DILI, TIMOR-LESTE — The future of democracy and human rights protection are under threat in Southeast Asia and parliamentarians and civil society from around the region will have to work together if they are to endure, lawmakers warned during a meeting with hundreds of civil society representatives here yesterday.
“We must prevent the erosion of democracy in the coming years,” Indonesian MP Eva Kusuma Sundari told the meeting. Emphasizing the significance of the threat that democratic backsliding poses, she argued that tackling other human rights concerns requires a level of accountability and genuine representativeness that only democratic governance can provide.
“Let us do whatever we can do to make sure that ASEAN upholds democratic values. Because democracy, for all its challenges, is the only way to solve all these human rights issues,” she said.
The comments were made as lawmakers from eight countries convened here Tuesday for a Town Hall Forum organized by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), which kicked off the 2016 ASEAN Peoples’ Forum, the largest annual gathering of civil society from the region.
Taking questions from the floor, parliamentarians discussed the status of human rights and democracy in Southeast Asia, highlighting the growing challenge of democratic erosion and the impact of the ongoing ASEAN integration process on the region’s citizens.
Cambodian National Assembly member Mu Sochua noted that ASEAN countries exist on a spectrum, from those that have embraced democracy more or less fully to those where democratic practices do not exist at all. In between are governments, like Cambodia, whose commitments to democratic processes are only skin deep.
Commending the hard work of civil society groups around the region, she acknowledged that, “in any of these situations, it is still a struggle for community based organizations and trade unions to bring up their issues.”
Former Thai MP Rachada Dhanadirek described how in her country today, political parties were banned from formal activities, so civil society was leading the struggle for democracy more than two years after the military took power in a coup.
One civil society participant from Laos also raised concerns about the increasing lack of space for independent CSOs in the country, particularly since the December 2012 disappearance of prominent civil society activist Sombath Somphone. Civil society representatives opted not to have this year’s ASEAN Peoples’ Forum in Laos, despite the Lao government’s chairmanship of ASEAN, as a result of the intense repression activists and independent organizations face there.
Indonesian MP Mercy Barends discussed the need to democratize the economies of ASEAN in order to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are broadly felt.
“When we talk about ASEAN integration, we are generally talking about market-based integration,” she argued. There is therefore an urgent need for ASEAN to broaden its regional integration effort and focus more holistically on the problems faced by the people of ASEAN.
Mu Sochua put forth a similar argument with respect to economic growth in Southeast Asia. “ASEAN now represents the seventh-largest economy in the world,” she said. “But growth and progress has not been people-centered in terms of protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
For ASEAN to become a truly people-centered community, she argued that, “the political system needs to be reformed in order to enable and empower people to participate more effectively.”
In response to questions from civil society participants, legislators also discussed their role in ensuring that ASEAN member states live up to their international human rights commitments.
“What is important is for us to be able to exercise our oversight capacity,” said Philippine Congressman Teddy Baguilat. “This is one area where the Congress in the Philippines has been lacking. As MPs, we need to focus on our oversight function to ensure laws are properly implemented.”
“As MPs, it is our job to be a voice for the voiceless and a voice for human rights,” said Kasthuri Patto, a member of the Malaysian Parliament. “It boils down to political will. I believe ASEAN can be people-centered, but it requires hard work from all of us.”
Parliamentarians expressed hope that the town hall meeting would lead to more active sustained dialogue between lawmakers and civil society.
“ASEAN can be a people-centered community, but we need more forums like this, where members of parliament can learn from CSOs, and CSOs can learn from experiences in other countries,” said Dr. Nguyen Van Tien, former member of the National Assembly of Vietnam.
“The challenge is the gap between the peoples of ASEAN and the governments of ASEAN,” Mu Sochua added. “I hope that this discussion can contribute to concrete ideas for how your voices here can be brought to the next ASEAN meeting.”
“I still believe there is a lot of room for hope,” she continued. “Every day I see people power getting stronger and stronger, even as the struggle is getting harder and harder.”
Other legislators present at the town hall included the President of the Parliament of Timor-Leste Aderito Hugo da Costa and U Htay Kywe, a member of the Myanmar Parliament. The ASEAN Peoples’ Forum in Timor-Leste continues through 5 August.