ASEAN Peoples' Forum, 2019: Lessons for Manipur

Jiten Yumnam *

 ASEAN Peoples Forum (ASF) held from 10 - 12th September 2019 at Thammasat University, Thailand
ASEAN Peoples Forum (ASF) held from 10 - 12th September 2019 at Thammasat University, Thailand

APF in Thailand: Attending the ASEAN Peoples Forum (ASF), held from 10 till 12th September 2019 at Thammasat University, Pathum Thani, Thailand has been an eye opener to the socio-cultural, political and economic realities of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), that shares close proximity to the culture, ethnicity, geography of Manipur and in India’s North East.

The APF 2019 was organized with the theme “Advancing People’s Movement for Justice, Peace, Equality, Sustainability and Democracy in South East Asia” as the ASEAN is slated to dwell on range of issues, territorial disputes, human rights violations, China’s rising influence in ASEAN etc during its summit from 31st October till 4 November 2019. The three-days of meetings focussed on human rights, democracy, access to justice, trade, investment, peace, migration, human trafficking, refugees, ecological sustainability etc. The ASF is held annually in the country that hosted the ASEAN summit.

Originally formed in 1967 as a political project of anti-communist leaders amid cold war, ASEAN has gradually evolved and expanded its scope to a more multifaceted development initiative from 2005 theme of being “people-centred”, later adding “people oriented”. In 2015, the concept of ASEAN community was born revolving around three pillars, political security community, the economic community and the socio-cultural community. The ASEAN is still grappling to include ‘environment’ as fourth pillar. There has been no consensus among the members.

Insights from APF sessions: A major contentious issue focussed during the APF is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) agreement, pushed by powerful economies. Civil Societies from ASEAN critiqued potential impacts of the agreement, stating the RCEP will favour big business and investments, leading to corporatization and privatization of development processes, targeting indigenous peoples land and resources. Reasey Seng of SILAKA, Cambodia said women are concerned over the privatization of public services and limited access for women to land.

RCEP will push for policies favouring privatization of services, contractualization of work, and corporate control over land and resources, which would further burden women. Kosal, a Cambodian garment worker fears RCEP will negatively affect the working conditions in Cambodia. RCEP will push for a labour policy regime that favors low wages, high production target, longer work hours, contractual work and precarious work for workers. RCEP will establish high standards for patent examination that would favour Big Pharma. The investor state dispute settlement mechanism of RCEP that allow corporations to even sue Governments when their business is affected is another concern.

Governments across ASEAN region continue to push for corporate driven development framework that worsen poverty and inequality, undermine peoples’ rights. Civil societies raised concern with massive impact of infrastructure push by dominant economies, such as Japan and China. The impacts of infrastructure and extractive industries financed by Chinese Companies in recent decades seems overwhelming in ASEAN ranging from roads, to dam construction to plantations across Laos and Cambodia in particular.

Accepting the role of chairman at the end of 33rd ASEAN Summit in Singapore in November, 2018, the Prime Minister of Thailand listed infrastructure and connectivity as key to “strengthening ASEAN” and to go hand in hand with China’s the Belt and Road Initiative. ASEAN is caught in the middle of key infrastructure push by China through its AIIB bank, Japan and financing by Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. The Trans Asian Highway and the Railway projects in Manipur financed by Asian Development Bank, World Bank, Japan etc is envisaged to connect with ASEAN countries.

Hydropower Development in the mighty Mekong River and its Tributaries in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar primarily with financing from Thailand, China, World Bank etc features another key contentious energy project in ASEAN region due to their impact on the livelihood and human rights of communities in the region. Rusrann Loeng of Fisheries action Team, Cambodia shared the impacts of hydropower projects in Mekong River and its tributaries in her country. The Lower Sesan dam built by Vietnamese companies, affected fisheries in Tonle Sap, a freshwater lake in Cambodia. The Tonle Sap, like the Loktak Wetlands of Manipur, has seasonal variation of water level and seasonal migration of fishes. There are many floating villages in the lake and Tonle Sap is close to Angkor Wat.

The Mekong River Commission in their studies confirmed that hydropower in Mekong River Basin will lead to loss of ecosystem, sedimentation, and undermine fisheries and livelihood and cultures of communities in Tonle Sap. An Environment Impact assessment law is still absent and thus hydropower projects are pursued without impact assessments in Cambodia. In Laos, Xayaburi Dam, Daugahong Dam, Pak Bang Dam and Pak Lay Dam are build by companies from Thailand, that envisaged to receive most of the power generated from these dams. The transboundary impacts led to shortage of water and livelihood impacts in downstream areas in Thailand. Several lawsuits are already filed in Thailand’s Ministry of Energy. The Pak Mun dam in Thailand and Nam Theun Dam in Laos impacts indigenous communities.

The ADB, World Bank and JICA are involved in promoting hydropower projects, by funding transmission lines, roads and direct financing through financial intermediaries. The hydropower and water diversion projects turn out to be an additional source of conflict among countries as Mekong River traverse through Five ASEAN countries. The water diverted from Mekong in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand will affect the water flow in Mekong Delta in Vietnam. There are complaints the Kaidwan Dam in Malaysia will affect its indigenous peoples.

Rio-Tinto and Oceana Gold mining companies from Australia and Canada caused massive human rights violations in the Philippines, as shared by Ms. Liya from the Philippines. The proposed uranium mining and nuclear power plant in Kalimantan, Indonesia, mining applications and operations in the Philippines and economic land concessions in Cambodia threaten to undermine indigenous peoples’ rights over their land and resources. Malaysian investment in oil palm plantation in Southern Thailand caused human rights violations.

 ASEAN Peoples Forum (ASF) held from 10 - 12th September 2019 at Thammasat University, Thailand
ASEAN Peoples Forum (ASF) held from 10 - 12th September 2019 at Thammasat University, Thailand

Indigenous peoples’ rights violations remain a serious concern in many ASEAN countries. One concern raised is that the ASEAN governments do not effectively recognize and implement the rights of indigenous communities to their lands and resources. Karen representatives from North Thailand said Karen people lived and depend on forest since times immemorial, but now Karen are classified as illegal and forcibly evicted after classifying their forest as “Reserve Forest” areas. Indigenous peoples’ human rights defenders in ASEAN face criminalization, harassment, intimidation, killing and enforced disappearance, such as disappearance and murder of Karen activist Mr. Phorlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, Thailand.

Governments, instead of listening to people listened only to corporations and businesses. During a discussion on “Challenges and Responses of ASEAN towards Peace, Equality, Sustainability and Democracy”, Singaporean activist Shui Meng Ng, who represents families of enforced disappearance cases, spoke about her Laotian husband, Sombath Somporn, who went missing without a trace in 2012 in Laos. She said Laotian authorities could not find out where he had gone and who was responsible for his disappearance.

The participants also raise concerns around the ineffectiveness for protecting the human rights of the people in ASEAN due to the non-democratic process of appointment of commissioners, inactive towards human rights violations in the region and the difficulties CSOs and HR groups confronted in engaging with ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) representatives.

The ASEAN region has been confronted by issues on security, justice and deteriorating democratic practices that threatens the security of its people. In the plenaries during the APF, the situation of democracy has been discussed with concern. The oppression and arrest of activist who are critical of Governments continued. There seems to be a wide gap between people and the Government. Indigenous peoples who lived for generations in their own land and considered as illegal, such as in Northern parts of Thailand.

The increased refuges crisis, in particular the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar and the West Papua struggle for self-determination and associated human rights violations by the Indonesia Government and the massive extra judicial execution and the targeting of human rights defenders in the Philippines are major controversial issues in ASEAN countries raised during the APF. The Southern Peasant Federation of Thailand resisted the systemic land grabbing schemes. West Papuan rights defenders resisted resisting extraction of resources and rampant rights violations.

Karen groups and other movements in Burma have been fighting against resource plunder. Civil Society representatives called for investigation to the extra judicial killings in the Philippines in the guise of combating drug menace. Even during the APF, there are complaints that Indonesian state officials harassed West Papuan participants as well as organizations who stand in solidarity with their struggle for self-determination. Non-interference, a key principle in ASEAN seems to be another stumbling block in addressing critical issues afflicting the region. There are concerns that ASEAN failed to deliver on promise embedded in the ASEAN Inter Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

Migration features as another critical issue across ASEAN region. South East Asia continues to represent the major number of outflows of migrant workers to other developed economies in Asia and beyond. Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand continues to be source of migrant workers and the Governments are harping on their remittances as major source of economy while doing little to promote the safety, welfare and rights of migrants. Despite adopting the ASEAN Consensus and the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers Framework, documentation and nationality of migrant workers and their family members remains the main challenges for receiving human rights and fundamental freedom on citizenship, fair wage, social protection such as health etc.

Inequality among the ASEAN members and the economic and political dominance by emerging economies among the ASEAN member is an obvious reality. Vietnamese companies and Thai companies are quite proactive along with companies from China and Japan in targeting the land and resources of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia etc, comparatively weaker economically within ASEAN. The US $1.2 billion Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam located on the Xe Kong River in Laos, built by Korean companies with Thai and Japanese investments collapsed flooding several villages in downstream areas, killing 49 people. The dam builders and financers remained unaccountable. Laos, afflicted with low capacity, skills, poor infrastructure, lack of capital, absence of regulation is forced to import high value-added products like machinery while exporting low values items.

 ASEAN Peoples Forum (ASF) held from 10 - 12th September 2019 at Thammasat University, Thailand
ASEAN Peoples Forum (ASF) held from 10 - 12th September 2019 at Thammasat University, Thailand

ASEAN and India’s North East: Similarities of Issues: The overt focus on energy projects, extractive industries targeting its land and natural resources in ASEAN is much like the overt focus on hydropower projects, oil exploration and mining plans in Manipur. Many of the Rivers in North East and across ASEAN like the Brahmaputra, Mekong, Irrawaddy, Chindwin Rivers etc originates from the Tibetan Plateau. The Manipur River itself flows to Chindwin River and joins the Irrawaddy River.

ASEAN is rich in natural resources like North East India. The region is also very strategic geographically with major sea lanes and connecting with major global regions. However, the region’s resources and geopolitical location is targeted for control by major global powers and emerging economies. The communities within ASEAN continues to be plagued with massive human rights challenges, due to onslaught of their land and resources by foreign multinational companies with financing by International financial institutions.

The collaboration of capitalist countries and other emerging economic powers in a geopolitical setting and dynamics to compete with other emerging powers economically, politically and militarily has been a similar facet with ASEAN and North East region. The increased role of international financial institutions and the corporate bodies in defining the polity and the economy of the two regions and the militarism and human rights issues, particularly the indigenous peoples’ rights issues are much similar. Rights violations including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions are much similar amidst the heightened State’s measures to subdue democratic voices for justice and rights to development injustice and impacts on communities.

India aggressively pursued India’s Act Policy to complement and to complete with similar initiatives with other countries in Asia, like Japan’s Open Asia Pacific Strategy, China’s One Belt One Road Initiative etc, to control the geography, space and resources in Asia region. India’s Free Trade Agreements with ASEAN and bilaterally with key ASEAN members and understanding impacts of these in NE would be much crucial. The Trans Asian Highway, the Trans Asian Railway, the Kaladan Multimodal Transport connection etc all envisaged to foster trade, commerce, connectivity and investment with and from South East Asian countries. Similarly, many ASEAN countries like Myanmar and Thailand embark on connectivity, trade and commerce with India’s North East.

Concluding observations: Deliberations during the forum indicates commitments to build a real ASEAN community, particularly economic aspect remains a pipedream. Civil societies expressed concerns that the changes in ASEAN’s perspectives and its pronounced tilt towards peoples’ welfare have been more rhetorical than real. The development paradigm that guides ASEAN member states bred greater inequalities, worsened marginalization, exploitation of natural resources, spawned social and environment crisis, cause armed conflict and violence.

Politically, the doctrine of “non interference” and “consensus building” hampers unified actions on human rights issues. Most agreements are non-binding. Despite high growth rates, poverty and social inequality rates remain high and meaningful peoples’ participation in government decisions making remains a challenge. ASEAN and its member governments have been seen to be more comfortable with the private sector than with civil societies.

ASEAN members compete rather than complement each other economically and its economic ties in trade and investments are stronger with non-ASEAN countries. ASEAN is at crossroads due to major powers strategic competition, which threatens the unity and solidarity of its members. The US and China are engaging actively in the region financially, militarily and politically.

Dr. Maurice, Member of Parliament from Malaysia shared that ASEAN is for business and investment. There’s unequal partnership between ASEAN and its people. The economic pillar is the most advanced among the three pillars. While service, trade, investments are moving forward, the score cards for Human rights, decent work, gender etc is missing. Business communities dictates for policy reform, for privatization, for liberalization of healthcare and education etc. Mr. Maurice continued that ASEAN does not want to talk about the human rights issues like the Rohingyas in Burma, West Papua in Indonesia, arrest and killings in Thailand, Enforced disappearances and killings in the Philippines, violence in Cambodia etc, due to principle of non-interference and consensus building.

ASEAN have changed and new powerful actors influence ASEAN with economic and political ties. India, china, EU, Japan, US, Australia etc are more active in the region and ASEAN becomes more complex and the process of conversation have changed. The overt influence of China in ASEAN has been raised. Inter politics within ASEAN not just among Government but also among civil societies is intense. For instance, delegates from Myanmar objected to any reference to the Rohingya issues in the final statement of the ASEAN Peoples Forum. The outcome declaration is quite reluctant to touch to any of the controversial issues in ASEAN including issues in South Thailand, Rohingyas and Karen areas in both Myanmar and Thailand, the situation of violations in Mindanao in Philippines etc.

The final ASEA peoples’ forum statement called all development processes should uphold the right to free, prior and informed consent of all communities. Due to the negative impact of dam constructions on the livelihood of people living along the Mekong River, the groups recommended, too, that energy policies should not lead to ecological ruin. “We need energy transition from the destructive sources of power to renewable,” said Nguy Thi Kanh, founder of Green Innovation, Vietnam. ASEAN Member should respect the spirit of international human rights declarations and implement their obligations, including under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Ensure legal recognition of indigenous peoples’ lands and their traditional occupations and livelihoods.

APF also urged ASEAN governments to conduct Human Rights Impact Assessment before ratifying RCEP and other trade and investment agreements and urged ASEAN states not to ratify any agreement that will potentially violate human rights. ASEAN governments must deliver climate justice as ASEAN countries belong to the most vulnerable regions that will suffer the impacts of climate change.

The APF makes clarion call to ensure that the AICHR evolves into a functional and meaningful mechanism to protect, fulfil and promote all human rights of all peoples in ASEAN. Promote and protect human rights of migrants by strengthening existing mechanisms for both documented and undocumented workers and their families. Implement the ASEAN consensus on the protection and promotion of migrant workers through effective consultation and collaboration with civil societies and to protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

Civil societies called on to stop killing of human rights defenders across Southeast Asia, asserting these attacks serve the neoliberal agenda of trade and investment in the interests of the corporate elite, especially for dominant monopoly capitalist powers such as US, Japan, and rising interests of China to intensify the plunder of resources, exploit and oppress peoples.

The call continued to resist global capitalism that unleashed onslaught on peoples’ land, resources and lives in ASEAN region and to challenge the neoliberal model of development. Put in regulations that curb the power of corporations anchored on protecting peoples’ rights instead of RCEP and other Free Trade Agreements. ASEAN should recognize peoples’ right as primary decision-makers in economic and development policy and holding the state and corporate actors accountable for rights violations.

The deliberations during the APF indicates that the reality in ASEAN countries is much akin to happenings in Manipur and in India’s North East, including the expropriation of indigenous peoples’ land and natural resources, the increased role, hegemony and unaccountability of the corporate bodies and financial institutions along with the State.

The positions asserted by civil societies in ASEAN countries for just development rooted in their rights should be an eye opener for Manipur, to assess the similarities of issues and the potential threats and human rights issues due to increased investment, connectivity, infrastructure push in Manipur and India’s NE amidst India’s Act East Policy.

The liberalized model of development propagated and reinforced equally in ASEAN countries and North East India, the geopolitical contestation among major powers, associated militarism and visible impacts addressed throughout the APF should be a lesson for all to challenges unsustainable policies and processes to foster sustainable development, human rights and environment justice in Manipur.

* Jiten Yumnam wrote this article for
The writer can be reached at mangangmacha(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on October 31 2019.

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