23 April 2013

ASEAN and the AEC: Where do the people fit in?

Over the course of this semester, we’ve been learning about ASEAN and its main pillar, the AEC (ASEAN Economic Community), from the perspective of rural Thailand. ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, consists of 10 Southeast Asian countries, and was designed to promote economic, social, and political cooperation and growth between them. However, its top-down approach to economic development will continue to limit power and resources to leaders of corrupt governmental systems, and increasingly dominant trans- and multinational corporations.

While the three pillars of ASEAN are the AEC, security, and sociocultural integration, the fast-moving economic plan has received the most attention and has made the most progress. Originally planned to begin in 2020, the ASEAN summit pushed the date forward to 2015, and preparations are already in full force.

Railway slum communities in Khon Kaen are fighting for government leases to force legal accountability when, due to AEC railroad expansion plans, they are evicted from their land. Farmers have switched to cash crops like cassava and rubber in all corners of Thailand: all the better for international trade. Labor, already migrating from rural to urban sectors en masse, is primed to expand its exodus to other Southeast Asian countries.

The AEC’s mission is to promote trade within Southeast Asian countries by increasing the movement of goods and services across borders. It is feared that skilled labor including doctors, will leave Thailand’s already strained medical sector in favor of higher-paying countries. Large-scale corporations already hop borders to avoid strict environmental and social regulations; the AEC will make cross-border operations even easier, with no corresponding plans for accountability.

These problems are already seen in Southeast Asia, and all over the world. When a multinational corporation (mainly located in one country, but operating in at least one other country) violates human rights in one area, where should it be prosecuted? Transnational corporations, which have no ‘home base’ in one country and multiple administrative locations instead, make it more complicated. Add in limited liability and corporate personhood, and accountability seems nonexistent.

It is touted that increase in big business, big corporations, and big projects promise big benefits for Thailand: a growing economy, investments in neighboring countries, increase in tourism and money flowing into Thailand.

Of the 100 largest economies in the world, trans/multinational corporations make up 51 of them. The responsibility of government lies in providing services and protection for its citizens, while the legal responsibility of a corporation is to make a profit. When corporations have more power than an entire country, it is not hard to see how the interests of people – especially those who are poor and under- or un-represented – become marginalized in the name of development or international trade.

Thailand’s civil society is growing, as we’ve seen from the many organizations and leaders we’ve had the privilege of meeting this semester. NGO Cord in both Isaan and the North continue to actively fight human rights battles ranging from citizenship to land titles to sustainable agriculture. The ASEAN Youth Movement’s forums before each ASEAN summit incentivized ASEAN to set up its own Youth Forum (although it fell short of a space to voice concerns over ASEAN’s actions and policies). While Thailand’s justice system remains unscrupulous in many ways, human rights lawyers have detected the beginnings of a shift. There’s still a seemingly endless way to go, especially when decisions made by the ASEAN summit have no input from the people its plans will affect.  

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is being introduced into more companies’ policies, but like the green movement, actions behind the scenes don’t always match up with the public statements. While consumers’ demands for products, energy, and money continue to be separate from their realities and implications, corporations’ drive for profit above all else will continue to be the force behind development.

Melanie Medina
Whitman College

1 comment:

Ben McCormack said...

I liked reading this post. I for one feel oddly concerned about the AEC. It just sounds like it will benefit the elite of the nations involved and won't necessarily do much for anyone else and at least in Thailand I think it could have many negative affects for the poor and rural population. It's kind of disheartening to see that GDP is becoming more of a concern in the world instead of less. The US has the largest GDP in the world but we're by far lacking in many social categories. I hope ASEAN ends up putting more energy into the social and environmental aspects but it's definitely not surprising that the economics is getting first and heavy attention.