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New ASEAN Secretary General shows his openness to the dialogue with civil society

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The newly-appointed ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan met with representatives from the Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy Working Group on the ASEAN, a coalition of Asian civil society organisations, in Bangkok on 4 February 2008. In his speech, Surin outlined his vision of a “networked ASEAN Secretariat”, which would see a more active engagement with civil society than before.
(BANGKOK) The newly-appointed Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Surin Pitsuwan met with representatives of the Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy (SAPA) Working Group on ASEAN (WG on ASEAN) in Bangkok, on 4 February 2008. In his speech, Surin outlined his vision of a “networked ASEAN Secretariat” that would see a more active engagement with civil society.

“Pressure, influence and participation is to be welcomed”, he stressed, adding that “otherwise, it will be impossible for ASEAN to become an entity which is meaningful to the 560 million people it claims to represent”.

Surin came to the venue of the SAPA annual General Forum to meet with leaders of non-governmental organisations. It is a notable departure from his predecessors who were hardly accessible to non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The forum included the meeting of its working group on ASEAN.

The first opportunity for engagement is in the drafting of the Terms of Reference (ToR) of the human rights body, which is currently an ongoing initiative.

Surin’s vision contrasts with previous practices of the ASEAN Secretariat, which strictly limited engagement with NGOs, mainly with “accredited” organisations refereeing discussions or sometimes even speaking on behalf of the broader section of civil society. Expanding this limited engagement with the Secretariat had been the main driving motivation why the SAPA WG on ASEAN had organised the last two ASEAN Civil Society Conferences (ACSC) during the ASEAN Summits.

He stressed the need for a “participatory, accountable and open [ASEAN]”, which is necessary for the grouping to achieve the vision outlined in the proposed ASEAN Charter of a “sharing and caring community”.

Surin threw the doors of engagement wide open by stressing that civil society has a role to play in all three ASEAN pillars: economic, political-security and socio-cultural. Based on the engagement with the charter drafting process, civil society participation has been limited to the socio-cultural pillar.

Civil society needs to play its role to make economic integration “more inclusive, to make it more equitable and just”, Surin explained. Many security issues – particularly non-traditional ones, such as environment, diseases and international crime – cannot be tackled by government alone, and needs civil society input.

Corinna Lopa of the Southeast Asia Committee for Advocacy (SEACA), the sponsor of the meeting, observed that the previous Secretary General, Ong Keng Yok, said that his role was “more of a secretary than a general”. Responding to Surin Pitsuwan’s speech, Lopa hoped that he would be “more of a general than a secretary” to make ASEAN a more dynamic organisation.

Debbie Stothard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN Burma) remarked that Surin “said what we all wanted to hear”. She added, “but it is up to us [civil society] to ensure that this active engagement with civil society actually happens”.

She also said that there is a concrete opportunity for this to happen since Thailand is this year’s chair of ASEAN, and Surin is Thai. As the chair of the group, Thailand will host the annual summit and is a more conducive venue for the ASEAN Civil Society Conference.

This dialogue between Surin and civil society took place little more than a month after starting his five-year term. He is a former foreign minister of Thailand, who once coined the term “constructive engagement” to describe ASEAN’s inclusion of the military-ruled Burma into the regional group. This move has increased expectations on the role of neighbouring countries, acting as a group to push for democracy in Burma. He is the highest government official to occupy the post of ASEAN Secretary General, who began his term on 1 January 2008.