
Asia Calling, an Asia-wide television and radio programme, hosted a debate that brought together leaders from their fields across the region to discuss whether the union will benefit the people living in ASEAN.
On the panel was Danny Lee, the Director for Community Affairs Development at the ASEAN secretariat; Septania Kadir, the head of programmes at the ASEAN Foundation; migrant workers activist and the director of Tenaganita, Irene Fernandez; Debbie Stothard, the co-founder of Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma; and multi-media regional businessman and head of the committee for multimedia at KADIN – the Indonesia chamber of commerce and industry, Ardian Elkana.
DVB’s executive director Aye Chan Naing was also involved in the discussion.
There are 600 million people in the ASEAN market and a combined GDP of US$2.4 trillion. Those who promote an ASEAN community say closer integration will increase job opportunities, improve market economies and create a sense of an ASEAN identity.
However, ideals of a people-orientated ASEAN are far from the reality for many people living and working in the region.
Fernandez, a migrant workers activist, said millions of migrant workers who move across the ASEAN countries to find work are among the most exploited people in the region.
“How can we claim to be people-oriented if we can’t even provide or come to an understanding of basic labor rights, like a day off, or to recognise domestic workers’ work? If we cannot come to understand that, a people-oriented ASEAN becomes a big question,” she said.
Human rights abuses are ongoing throughout the region and for years the ASEAN governments refused to address the issue. Many people have stood up for human rights and have been persecuted for it.
“For many people in ASEAN, they saw ASEAN governments as not only oppressing their own citizens, but assisting other ASEAN governments to oppress their other citizens,” said Stothard, from the Alternative ASEAN Network.
Stothard went on to say that it is important that people feel safe in their own countries and for many people, that isn’t something they can enjoy.
“If you’re a Muslim or Rohingya in Burma you’re not safe. If you’re an atheist in Indonesia, you are not safe. If you are a blogger in Vietnam, you are not safe. If you are a farmer in Cambodia, you are not safe. And if you’re a refugee or an undocumented migrant, in any part of ASEAN, you are definitely not safe,” she said.
However Lee, from the ASEAN secretariat, said there was progress in issues such as labour rights.
“Let’s not forget that in a lot of our ASEAN members states people have the right to vote out their government if they are not happy with them. So in the end the people themselves will decide,” he said.
But Stothard argued that fundamentally there was a huge gap in terms of political freedoms and standards of free and fair elections in many AEAN countries.
“This is not just about the political issue…there is also the fundamental problem of ASEAN economic integration in terms of the rules and regulations,” she said.
Lee pointed out that an integrated ASEAN would mean more job opportunities for people.
“If I am a service company I will hire staff that can speak Bahasa, speak Tagalog, speak Thai and that’s where the opportunities come in,” he said. “Lower skilled labor anywhere in the world is always very challenging. It is challenging because it is not something that can be done overnight.”
Stothard attacked governments, especially Burma, for spending so much of their national budget on the military and defense instead of investing in education.
“Last year the Burmese military received 57 percent more funding. This year they are receiving nearly 20 percent more funding,” she said. “Why don’t we spend it on education and training? Our whole region is rich enough to do that. There is no political will, that’s the problem.”
DVB’s Aye Chan Naing said the ASEAN governments don’t consult or represent their people when big decisions are made.
“Look at the EU (European Union), whenever they have a big decision, they have a referendum in their own country before the government decides to follow an EU rule. But we have the situation now where the decision is already made and there is really no consultation with the people,” he said.
Aye Chan Naing went on to ask the panel whether they thought it was possible for governments to practice fair elections in their own country, whether they could consult the people on big issues, and respect their citizens’ rights.
The panellists agreed that a unified ASEAN community wouldn’t live up to an ideal dream – but a proactive approach by governments was needed to work through the problems.
“We need to be quite realistic and say let’s get on with integration in the best way possible. We need commitment to rule of law…laws that benefit people, that are fair, that are consistent with human rights principles,” said Stothard.