Asean civil society meet dodges Laos for E Timor

Bangkok Post: 25 April 2016

In the second decade of the Asean civil society and people’s forum, the civic groups will meet not in the host country for the first time, but in non-Asean member East Timor instead. Every year before the Asean Summit, a conference known as the Asean Civil Society Conference/Asean People’s Forum (ACSC/APF), where hundreds of civil society activists from the Asean region gather to represent the voice of civil society, is held parallel to the official Asean Summit.

This year the theme of the conference, to be held in in August, is “Expanding People’s Solidarity for a Just and Inclusive Asean Community”. It will be held in East Timor’s Dili, according to Atnike Sigiro, a steering committee member of the Asean NGO mechanism created in 2005.

“It’s an effort by Asean civil society to reach out to people in Timor Leste, which soon will join Asean. The title also represents an expansion of solidarity among the people in the Asean region,” said Ms Sigiro from Forum-Asia.

Chalida Tacharoensak, of the People’s Empowerment Foundation, said Asean civil society organisations would meet to discuss preparations in Laos, which will host the summit this year, in the second week of next month.

Ms Chalida said Asean civil society groups have agreed to hold the ACSC/APF from Aug 3-5. They still tried to lobby Laos and other Asean members to hold an interface conference between civil society and Asean leaders in Laos, but met with no success.

The first attempt at getting the two sides to meet was made at the 15th Asean Summit in Cha-am, Hua Hin in 2009. However, only a few leaders including then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva were prepared to meet the civil society groups.

The formation of the ACSC/APF was not without hassles.

In recent years, state-linked civil society organisations, especially from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia have tried to “infiltrate” the discussions.

Yet most members consider the meeting “has been heading in a positive direction as it tries to engage Asean and open a space for civil society organisations in ensuring the people are heard by Asean member states”, said Ms Sigiro.

Civic groups decided in November last year to hold the meeting in Dili given the lack of readiness of civic organisations in Laos.

At a recent encounter with the ACSC/APF members in Bangkok, a senior official from Laos threatened to block East Timor’s entry to Asean if the August meeting touches upon issues which echo concerns of US-based dissenters against the Choummaly administration.

Luis Ximenes, a member of the Timorese organisingcommittee, said East Timorese civil society groups were in close consultations on how to discuss such issues as migrant workers, human rights defenders, and indigenous people.

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