More Than a Statement
Words by Bennett Haynes and photos by Jaruwan Supolrai
We came together for two main reasons. First, we aimed to produce a new, comprehensive ‘Youth Statement‘ that represented our consensus on key issues in the ASEAN region. Second, we hoped to strengthen our youth network to facilitate communication and exchange of ideas, support youth activities and share information between youth working at the local-level. The ASEAN Youth Forum was planned to be a platform to build recognition for youth voices in civil society and engage directly with ASEAN. Erwin, a student activist from Java, Indonesia pointed out early on, “youth are casualties of globalization.”
This statement may seem vague, but it makes an important point. The economic, socio-cultural and environmental changes occurring in ASEAN are having real, negative impacts on youth and we are increasingly aware of them. Southeast Asian countries have young populations, yet there is little being done by state governments to support a sustainable future for the next generation. Whether it is unemployment in Indonesia or Cambodia, unequal access to education in Lao PDR or Burma, gender inequality in Vietnam, socio-political apathy in the Philippines or Singapore, and migrant labor throughout the Mekong sub-region, there are serious problems and challenges facing youth. Economies have expanded greatly and many youth own fancy cell phones and motorbikes, but what are we to for all ASEAN Youth?
On our second evening, I sat for dinner with a Vietnamese environmental researcher of Khmer Krom heritage, a Lao youth organizer of Vietnamese decent, a brother and sister from the Tai Yai community in Shan State, Burma, and a Thai student activist from the rural northeast. We sat together, speaking Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, Tai Yai and English, while sharing ideas about important issues.
Our conversation ranged from regional history of migration, the climate crisis and carbon trading, agribusiness and livestock feedlots, global economic bodies like the G8, BRIC and ASEAN, and finally, the construction of dams on the Mekong and Salween rivers. After dinner, it hit me that I was working with a unique group of young people that genuinely care about society and are working for positive change.
But for many grassroots activists, ASEAN’s economic focus is a major problem. Some youth reject ASEAN on this principle, while others question the viability of bilateral trade agreements. To all of us, such an emphasis on the economy speaks to ASEAN’s ignorance towards important social and environmental issues. Yet how do we want to engage with an institution that we don’t agree with? As I have written before, here and here, there is an undeniable value in actually meeting person-to-person, bringing people together for a common cause (though not necessarily a stress-free process).
Our participants knew that we needed a clear, specific set of recommendations. We shared common ground on human rights, impacts from the financial crisis, human trafficking, government corruption, natural resource exploitation and environmental destruction. We also understood the potential for conflict between bordering nations, especially from the Mekong and Salween dams and the increasing presence of Chinese investors and corporations in natural resource-rich economies.
We also felt a need to integrate the Young Progressives Southeast Asia (YPSEA) Youth Charter into our statement. After four years of development, the Youth Charter presented a solid approach to regional youth policy, something that other youth networks had yet to focus on. Education, the environment and human rights were productive points of discussion.
The problems associated with the conventional education system are something many youth are already focusing on them. Vietnam youth organizations such as the Vietnam Students Union are working to address this issue, but are unable to take a rights-based approach because of government intervention (Tuan, a youth representative from Hanoi, made the point that the Students Union was “government funded, but independent” though with a government official as chairperson).
Indonesian, Philippine and Malay youth organizations are all fighting against privatization of schools and pushing for youth participation in educational system decision-making. Thai youth from the Youth and Local Wisdom Network called for reform in the conventional education system and made concrete suggestions about the need for alternative education, which includes and supports local communities. Environmental education is also seen as an important starting point for building awareness and genuine environmentalism among youth.
Though the Lao government seems convinced by the “battery of Southeast Asia” concept, Lao youth are able to articulate very clearly the connections between large-scale development projects, such as dams, and impacts on community and environment. Development in Laos has meant a widening gap between the wealthy and poor (especially in terms of education) and environmental destruction. Youth in other ASEAN countries (including those which may not be direct beneficiaries of Mekong hydropower) saw this as an important issue and were supportive of a strong statement regarding the environment. Moving beyond our demands to stop large-scale hydropower development, we urge more support for local, renewable and community-managed forms of alternative energy.
Further, biofuel plantations are not the answer to our energy needs. Such monocropping is already destroying community food resources in Thailand and is increasingly present throughout the region. As Usup, a Thai activist based in Chiang Mai pointed out, we must also look beyond food security, understanding that it isn’t “connected to our rights, it just talks about having something to eat…but food sovereignty is about rights, our choices to plant what we eat, the safety of this food and the diversity of foods to eat.”
Given the dedication to human rights by the Thai Volunteer Service Foundation and Action Aid, the protection of human rights was a key issue for our forum.
As one Burmese youth living in a refugee camp on the Mae Sot border pointed out, “we have our own rules and laws, but they are only in the books.” These youth were incredibly brave to stand in front of ASEAN and speak honestly about the Burmese people’s struggle. While rights violations in Burma are the most well known in our region, they continue in all ASEAN countries. We demand that the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) be an independent body capable of protecting human rights and investigating rights violations. Youth must also be a part of this process, especially for young law students. The unveiling of the AICHR at the 15th ASEAN Summit made clear that such interests were not taken into account, but we will continue this work for justice and community rights regardless of ASEAN support.
There is a contradiction between economic and social development in ASEAN. This is made clear by the environmental devastation (often transboundary) occurring every day. Export-orientation has put small-scale producers at a major disadvantage, and the financial crisis has proven that we can no longer rely on this system. Yet ASEAN governments support this system, so ASEAN youth must find a concrete way to engage and challenge free trade.
The regional economy was a major sticking point for our group’s process. Donaldson Tan’s in-depth understanding of regional politics, economics and even engineering eventually became an essential part of our critical engagement with ASEAN. Several Thai grassroots activists were initially frustrated by Donald’s insistence about economic issues, such as the inevitability of free trade and Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). During the discussion on Fair Trade, Athit, a leader in the LYAP project “Are we youth or politicians?” Can, an activist based in Chiang Mai, Thailand continued, “we are agricultural countries, and we need to exchange and help our neighbors. It’s more about exchange than trade or racing to get rich.”
But through hours of exchange and debate, we forged common ground about the need for fair trade and intervention on corporate exploitation of workers and natural resources. We are believers in the power of local economies and the role of youth social entrepreneurs in those communities. This is where ASEAN should put its support if they truly want to strengthen the regional economy. Our struggle to agree on the economy was the exact opposite of ASEAN’s process because we worked so hard to account for the social and environmental impacts from trade and investment. Perhaps serves as a symbol for difference in worldviews between ASEAN governments and civil society.
When we first met each other, Che-Anne, a student activist from the Philippines, called our network’s goal, “greater collaboration for greater space.” Later, while introducing the Philippines’ situation to the group, she concluded that “participation is not just about airing grievances, we need to propose concrete solutions.” Based on our Youth Statement, it’s clear that we’ve proposed concrete solutions. But can we bring a network together? Can we call it an “ASEAN Youth Movement”?
Our access and use of communication tools remains an obstacle in this process. At our Media Team meeting, Burmese youth explained that e-mail from several major providers is unavailable, and most importantly, they must be very careful with what they send and receive, and how public that information can become. Following our forum, one youth sent an e-mail that told everyone she was leaving for her fieldwork in rural Burma and would not have e-mail access for the next several months. Most youth working in rural communities have irregular access to e-mail. When we use these tools, we tend to prioritize our communication as well. How can we make contributing to aseanyouthmovement.org or informing friends about an upcoming event a priority?
The English language also remains a point of some contention. For some Thai activists, English represents the loss of culture and local languages, and for Che-Anne, from the Philippines; the ability to speak English fluently is a legacy of her countries history of colonialism. Yet for others, learning English is an essential tool for communicating to a larger audience and accessing information for abroad. These differing understandings of English will be an important challenge for keeping our network connected.
The forum’s facilitator, Aphatson “Ae” Sombunwatthanakun, introduced concepts of a “transnational civil society” and “regional people’s movement” to our group. I think that these are useful for us to think about in working to create our network. We’ve created a group of friends in nine out of ten ASEAN countries, but how do we generate a “space” for us to work together. On one level, this space requires further funding, so that we can host more forums and meetings to develop future collaborative projects. On another level, this space requires commitment from our Youth Forum’s participants. If youth are committed to further communication and coordination, and bring their friends and allies into the process, we can begin to open a space and engage the local with the transnational and regional levels.
“I believe in the struggle of the people, not meetings among government officials.” – Usup. Many youth don’t expect that much from ASEAN. The failure of government leaders to participate in the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum was certainly disappointing, but not surprising. The rejection of civil society representatives in the Interface dialogue with ASEAN was just the icing on the cake. How can ASEAN claim to be “peoples’ centered” while refusing to dialog with the people themselves?
Many youth have said, “This doesn’t just stop at the ASEAN Summit.” Our voices are coming from grassroots communities and pursue ASEAN as another space for exchange. There are important common issues between many ASEAN countries: incomplete or unequal educational systems, youth job insecurity, a widening gap between urban and rural youth, environmental and social impacts from large-scale development and chemical-intensive agriculture.
At the end of her discussion on human rights and ASEAN, Dr. Sriprapha, now a member of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Human Rights Commission (AICHR), told us all, “Being noisy is useful as well.” It is clear that we will need to keep making government leaders listen to us.
We’ve developed a progressive agenda and taking action at the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (APF) was a first step. Running around the event in pink t-shirts and carrying signs that ranged from “Local Wisdom” to “NO EU-ASEAN FTA,” we made clear to the rest of civil society that youth are committed to working on regional issues. We believe that working for change ourselves is most important.
To learn more about our movement, please visit aseanyothmovement.org
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