The stated aims and purposes of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are: (1) to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region; and (2) to promote regional peace and stability through showing respect for justice and the rule of law among countries in the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter.
Political scientists generally attribute the establishment of ASEAN in 1967 to the five founding member states’ desire for a stable external political and military environment to thwart the spread of communism; the need to pursue national and regional economic development; and to check Indonesia’s ambition in the late 1960s to become a regional power through its confrontation with Malaysia and Singapore.
ASEAN currently consists of ten member states. The five founding member states in 1967 included Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Brunei joined in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Lao P.D.R. and Burma (Myanmar) in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999. In 2013, ASEAN agreed to allow Timor Leste to “participate” in future meetings, and the country’s Strategic Development Plan 2011- 2030 says it will “pursue [ASEAN] membership as a priority foreign policy goal”. Although Malaysis has been a top proponent of Timor Leste’s membership in ASEAN, it still does not appear to be imminent.
ASEAN faces challenges on the political front. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which was established as ASEAN’s human rights commission in October 2009, is perceived to be “toothless.” Similarly, the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights, which was signed and adopted in November 2012, fails to meet minimum international standards and could erode fundamental freedoms. In particular, civil society orgnizations (CSOs) criticize the Declaration for violating the principle of the universality of human rights by allowing an exception for governments to consider human rights “in the regional and national context.”
In 2017, which was ASEAN’s 50th birthday, the chair turned to the Philippines. Negative trends in the region were discussed at the ASEAN Civil Society Conference and ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APFP), which met in the Philippines from November 10-14, 2017. ACSC/APFP stressed that the protection of basic human rights in the region remains “inadequate.” Earlier in the year, CSOs on the sidelines of the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila in April 2017 proposed to ASEAN ministers to prepare the ground for the establishment of an independent regional court to promote and protect human rights and prosecute abuses by member states. Such a court would be modeled on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights founded in 1979, and the African Court on Human and People’s Rights founded in 2004.
Prior to the Philippines’ hosting of the chair, for the last several years, CSOs have been concerned about repeats of 2012, when Cambodia was the ASEAN chair and undermined civil society by cancelling CSO workshops during the ASEAN Summit and only selecting CSOs closely connected to the Cambodian government to participate meaningfully in ASEAN events. The ASEAN Summit in Yangon, Myanmar in 2014, similarly, was a test for Myanmar when it was chair. Although there were no outcries against Myanmar’s actions during the ASEAN Summit like with Cambodia in 2012, attention still focused on whether the country could deliver on its theme of “Moving Forward in Unity for a Peaceful and Prosperous Community.” This proved to be elusive for Myanmar, with its domestic instability and other regional security tensions, such as the South China Sea dispute, overshadowing any progress that Myanmar could claim to have made.
In 2015, the chair was Malaysia, whose overall theme was “Our People, Our Community, Our Vision,” reflecting its leadership’s focus on “bringing ASEAN closer to the people”. However, ASEAN observers were quick to dismiss this as paradoxical. They noted that Southeast Asia continued to be dominated by authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes that often restrict civil society and that activities of ASEAN are often known to only political leaders, government officials, and elites, while little information is disseminated to the citizens and concerned stakeholders and CSOs. As chair, Malaysia did not bring many tangible benefits for either the region’s business community or civil society in part because it was unable to bring all member-states into consensus on their prior commitments. In 2016, when Laos became the chair of ASEAN, it duplicated Cambodia’s leadership example by undermining the voice of CSOs. For example, Laotian civil society representatives attending an annual meeting during the ASEAN summit were unable to address human rights issues in Laos because the only CSOs allowed to speak were those selected by the Government of Laos.
In 2017, the ASEAN agenda ended up largely focusing on defence and security issues and managing great power rivalries despite efforts by CSOs to make their voices heard. In 2018, the ASEAN chair turned to Singapore but the same trend occurred with CSOs struggling to have their voices heard. The Chairman’s Statement of the 32nd ASEAN Summit in April 2018, for example, did not include mention of “civil society” or “human rights.” In addition, the reported atrocities against the Rohingyas of Myanmar continued to be a human rights crisis weighing on ASEAN, with CSOs calling for an international response. However, ASEAN still maintained that Myanmar must “exercise responsibility” for the crisis. In 2019, the chair turned to Thailand, which has been pushing an agenda focused on economic cooperation and regional security. However, civil society’s concerns have again not been prioritized. For example, at the 34th ASEAN summit in Bangkok in June 2019, civil society organizations were denied an interface meeting with ASEAN leaders.