You are on page 1of 6



A Journal Review of Alan Collins A People-Oriented ASEAN: A Door Ajar or Closed
for Civil Society Organizations?

Submitted to:
Dr. Linda Alfarero Lumayag

Submitted by:
Kiana Katherine Mercado Porras

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a body that is deemed to become
a strong and stable regional organization in the future. With its establishment on 8 August 19671,
ASEAN has been working towards building a community fueled with One ASEAN identity
amid cultural diversities.
Given that the region is an important part of the international system, it is imperative to
identify and discern how actors are working in the association. Acknowledging that the regional
organization is not only composed of the 10 member states but also of other non-state actors,
ASEAN has the responsibility to properly address all key players and establish their specific roles.
Nonetheless, due to some facets regarding how ASEAN is regulating the whole system, it is with
no doubt that, other actors are not given the right amount of importance that it should have.
In his article, A People-Oriented ASEAN: A Door Ajar or Closed for Civil Society
Organizations?, Alan Collins constructively criticized how ASEAN is projecting its PeopleOriented label in relation to opening of portals to civil society organizations. He tackled about
the work and importance of civil society organizations in ASEAN and whether the organization is
open, and most particularly, ready to admit the aforementioned non-state actor formally. This is in
line with the fact that although acknowledged as a vital part of holistic development, civil society
organizations are struggling to penetrate the association due to the non-intervention policy of the
latter. Despite recognition given by states, civil societies still lack the ability to engage with the
administration, ergo, making it substantially difficult for them to lobby their advocacies.

It is through the signing of ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration) by the Founding Fathers of ASEAN, namely
Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Brunei Darussalam then joined on 7 January 1984, Viet
Nam on 28 July 1995, Lao PDR and Myanmar on 23 July 1997, and Cambodia on 30 April 1999, making up what is
today the ten Member States of ASEAN. (

Amid the branding as association for the elite by Alan Collins, ASEAN claims that it has
been continuously opening its arms to other players. Businesses are stimulated to develop
corporate social responsibilities, academes are invited to share knowledge, and organizations
promoting human rights are received. Truly, the organization managed to engage with non-state
actors and was able to establish various new groups and implementations in the system. They
encouraged businesses and firms to be involved through ASEAN Chamber of Commerce and
Industry (ACCI)2, and they have also reached out to the academe through ASEAN Institutes for
Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN ISIS). Moreover, dialogues and seminars with
human rights activists were launched to address particular issues about the subject matter.
However, the big challenge is not on the recognition it is on how ASEAN views the
process of engagement. Rather than being a bottom-top approach, wherein the civil society
organizations is the player being heard and prioritized, what is transpiring is the other way around.
Civil society organizations are somewhat being controlled by the elite system of ASEAN. The
regional organization is the one setting the goal of which the non-state actor should abide. They
are also implementing stricter requirements for compliance to acquire the formal recognition.
Although they have given licenses to a reasonable number of civil society organizations in the
region throughout the time, it is noticeable that those organizations lack a strong hold on advocacy
and do not have the teeth to question the system.
Without the plan to give up on finding avenues to voice out their advocacy, other civil
society organizations even resulted to asking support from other intergovernmental organizations
such as the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and International Monetary Fund just to

This is a platform utilized to address regional economic issues.

let them approach the regional intergovernmental body. The need to create a different framework
of intervention (by approaching external forces) was the only technique they saw as the most
plausible plan. Positively, the boomerang effect created outcomes. The approach resulted to the
creation of ASEAN Pillars namely: Economic Pillar, Political Pillar, and Socio-Cultural Pillar.
Through this, civil society organizations can now approach the tier where they truly fit. ASEAN
also identified these communities to promote better integration among people. They have
encouraged non-governmental organizations, think tanks, epistemic groups, and other civil society
members to participate in policy-making.
However, despite all claims of ASEAN that they have integrated civil society organizations
in the system, the non-state actor are still seeking for more credit and freedom to act and forward
their goals. Reiterating the challenge, civil society organizations are not only seeking for
recognition but also for the reinvention on how ASEAN is giving importance to them. They may
have the seat, but the ability to speak and create their own agenda still seems impossible today.
The fact that the region is practicing different forms of governments, no one can expect that
engagement of civil society organizations with the administration is going to be a laid-back task.
With exemption of Thailand and the Philippines, which are two countries where civil society
organizations are somehow powerful, people behind every non-governmental organization and
the like are actually risking their lives while trying to convince the government how they should
address certain issues.
If we will look into national level, ASEAN countries are basically enthusiastic to
coordinate with them as long as they are also willing to settle with what the government wants to
implement. Moreover, if the country will gain benefit from the cooperation, most probably, they
will be open to collaboration and partnerships. Just like any other state, they just want to maintain

their control over the country therefore, the presence of other civil society organizations are
welcome as long as it will not impede the way they manages the system. Nations acknowledges
the importance of coordinating with such non-state actor but they will always value their control
over their territory. Influencing through pressure is and will always be a choice but cooperation
would always be the preferred move. In addition, the nature and the character of the civil society
organization would always play a vital role in establishing the network. If it is about development
and progress, they have a higher possibility to have a good relationship with the administration, as
they will be valuable during the implementation of government plans. On the other hand, if your
nature is forwarding heavy intervention and drastic change, it would be likely a rough road to
coordinate with the officials. Reiterating the previous lines stated, governments would always
prefer to hold and maintain the system they control.
ASEAN is a region with a special case. Even though some individual countries are in good
relationship with civil societies, others, just like the Federation of Malaysia as well as Singapore
are still in a lukewarm situation with them. Knowing that ASEAN is implementing consensusbuilding, wherein a matter needs the complete approval of every member state, deciding on how
they will integrate civil societies in the frame is still a struggle. Therefore, we need to acknowledge
that ASEAN is somehow doing some steps regarding this subject; it is just that it might take a long
time to have a positive decision knowing that every government has a different level of affiliation
with civil societies.
Integration of civil society in ASEAN can be done by strengthening their role in the
national level first. Member states have to keep in mind that presence of civil society organizations
in their territory and sovereignty does not necessarily mean that they have weak governance or
could result to interference in the administration; instead, their existence actually has the ability to

highlight how stable the system is. This is because they encourage groups of people to speak out
their opinions without the fear of being threaten by challenges it might produce. The confidence
that even though there are players trying to defy the scheme is only acquired by a government that
is capable of handling the situation properly. It can help them build their international profile as
well as others will view them as countries that are willing to welcome sentiments from their
citizens. Interaction and cooperation is what this global system desire and aim.
Nonetheless, as the international system now requires cooperation and denies isolationistic
manner, ASEAN should also move towards real integration and people-oriented community.
Every actor should be treated as stakeholder in this system. The whole community sees this
situation as adjustment period for the region. No doors are truly closed in ASEAN. Sometimes all
we need is time time to see whether the actor is now prepared to welcome such intervention that
is, in the first place, is so foreign to its structure.