Civil Society in Search of an Alternative Regionalism in ASEAN

By Alexander C. Chandra on June 24, 2009

The so-called alternative regionalism is becoming a popular concept of late particularly given the increasing role and importance of non-governmental element, or civil society, also commonly referred to as the track-three, in the institutional development and community building of Southeast Asia. Despite the widespread use of the terms, there is yet a common understanding amongst relevant actors in the regionalisation process as to what alternative regionalism actually entails of. The theoretical and practical debates on and about alternative regionalism in Southeast Asian context has been minimal and far from sufficient. Given the increase dynamics of civil society's efforts to reform ASEAN, alternative regionalism, or the concept attached to it, will hold an important position in the analysis of civil society dynamics in Southeast Asian regionalism. This paper is one of the few attempts that have been initiated by scholars and activists from within the region that tries to fill this gap. More importantly, it is also an effort to provide greater clarity of the dynamics attached to civil society's engagement with ASEAN as a whole.

Key findings:

  • In its own context, alternative regionalism is certainly in the making in Southeast Asia, and civil society is playing a crucial role in promoting it. Various actors in Southeast Asian regionalisation process have different ideas as to what alternative regionalism entails of in the ASEAN context. One common thread in the promotion of alternative regionalism amongst these non-state actors is the question of the participation of the people in ASEAN policy-making process.

  • Alternative regionalism in the Southeast Asian context should, therefore, involve a spontaneous, bottom-up process that recognises the importance of wide range of stakeholders in the making of regional systems and institutions.

  • Whilst, historically, ASEAN is not immune to engagement with civil society actors, such engagement is still limited to a handful economic actors and members of the academic community. The ability of wider civil society actors, such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community based organisations (CBOs), to work independently and to tackle issue-specific challenges confronted by the region have made these non-state actors natural partners for ASEAN to pursue its regional projects.

  • Wider civil society groups are now increasingly motivated to engage ASEAN not only because of the expansion of the areas of cooperation of the Association, but also because they see the potential of ASEAN in bringing about positive development in the region, including, inter alia, the promotion of human rights and sustained economic development.

Key recommendations:

  • Given its limited experience in engaging with civil society a well as the growing demand of these actors to be more involved in the decisions that affect the 550 million people of the region, ASEAN needs to work fast to institutionalise its engagement with these non-state groups.

  • ASEAN must realise that the people of the region and their ideas are extremely diverse. Consequently, it should develop the systematic mechanism to ensure the accommodation of concerns and aspirations of different layers of society throughout Southeast Asia.

  • Most importantly, however, there should be an increase understanding between ASEAN and civil society groups on how each would see the future the grouping and the region.

Report details

IISD, 2009