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Authoritarianism and neo-liberalism: strengthening and consolidating not ‘sharing and caring’

Socdem Asia Statement on ASEAN Summit

As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marks its 50th anniversary, we have begun to witness the troubling erosion in the internal coherence, moral conviction and political will of the regional organisation. For years, the ASEAN has been credited  for its commendable efforts to prevent conflict among its members nations, which now include the most diverse collection of democracies, autocracies and communist regimes anywhere in the world. The regional body has also been credited for facilitating easier flow of commodities, investments and people across Southeast Asian nations, raising millions out of extreme poverty and boosting economies across the board.

Yet, this year marked a significant setback for ASEAN’s hopes of establishing a truly “caring and sharing community.” Operating on a perversely inefficient unanimity-based decision making process, and obstinately holding onto a distorted principle of “non-interference”, it has miserably failed to even openly acknowledge egregious crimes perpetrated by member nations against their own citizens.

This troubling development has been painfully evident in the heart-wrenching case of Rohingya people, who have been at the receiving end of a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing and, in the view of some, outright genocide at the hands of the Myanmar junta. And yet, the ASEAN has failed to make even a robust statement condemning such egregious acts.

Meanwhile, throughout the region, we have seen a dramatic backsliding among regional democracies, particularly in the Philippines under president Rodrigo Duterte, who has waged a bloody drug war that has claimed thousands of lives and openly threatened the country’s fledgling institutions of accountability and transparency.

In Thailand the continued grip on power by the military junta has effectively silenced dissent at all levels of government. Critics of military rule from politicians to student activists have been jailed. Moreover, the military junta has further cemented its control over institutions such as the national assembly.

In Malaysia, the country’s long time ruling coalition has continued engage on causing racial and religious tensions to consolidate its grip on power while Prime Minister Najib Razak has evaded accountability from massive corruption charges. An upcoming general elections might prove to remove the governing coalition from power however previous elections have shown that even the electoral system is subjected to machinations by the ruling regime.

Cambodia’s political situation is equally dire with the political opposition under extreme repression and the country’s human rights situation worsening. The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has increased attacks against political oppositionists, human rights workers and civil society activists.

In parallel, the increasing neoliberalization of regional economies has created a growing pool of insecure workers, who lack stable and dignified job, and massive inequality, as the tiny well-connected elite gobbles up much of the newly created economic pie. In short, what we are witnessing is an increasingly undemocratic and unresponsive grouping of autocrats, who have failed to bring about a people-centred regional integration process.

But the ASEAN wasn’t built to be a club of self-seeking autocrats. We, social democratic and progressives, call upon the ASEAN to establish a truly caring and sharing community by taking a principled stance against massive crimes against humanity, especially among member states; refuse to give effective veto power to erring member states by instead adopting majority-view on sensitive issues where unanimity is impossible; dispense with distorted notions of sovereignty and non-interference by upholding basic dignity and universal rights of Southeast Asian citizens; and establish appropriate regional mechanisms and international partnerships to foster people-centred democratic governance.  We also call upon global institutions and actors to facilitate and aid capacity building in the ASEAN so that the regional body can better respond to emerging challenges of providing basic services and protection for Southeast Asian peoples.