November 5-7, 2020, Ha Noi, Viet Nam
Nearly 1,200 delegates from 11 Southeast Asian countries gathered in the very first “virtual” ASEAN People’s Forum despite the challenges posed by the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through 24 workshops organized under 11 convergence spaces, we discussed the current situation and challenges faced by Southeast Asian peoples, as well as their impacts on vulnerable communities and sectors. We also work out recommendations to ASEAN governments and people’s strategies to overcome challenges and map out the way forward.
The Southeast Asian landscape continues to be dominated by political elites and corporate oligarchies and their neo-liberal and market-oriented development strategy anchored on liberalization, privatization, and deregulation. This has spurred growth, but benefits are unequally distributed thus marginalizing vulnerable sectors. Democratic institutions have yet to solidify and influence the direction of Southeast Asian political developments.
The COVID-19 pandemic. Whilemost of Southeast Asia has been spared from the pandemic’s worst effects, infections are on the rise. The situation remains precarious for the rest of 2020 and most likely for 2021 as well.
ASEAN official responses have been largely token and uncoordinated. Country-based stimulus programs have been inadequate and inefficient. Weak social protection has affected vulnerable communities the most as they have little access to medical safeguards and health-related information.
Despite these challenges, effective people-led alternative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic from several Southeast Asian have undertaken autonomous measures imbued with the principles and practices of solidarity, self-help, organizational tightness, social cohesion, and sharing.
Economic aspect. Prior to the pandemic, economic growth was fueled mainly by foreign speculative investments, the property and services sectors, rising consumerism, information technology, and overseas workers’ remittances.Despite these, Southeast Asia became the only Asia-Pacific region with “widening wealth concentration and worsening hunger, food security, nutrition, and sustainable agriculture indicators,” as the UN ESCAP reports.
The COVID-19 crisis, however, has reversed the trend of rising growth. The Asian Development Bank projects a year-end 3.8% downturn for the region as a whole, the first contraction in six decades. Businesses, particularly micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) have been closing or forced to retrench workers, triggering joblessness and loss of incomes. The World Bank estimates that 38 million Southeast Asians will remain or fall back into poverty while the UN warns of the damage to the livelihoods of 218 million mostly women informal workers. Huge public debts incurred to raise funds for COVID-19 could overburden national coffers. The relentless capture of the commons for private corporate and state gain further impoverishes peasants, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk, workers, and rural and urban poor communities.
ASEAN economic integration remains weak despite the lowering of tariff barriers and the easing of regulatory restrictiveness. Intra-ASEAN trade has been stagnant - never exceeding 25% since 1985. Intra-ASEAN investments have been declining to only 15% in 2019 as national economies compete to entice extra-ASEAN investments. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) multilateral trade agreement could magnify inequalities between and within countries and further empower developed states and transnational corporations. The COVID-19 crisis will only worsen the situation.
Social issues. Discrimination remains uncheckedon the basis of social class, race & ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation,geographical location, religion, and political beliefs. Essential social services have generally remained out of reach for many. The pandemic has also exposed the inequities spawned by multiple forms of intersecting structural and systemic discrimination, namely privatized and expensive health care system and an elite-centered educational system.Higher hunger incidence has been registered while the shift to online learning in schools handicaps the poor who have limited access to technology. Violence against women and girls, as well as LGBTIQ persons has also increased as the pandemic forced families and communities to remain in their homes. Despite the influx of pandemic-related loans, social amelioration funds have not increased substantially as most governments have been primarily concerned with credit ratings.
Political aspect. Some Southeast Asian authoritarian governments have endured and are increasingly becoming more despotic. Democratic institutions continue to flounder while human rights violations persevere. The UN Secretary General has warned that governments are taking advantage of the health crisis to impose draconian measures that further limit democratic space and clamp down on dissent.
In response, protest and other actions against undemocratic laws and overbearing leaders have erupted. In such situations, social movements and civil society organizations take on important and influential roles.
Peace and security. The South China Sea territorial disputes remain flashpoints that threaten regional peace and human security. This is exacerbated by violations of international law,unilateral moves and major power strategic competition in the region. Militarization has also been on the rise in Southeast Asia with military spending doubling in the last 15 years.
Climate and environment. Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most vulnerable areas to the climate crisis and its most severe consequences such as super typhoons, drought, rising sea levels, flooding, increasing heat and humidity, and greenhouse gas emissions. All these result insevere loss of biodiversity and environmentaldegradation, huge death tolls and significant socio-economic losses borne mainly by less developed societies. The most significant contributors to the climate crisis are heavy industrial operations—including extractive industries, large-scale development and infrastructure projects, and global value chains—most of which have been carried out by governments and the richest corporations.
Cultural concerns. The dominant political, economic, and social structures across Southeast Asia have propagated a culture of individualism, authoritarianism, consumerism, discrimination, and anthropocentrism that have hampered the realization of more progressive values and of meaningful systemic change. Some Southeast Asian countrieshave been subjected to religion-based violent extremism that is viewed as a desperate response to the social inequalities engendered by exclusive economic growth and political marginalization. On the other hand, the struggles to preserve the rich and diversified Southeast Asian cultures have intensified in the wake of threats of homogenization and the diminution of indigenous cultural forms and practices.
1. Peace and Security
Over the past years, the global security situation has undergone complicated changes. The major power strategic competition appears to polarize the world into competing power alliances. This will have serious impacts on ASEAN and its member countries. China’s unilateral moves in the South China Sea increase threats to the region’s peace and stability and human security. Long-standing and emerging non-traditional security threats like the climate emergency, and especially the COVID-19 crisis are placing people’s lives and livelihood at risk. It has not only exacerbated inequalities and conditions enabling conflicts also been used by many governments to justify repressive and militarized emergency laws and responses.
2. Human Rights and Access to Justice
The economic crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic has spurred many ASEAN governments to accelerate the implementation of the bankrupt neoliberal globalization policies. Urban and rural workers, smallholder farmers, urban poor, fisherfolk, women, children, indigenous peoples and ethnic nationalities, older persons, professionals and rank-and-file employees, persons with disabilities, youth, LGBTIQ persons, human rights defenders, and migrants suffer exclusion from the mainstream of social, economic, and political aspects of Southeast Asian societies and communities. Besides, most ASEAN states are implementing the mechanisms and statutes that close democratic spaces for people’s participation. Such laws/policies deepen previous political-economic grievances, rights concerns, and barriers to sustainable development especially for women, peasants, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups. CSOs, especially those critical of government’s anti-people policies are vilified, and red tagged which leads to incarceration on trumped up and non-bailable charges, extra-judicial killings and disappearances.
3. Ecological Sustainability
In Southeast Asia, the destruction of nature is continuing for the sake of economic development such as large-scale mining, large dams and unsustainable energy production, and agribusiness plantations. The illegal exploitation and trade of wildlife and timber have caused severe loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation. It is important to support and strengthen community actions and responses to protect, restore, and manage our common natural resources. Civil society should work more together to promote the shift towards sustainable development and resilient economies to solve the ecological crisis with concrete actions.
4. Migration and Labour
Thekey relevant issues faced by migrant workers in the region include the impact of COVID-19 on migrant workers, the need to strengthen social protection for migrant workers in the region, wage theft among migrants repatriated due to Covid-19, and the need for solidarity in promoting and protecting the rights of migrant workers in the region. Although ASEAN member states adopted the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2017 and the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2007, migrant workers are still subject to labour and human rights abuse.
5. Alternative Regionalism
For many years, peoples in Southeast Asia witnessed that ASEAN continues to foster a regional integration model based on a dominant development narrative. The ASEAN model of regionalism is based on state-to-state relations and purely market-oriented interactions that leads to little or no attention to civil society and grassroots peoples’ organizations.
This situation surfaces the need for civil society and social movements to establish an alternative model to what ASEAN is. The pressing agenda is to present a true regional integration among Southeast Asian peoples that responds to the needs and aspirations of the marginalized and excluded. It is an alternative regionalism that transcends boundaries, borders, and nationalities while rejecting cutthroat competition, capitalism, authoritarian and state-dominated and corporate-directed socio-economic systems.
6. Transformative and Solidarity Economy
A Transformative & Solidarity Economy (TSE) is a solution to the current problems of the neoliberal market economy; as well as organized groups involved. In factoring Covid-19, key initiatives should be community-driven partnership among multi-stakeholders at all scales. There are very trying concerns. Nevertheless, several positive case studies show promising signs of sustainable partnerships on the pathway to TSE.
7. Trade, Investment, and Corporate Power
Covid-19 has exacerbated vulnerabilities of people and sectors due to corporate driven, and neoliberal development policies. These are reflected in areas of food, jobs and livelihoods, trade, investments, finance and access to technologies. ASEAN states should seize this moment, addressing the long-standing structural and systemic flaws. Sadly, the reverse is observed; suppressing dissent and deepening economic liberalization. Community-led and peoples’ initiatives differ from the government’s militarist and corporate-driven approach.
8. Life with Dignity
Countries with sound health and social protection systems fare better at responding to the unexpected COVID-19 crisis. Unemployment, hunger-poverty, inequality are record high; especially hitting the informal economy workers. Health, work, social protection are all human rights, and thus should be enhanced for the path to recovery.
9. Culture and the Arts
The Covid-19 Pandemic surfaces the role of Culture and Arts in contributing to community resiliency, spreading public health messages, supporting health workers and advocating programs-legislation to aid people’s needs. Artforms are used to advocate issues; including waste management, protecting the environment, women’s and communities’ rights, democracy, and health.Artists are encouraged to collaborate on common issues, defending the environment, and resisting the shrinking of civic space and the harassment of communities and artists.
10. Innovation, New and Emerging Technology, Digital Rights
The new technologies showcases vast opportunities for social economic developments to even the most vulnerable. Nevertheless, digital identities protection, job insecurities & widening digital divide threaten society. Absence of proper rules and trade agreements open locals to global injustice. There is a rise in Surveillance Capitalism, censorship, shrinking civic-democratic-press space, draconian law measures and surveillance. Formal and lifelong education systems suffer due to digital over dependence. Thus, education, research and the web should transition as social commons.
11. Racial Discrimination and Religious Extremism
The rise of racial and religious discrimination in the Southeast Asian region spares no country and traverse national borders. This can be traced to the broad range of policies and institutions that discriminate and marginalize ethnic and religious minorities. There exist two paradigm streams, the substantive-inclusive religious practices and exclusive-formalistic religious practices. A holistic approach should be adopted to address this divide.
1. Roll out concrete plans on how to fully combat COVID-19 pandemic; set up a strong and adequately-funded public health systems; accelerate the delivery of socio-economic relief, especially for the marginalized sectors; uphold human rights for all; put people’s rights and welfare over corporate profit; support the call of humanitarian ceasefires in ongoing armed conflicts during the pandemic; classify COVID-19 as an occupational disease; and make COVID testing and vaccine free for all.
2. Support the participation and acknowledge the engagement of CSOs/peoples’ movements, grassroots communities,especially conflict-affected communities, women, and young activistsin the decision-making process.
3. Take proactive steps towards rejecting the use, or the threat of use, of force or sanctions in international relations; use peaceful means, including diplomatic and legal processes for the resolution of disputes with respect to international law.
4. Dismantle repressive state institutions, and repeal policies and laws that clamp down on democratic spaces, impinge on the people’s right to shape development and crimialise people for their voices, opinion and expression; implement genuinely democratic, and transparent mechanisms for participatory governance in crafting development policies, programs and projects;support internationally-binding mechanisms and processes on human rights, enable a safe environment for people to exercise their rights without fear or reprisal.
5. Set up the Environmental Pillar as thefourth pillar of the ASEAN Community in order to foster regional cooperation in environmental governance for a just transition towards a low-carbon, nature-based, needs-based, and people-centered economy and climate-resilient livelihoods and industries.
6. Prioritize sustainable and equitable energy options and pathways by promoting and adopting non-hydropower renewable energy solutions and reconsidering planned large dams in the mainstream of such rivers as the Mekong river and others.
7. Promote decent work for all and everywhere by enabling all workers in ASEAN to enjoy fair employment and income security: implement policies that allow all workers to access social security, humanitarian assistance and emerging relief.
9. Promote effective implementation of the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers; address urgent issues suffered by migrant workers in relevant policy platforms like the ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour.
10. Strengthen the initiatives and laws supporting social solidarity economy towards a Southeast Asian Peoples’ cooperative that institutionalizes and popularizes solidarity practices of grassroots peoples.
11. Expand spaces for participation of artists and cultural workers in shaping frameworks, systems and mechanisms for transformative politics in Southeast Asia that promotes education about indigenous Southeast Asian cultures, allows marginalized and dissenting voices to be considered.
12. Create Cross Learning spaces & mechanisms for People-to-People Partnerships Transformative & Solidarity economy; in sharing ideas, experiences and knowledge on alternatives to the neoliberal socio-economic order.
13. Mainstream the framework on Transformational Partnerships and Women’s Economic Empowerment for inclusive recovery and building back fairer among social enterprises, SMEs, Inclusive Businesses and Corporate Agribusiness.
14. Reverse course on economic development policies including trade, investment and finance; move away from such FTA as RCEP and from debt-inducing development finance and investments that advance the corporate agenda and further deepening inequalities in the time of an unprecedented global health and economic crises; support the process in the UN towards a legally-binding instrument to make transnational corporations and other business enterprises accountable for human rights violations.
15. Increase gender-based budget expenditures to realize (qualified, available and accessible) comprehensive social protection for all;to guarantee its implementation, integrate in macro policies, and build national funds from taxes as well as regional social protection funds such as Global Social Protection Fund.
16. Support community-based programs and other initiatives to ensure their basic needs like income, food, health (both mental and physical) and safety.
17.Recognise that internet access and its use is a human right; ensure there is no place for violations of cybersecurity nor the use of digital technology to surveil and to repress freedom of expression, shrink democratic civil space.
18. Address the digital divide so that economic, social and political inequalities do not widen further, loss of jobs do not increase the ranks ofprecariat/workers, and learners do not suffer education and health deficits. Instead, accept and promote the view that the internet is a part of the social commons and ensure that it offers a safe space for users, especially children, youth, women and marginalised sectors.
19. Address the issues of race and religion within the region, embrace the principles of Human Rights and adopt a religious moderation framework based on fairness, justice, and balance; adopt and promote a religious moderation framework founded on the principles of fairness and justice, balance, and a principle of common good by finding a middle path between right extremes and left extremes; respecting all cultures, languages and religions.
20. Strengthened the mandate of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to receive, investigate, monitor, address and publicly report on complaints and other grievances caused by a transgression or violation of human rights and human dignity.
1.People's participation and democratized decision making particularly at a time when civic spaces are shrinking and the policy arena and governance systems are being captured by corporations and landed elites. Strong demands have been made on States to promote meaningful public participation in decision-making processes and other critical issues - from addressing conflicts to peacebuilding, sustainable management of natural resources to ensuring democratic governance in the economic sphere.
2.Inclusion of most marginalized voices. Strong efforts should be made to ensure that the most marginalized and discriminated sectors and peoples are empowered to engage in processes and issues that affect them. There needs to be greater recognition, for example, of indigenous knowledge, values, customary land rights, and governance systems as key elements in climate strategies, planning, and decision-making. Stronger efforts should be made to enact policies and to open spaces for the meaningful participation of all marginalized groups who suffer exclusion from the mainstream of social, economic, and political aspects of Southeast Asian societies and communities.
3.Support for public health and social programs: The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to strengthen public health systems, free healthcare and medical tests, economic relief for the marginalized sectors, and implementing genuine agrarian reform, fair compensation for workers, support to MSMEs, and vital infrastructure against calamities, and other social programs. These should be placed above interests that have traditionally been prioritized by governments and that have hindered public spending on social services, including creditworthiness, corporate bailouts, military and police spending, and mega infrastructure projects.
4.Primacy of human rights and the environment. Implement a development framework that is harmonious with nature and puts people’s rights and welfare over corporate profits.
Strengthening our strategies for building peoples alternatives:
5.Building and strengthening grassroots movements as pillars of democratic governance.Across the region, we are seeing the efforts of grassroots movements to organize for the assertion of peoples’ rights, for pushing back threats to their communities (including destructive development projects driven by corporations and supported by governments), and for building concrete alternatives.
6.Support community-based programs and other initiatives to ensure their basic needs like income, food, health and safety. Community-led and peoples’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic highlight the contrast between a people-centered responses and the government’s militarist and corporate-driven approach. Other examples of community responses include local actions to build capacities and train grassroots communities on the opportunities and challenges in the use of digital and other new technologies,supporting self-organized groups, and the building of local partnerships towards developing transformative economic alternatives, and the social solidarity economy. We should work tostrengthen the initiatives and laws supporting social solidarity like the push for a Southeast Asian Peoples’ cooperative that institutionalizes and popularizes solidarity practices of grassroots peoples such as cooperatives and alternative banks that function as funding centers and economic education institutions for the grassroots communities.
7.Fostering stronger unities and encouraging more collaborative efforts at the regional level among peoples and communities, social movements and networks across all themes from economic, social, cultural, and political spheres; remaining active in organizing, mobilizing, and shaping spaces for fostering inclusive, people-centered, rights-based and gender-sensitive communities in Southeast Asia. The APFserves as platforms for these collaborations by encouraging more grassroots and community-based organizations to participate in conceptualizing and designing a new socio-economic order.We should expand spaces for participation of artists and cultural workers in shaping frameworks, systems and mechanisms for transformative politics in Southeast Asia that promotes education about indigenous Southeast Asian cultures, allows marginalized and dissenting voices to be considered, facilitate people-to-people interactions, and co-create formation of shared memories, histories, narratives of Southeast Asian solidarity
8.Strive for stronger local, national, and regional solidarity in resisting attacks on human rights and democratic institutions and values. Such attacks include the passage of draconian policies that clamp down on fundamental freedoms as well as the harassment and killing of human rights and environmental defenders. The people in Southeast Asia should further unite to collectively assert people’s democratic rights against all forms of oppression and exploitation brought about by the rise and consolidation of authoritarian regimes and corporate power.
9.Consolidate further the alternative peoples’ regional integration agenda based on the alternative practices of communities, sectors, peoples, and networks across Southeast Asia by adopting and following through on the proposed resolution.
ANNXEX II: Resolution on Alternative Regional Integration: Download here
Joint Statement : Download here