It has been almost twelve years since the Eminent Person Group of ASEAN(Association of Southeast Asian Nations) introduced people-centered concept in the drafting of ASEAN Charter. At the time, the concept proposed to include people’s inputs and policy initiatives, represented by the civil society organisations and grassroots communities, in the making of ASEAN’s decisions and policies. Although some concerns arose from member states on the possibility of misinterpreting the nature of ASEAN decisions making and the scope of people involvement under this concept, they eventually agreed to accept this concept as long as it also paired with “people-oriented” term (ASEANThai, 8 March 2016). People-oriented indicated that although it might be possible for the ASEAN leaders to start considering initiatives and ideas from their people, the decision making responsibility and authority are still on their hand.
Since the inception of people-centered concept, ASEAN decision making dynamics now are still dominated by the states. This phenomenon is closely related to the dynamics of each member states. Nevertheless, there is also much progression toward it. Under the theme of ASEAN: “A Community of Opportunities for All”, people-centered activities and programs are abundant. For example, through its people mobility programs ASEAN encourages people mobility with providing the ease of travel between countries in ASEAN, more training and vocational education opportunity to reduce the gaps between vocational skills demand and supply, as well as increasing mobility between intra-ASEAN university student (ASEAN Connectivity, n.d.).
However, all these carefully designed programs must be halted due to the COVID-19 outbreak that hit almost all ASEAN member countries early this year. The rapid increase in the number of cases impels ASEAN to issue Chairman’s Statement on ASEAN Collective Response to the Outbreak of Corona Virus Disease 2019 on February 2020 in which, from the author points of view, agreed on six general measures as their form of collective response: (1) utilise and strengthen regional mechanism to coordinate national and regional efforts;(2) intensify information, experiences, and best practice among ASEAN Member States, ASEAN Dialogue Partners and other international organisation such as World Health Organization (WHO); (3) establish close networking with relevant sectoral bodies of ASEAN in the areas of consular, immigration and transportation under the ASEAN Health Sector; (4) ensure proper health inspection at borders and entry points of ASEAN Member States while maintaining consistent policies on open border and economies under the monitor of the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC); (5) urge ASEAN Member States diplomatic missions in third countries to provide consular assistance to nationals of ASEAN Member States in need; and (6) ensure that people in ASEAN community are rightly and thoroughly informed on the COVID-19 situation(ASEAN, 15 February 2020).
Later, on 14 April 2020, ASEAN also conducted Special ASEAN and ASEAN+3 Summits on Coronavirus Disease 2019 resulting in a declaration. The declaration is not only detailing the existing measures that have been agreed on the Chairman’s statement but also further calling to utilise ASEAN existing platforms(ASEAN, 14 April 2020). However, a closer look at both the Chairman’s statement and Declaration shows that the people-centered approach has not yet fully realised in the time of COVID-19 pandemic. The scope of the measures only stretched between ASEAN, Member States, Dialogue Partners, and other international organisation such as World Health Organization (WHO). Means in the context of the domestic application, the regional measures will applicable to be operationalised only by the government and its officials. At the same time, people will be treated as mere objects on the operationalisation, whereas the role of non-state or civil society actors is needed in raising public awareness in this situation.
COVID-19 is unique in its rapid spread and that the person infected may not experience any symptom means they might not be aware that they already infected and continue to live as usual until it getting worst and infected other people. Therefore, the ability of government to conduct mass testing, tracking, and targeted isolation/quarantine is crucial in order to prevent further spread of the virus. Nevertheless, apart from that, individual and community awareness also needed to ensure that the measure to stop the spread is effectively implemented and still values human rights principles in the policy implementation. Therefore, it is a job that requires full cooperation between the state and its people.
To leave all the responsibility to each member states’ government in tackling the outbreak is impossible in three intertwined reasons. First, the government capacity to conduct mass testing, tracking, and targeted isolation/quarantine is varied and limited, especially since COVID-19 is affected not only the national health condition but also the economy in general. Second, as regards to the economic condition, it is also impossible for the government to impose prolonged restriction or lockdown on economic activity as it will harshly affect people who depend on daily income and also companies who produce secondary or tertiary products. Last, with these uncertainties and raising anxiety, people have the right to choose whether they want to actively do something to overcome their situation, or to be able to stay at home until the situation improve.
Therefore, it is the time for ASEAN to open more spaces for the active role and involvement of people to handle COVID-19 at the regional level. Initiatives and movements from people already shown during the outbreak period all over the region. For example, initiatives to help people who suffered the most economically from the pandemic situation or initiatives from companies to substitute their product into an essential product during the outbreak. Also, the movement to raise people awareness on wearing masks and to self-produce their mask to overcome the scarcity of masks and other protective equipment. Moreover, initiatives to ensure that the state still guarantees human rights principles during the outbreak (Hanung, 2020). Substantially, these initiatives are in line with what ASEAN has agreed at the regional level. However, as it is mostly derived from an individual or particular groups within a particular country, it is also limited to cover only certain areas. Further, it potentially risks on uneven assistance in one part and over in another.
What ASEAN and its member states need to do is to encourage all the relevant Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) that have been cooperating within ASEAN to lead and coordinate those initiatives. Therefore, they can have more significant impacts and maximise the implementation of measures agreed on the regional level as a whole and national level in particular. Such leading roles can be provided, for instance, through the existing ASEAN CSOs network that regularly come and attend ASEAN forums. Further, CSOs who regularly have meetings and invite ASEAN representatives to attend, such as in the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum (APF) or ASEAN People’s Assembly (APA) can certainly be involved (Human Rights In ASEAN, n.d.). All in all, ASEAN should not avoid involving people in order to build a healthy and resilient ASEAN Community. (Faudzan Farhana)
“Between the People-Oriented and People-centered ASEAN Community?,” ASEANThai, 8 March 2016, http://www.aseanthai.net/english/ewt_news.php?nid=1005&filename=index, accessed 26 April 2020.
“People Mobility,” ASEAN Connectivity, no date, https://connectivity.asean.org/strategic-area/people-mobility/, accessed 26 April 2020.
“Chaiman’s Statement on ASEAN Collective Response to the Outbreak of Corona Virus 2019,” ASEAN, 15 February 2020, https://asean.org/storage/2020/02/ASEAN-Chairmans-Statement-on-COVID-19-FINAL.pdf, accessed 26 April 2020.
“Declaration of the ASEAN Special Summit on COVID-19,” ASEAN, 14 April 2020, https://asean.org/storage/2020/04/FINAL-Declaration-of-the-Special-ASEAN-Summit-on-COVID-19.pdf, accessed 26 April 2020
Hanung, Cornelius, “ASEAN must Uphold Human Rights During Virus Crisis,” Asia Times, 23 March 2020, https://asiatimes.com/2020/03/asean-must-uphold-human-rights-during-virus-crisis/, accessed 27 April 2020
“CSO and ASEAN Forums,” Human Rights in ASEAN, no date, https://humanrightsinasean.info/cso-and-asean-forums/, accessed 27 April 2020