The Department of International Studies in partnership with the Women and Gender Institute (WAGI) and with support from the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) and Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom Southeast and East Asia launched its research entitled: “Regionalism From Above, Regionalism From Below: The ASEAN and Possibilities for a Transformative Regionalism.” The lead authors, Professors Lorna Israel and Jona Villasante presented the highlights of the research during WAGI’s 6th National Women’s Summit: Women Transforming Politics and the 2022 Elections held on 26 March 2022 via Zoom. The event was graced by Former Thailand Foreign Affairs Minister Kasit Piromya and ALTSEAN Coordinator and Founder Debbie Stothard who served as discussants and moderated by Celito Arlegue from CALD.
Israel began the discussion by stating the two drivers of regionalism in Southeast Asia, which the authors termed regionalism from above led by state actors and regionalism from below steered by non-state actors (NSAs). She discussed the strengths of ASEAN being the main driver of Southeast Asia regionalism and stressed that the political, economic, social, and cultural diversity in Southeast Asia is not a barrier but serves as a common ground in ASEAN, where mutual respect and integrity foster. She also traced the vision of the forefathers of ASEAN who wanted a regional organization that would not stand against something but stands for something, which includes cooperation, peace, and development. She also recognized the weaknesses and criticisms thrown against ASEAN which were evident in how it handled regional security issues such as Myanmar’s military coup and the South China Sea dispute.
On the other hand, Villasante discussed regionalism from below highlighting the roles of the business sector, think tanks, and civil society organizations (CSOs) who have been pushing for a more participatory regionalism where voices of non-state actors (NSAs) are heard in the regional decision and policymaking processes. ASEAN’s engagement with these non-state actors (NSAs) both in ASEAN-sanctioned spaces and outside ASEAN was also examined. She enumerated five crucial points that should be addressed to achieve transformative regionalism: (1) the visions of NSAs on alternative regionalism conflict with one another, (2) ASEAN is more enthusiastic to engage with the business sector and think tanks, and the isolation of the CSOs has led them to contest policies outside ASEAN using an informal bottom-up approach, (3) formally engaging with ASEAN does not guarantee the consideration of policy inputs and recommendations, (4) mistrusts arise when NSAs are co-opted by ASEAN, (5) ASEAN’s participatory mechanisms limit the opportunities of NSAs to contest policies, push for policy alternatives, and contribute to the deliberation and formulation of policies.
Following the recommendations discussed by the authors, the discussants provided useful and balanced insights on how ASEAN can be more relevant by accommodating the views of NSAs. Piromya pointed out the need for regime change in Southeast Asia and called for the need to strengthen democracy that will provide the foundation for participatory regionalism. Agreeing with some points raised by Piromya, Stothard highlighted the importance of disruptive and persistent advocacy to push ASEAN in that direction. She argued that if ASEAN does not build resilience and focus on governance, rule of law, and human rights, it will certainly fall and face irrelevance. Both discussants support alternative regionalism in Southeast Asia.
To conclude the panel discussion, Arlegue thanked the authors, panelists, and participants for attending the book launch and reemphasized the value of a multisectoral, multistakeholder, and meaningful engagement between ASEAN and non-state actors. -- By Carriza Arambulo