Shifting towards people-centred ASEAN

The Khmer Times, 12 November 2015

The ASEAN Economic Community will be realized, at least in principle, by the end of this year. ASEAN’s successes will be highlighted, especially in maintaining peace and stability in the region, in promoting a single market and production base, and strengthening regional unity within diversity.
However, ASEAN still faces huge challenges ahead. ASEAN’s unity and centrality is vulnerable to a major power conflict brewing in the Asia-Pacific. Development and institutional capacity gaps between the member states remain wide, people’s participation in regional community building is limited, human rights violations remain high, and environmental degradation is getting worsening.
Acknowledging these challenges, ASEAN leaders adopted the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a people-oriented, people-centered ASEAN in April to show collective political will and commitment to put the people first in regional community building.
Political Security
Democracy, rule of law and good governance, social justice, and human rights are regarded as the main elements or values for promoting and sustaining peace and security in the region.
However, some ASEAN member states are reluctant or not willing to implement these norms. Due to the strict principle of non-interference, ASEAN is not able to effectively enforce these norms upon its members.
ASEAN, therefore, needs to be more innovative and flexible in engaging its member states in promoting and implanting these norms in their societies.
The people of ASEAN are experiencing highly unpredictable geopolitics. The region is vulnerable to and shaped by China-US power competition and rivalry.  China and the US had a military faceoff last week after the US sent its destroyer within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial island in the South China Sea. In response to the US “provocative acts,” China conducted live-fire exercises in the area.
To survive and stay relevant, ASEAN needs to consolidate its unity and diplomatic competence in managing regional disputes and mediating the China-US rivalry. Otherwise, ASEAN people will be prone to conflict or even war in a worst case scenario.
Economic Inclusiveness
ASEAN strives to promote an integrated, stable, prosperous and cohesive regional economy, which encompasses all sectors of society. Yet many women in the region have not been empowered to grasp the benefits and be the co-drivers of economic development. Youth unemployment remains high in some countries, including Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are facing difficulties in getting access to finance, market information, and technology. Some are not able to survive regional competition.
ASEAN needs to further link regional economic integration and development with poverty reduction.  Supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, nurturing social entrepreneurs, and empowering women are critical to pro-poor development. ASEAN needs to invest more in social welfare, social protection, and social safety nets.
Socio-cultural Development
Awareness of ASEAN is very low amongst its own people. ASEAN remains an elites-driven and a market-steered organization.
The rights of women, children, youth, elderly persons, migrant workers, indigenous communities, the disabled, ethnic minority groups, and vulnerable and marginalized groups have not been fully promoted and protected.
Intra-regional migration, human and drug trafficking, haze, and mismanagement of the Mekong River are some of the trans-boundary issues faced. Sovereignty, non-interference, and nationalism prevent countries from having a shared responsibility in managing these problems.
Social Innovation
To build a truly people-centered organization, ASEAN needs to put the people at the center of the three intertwining pillars: political security, economic development, and socio-cultural development.
ASEAN should add social innovation to its post-2015 community-building agenda. Social innovation provides novel and useful solutions to the pressing social problems and needs. Social innovators are the leaders who provide innovative solutions to social problems, impact social changes, and promote social resilience.
Social innovation involves three main stakeholders: the public sector, the private sector, and citizens. ASEAN needs to build a working partnership among these actors in order to impact changes and deliver the results that would benefit the people of ASEAN.

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