Pathways to a people-centered ASEAN

Khmer Times, February 8, 2016

Over the last 49 years, ASEAN has achieved remarkable results in maintaining peace and stability, promoting the habit of regional cooperation and creating a set of shared norms, and developing the regional economy. ASEAN is now the 7th largest economy in the world with a total GDP of $2.6 trillion and a population of more than 622 million. It is forecasted that by 2050 ASEAN will become the 4th largest world economy after China, the United States, and India.
ASEAN has gone a long way to go in its community-building process. The Bangkok Declaration in 1967 sets direction for regional cooperation through the acceleration of economic growth, social progress and cultural development, and promotion of regional peace and stability.
The ASEAN Vision 2020, adopted in 1997, projects ASEAN to be “a concert of Southeast Asian nations, outward looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bonded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies.”
The Bali Concord II adopted in 2003 aims to develop an ASEAN Community based on three pillars: a political and security community, economic community, and socio-cultural community. In 2007, ASEAN leaders agreed to accelerate the establishment of an ASEAN Community by 2015. In 2014, ASEAN aimed to build “a politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible, and truly people-oriented, people-centered and rules-based ASEAN.”
In 2015, the ASEAN leaders adopted the declaration “ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together” to reinforce the vision of ASEAN to build a rules-based, people-oriented, people-centered ASEAN Community, where the people enjoy human rights and fundamental freedom, higher quality of life and the benefits of community building.
What should we do to realize a truly people-centered ASEAN?  First, the political system needs to be reformed in order to allow and empower people to participate more effectively in national development and regional community agenda.  Participatory regionalism should be the guiding philosophy while strengthening democratic institutions and good governance should be embedded into regional and national institutional building and connectivity.
Second, ASEAN needs to invest much more in education and human resource development. Confucius said: “If your plan is for a year, plant rice. If your plan is for 10 years, plant trees. If your plan is for 100 years, educate children.” Education determines the future of ASEAN. For ASEAN to be more competitive and to reap the benefits from inclusive regional economic integration, human capital is required.
Third, more collective efforts and investments are needed to narrow the development gaps between the member states. The Mekong countries, particularly Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, need more financial and technical support from more developed ASEAN members and dialogue partners in infrastructure development and connectivity, institutional capacity building, and human resources development.
Fourth, ASEAN needs to invest more in social innovation. ASEAN and its dialogue partners should allocate funding to support social innovation in the region. Social innovation provides novel and useful solutions to pressing social problems and needs. Social innovators are those who provide innovative solutions to social problems, impact social changes, and promote social resilience.
Fifth, ASEAN needs to develop regional social protection mechanism or institution in charge of protecting the wellbeing and dignity of the ASEAN people particularly intra-regional migrants and refugees. Human mobility in the region has significantly increased over the years.  While ASEAN promotes skilled labor movement, the reality is that the movement of unskilled and low skilled migrant workers is the core concern and they need to be protected.
Sixth, ASEAN is rich in historical and cultural heritage. Preservation of this heritage is critical to regional community building. Diversity is an asset of regional resilience and it is also the main catalyst or driver of innovation and development. ASEAN should establish its own funding resources to help preserve its heritage and promote cultural and arts exchanges.
Seventh, public-private-people partnership is vital to promote a resilient and people-centered ASEAN. ASEAN needs to develop effective channel of communication or mechanism to promote dialogue and consultation among different stakeholders on the issues relating to regional integration and community building.
It is still a long way to go for ASEAN to realize a people-centered regional community. We need to have a common pathway and action plan to implement regional policy agenda centering on people’s interests and needs.

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