Jakarta - In two years’ time, Asean will reach the big 4-0 but many of its “citizens” probably couldn’t care less. For, despite the 10-member grouping’s efforts to promote integration, Asean remains out of reach for its more than 500 million people. And Asean leaders and bureaucrats have only themselves to blame for this disconnect, according to a commentary in The Jakarta Post.
Key policymakers in both member countries and the Asean Secretariat have ignored calls for a more transparent and inclusive Asean, wrote Mr Alexander C Chandra, a researcher with the Institute for Global Justice.
Many of Asean’s integration projects, such as the proposed Asean Economic Community, have proceeded without the people being consulted.
"If one looks closely at the dynamics of the relationship between Asean and its people, those who have been critical of the Association are mainly the "elites" of Asean. To a large extent, the majority of the people in Southeast Asia, including those from civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations, are somewhat indifferent about the Association," Mr Chandra wrote.
But all is not lost. Asean can mean something more than just a name for its citizens if they can be convinced of the importance of having a "regionalised" Southeast Asia.
For example, the concept of the Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA), a key regional initiative, could be explained much better to the people whose lives will be directly affected by the agreements that arise out of the pact.
"It is still a matter of debate as to the extent to which the Southeast Asian people actually understand the concept and the progress of this regional economic integration initiative. In Indonesia, for example, many small and medium enterprises are still faced with difficulties in becoming involved and participating in this trade arrangement. The overall benefits of AFTA are still scarcely being felt by these economic actors, not to mention the community at large,” Mr Chandra wrote.
He acknowledged that the region is "far better off with, than without, Asean". "But it is also imperative that Asean becomes more relevant to its people…the people of Southeast Asia need to start touching the untouchable."
* Moving toward a more inclusive Asean (The Jakarta Post, June 14)