WITH the rules guiding the Asean Economic Community (AEC) seemingly pro-investor and favorable to the business community,there are fears that the unsuspecting public might become the victims of a capitalist plot.
While the capitalists in the region may get overprotected by the new rulings since the AEC came into force, there are talks on whether the community should take a leaf from the Eurozone’s playbook.
The AEC crafted to some extent on the European Community model, is possibly in a stronger position to avert the negative elements that have arisen from the Eurozone at the turn of this century.
The Eminent Persons Group (EPG) of the Asean had carried out several discussions with European leaders in an attempt to learn more about the workings of the European Union (EU) and its community.
These talks influenced the grouping in its plans to form the AEC.
However, the EPGs did not buy the entire package from the EU, instead recommending a different approach to the issues and problems faced by the individual countries before mooting the AEC.
The EPGs mandate was to draft an Asean charter that would bring about a long overdue legal framework, to help re position the grouping amid the global rise of China and India in particular.
It is also crafted in such a way that it would hook-up to Asia’s widening links with the rest of the world.
Not to mention that the AEC intends to tackle issues of dire importance to the people such as the free movement of labor and the integration of the local businesses into the regional framework.
The fact that the Asean, via the EPG, turned to the EU and not to other existing ‘communities’, signaled the need for the Asean to get the blessings of Europe — many of which were their former masters during the colonial times — amid the fear of the rising Chinese dragon.
Asean feels that it is threatened by China.
Embattled by rising nationalism in some Asean nations, the never ending crisis in Myanmar and divisions within its ranks over China’s influence in the South China Sea (SCS), the question is whether the AEC will deliver?
The region is altogether divided by American military pressures, which is coming from the Asia Pacific region, a situation made pertinent with the election of President Donald Trump.
These are uncertain times for the community, and a quick but long-term solution is necessary for the grouping to keep its unity, and to strengthen its capacity in order to face these mounting challenges.
A parliamentary limbo
It is clear that Asean and the AEC are an exclusive affair of the heads of states of the Asean member states, but it has been proven with recent events in the SCS that these are too much for the leaders to chew by themselves.
The creation of AEC was decided by a meeting of heads of states, and several other ministries that acted as rubber stamps, while the 600 million people in the region had no say in it at all.
The rules guiding the AEC were decided by executive chairpersons, chief executive officers and business and political decision makers.
The people was not involved at all in the process and have only been given a chance to voice their views only during the annual Asean Civil Society Conferences/Asean Peoples’ Forum.
Lawmakers, aka parliamentarians, were not really in consultations during the negotiations for the formation of the AEC.
This left out a large chunk of the population who are directly represented by the members of the respective parliaments in the region.
Perhaps the Asean should start adopting what the EU has done, that is getting parliamentarians involved in the process of community building.
Otherwise, while it is comforting to the needs of the investors, manufacturers and the political elite, the entire affair will turn into a huge white elephant that will ignore the needs of the people in the Asean region
Here, we are not talking about the creation of a unified legislative framework that will become an Asean Parliament.
A solution could be the creation of a consultative council where parliamentarians will be able to voice the concerns of the people to the leaders of Asean.
The Greek crisis is an eye opener for the EU, but the very fact that it is being discussed and a resolution or attempts at resolving the crisis could be found through the EU Parliament is a good reason why the Asean must involve its parliamentarians in the community building process.
This deed is missing in the AEC framework but it is not too late for the Asean movement to rectify this.
A game changer
For the AEC to benefit the people, and for it to transcend beyond the heads of states who should not be the only leaders to dictate the future of the 600 million people, it will needs a unified legislative framework.
This can be done by elevating the Asean charter to a higher level, by getting it adopted by the national Parliaments and even ratified by local councils.
This will undeniably lead to a stronger and much more consolidated AEC.
With its heavy focus on business and investment and its limitations of the movement of labour in the region — due mostly to fears from some nations — the existing AEC framework has too many leaks.
Due to these leaks, it may not work in the favor of the masses. Thus, it will need a re look by parliamentarians.
The AEC’s success will depend on the support of the people, and not the other way around.
Another way of getting this support will be to go through the test of a referendum in each and every country.
In order for the community to grow and be at peace with each other being a grouping of diverse ethnic groups and religious beliefs, it could solve many problems through referendums.
This is the way forward for modern societies, as we see it happening in Europe and the United States.
It will be a waste of time, the naysayers would say.
The question is whether the people are sufficiently disconnected from the Asean leadership?
If yes, then one of the ways to shrink this divide will be to engage the masses directly. This can only be done through referendums.
Risks of rights abuses
With the focus borne mostly on the well-being of the richer classes, the AEC clearly does not have provisions for the easing of labor movement in the region.
It only caters for professionals.
And it does not have any provisions for the respect of labor rights and offers limited consideration for human rights.
The AEC does not cover the crucial issues of unskilled and illegal migration which is much more pressing than the free flow of skilled labor.
The community will also not deal with the issues of workers rights and migratory movements as these were not covered during the rounds of talks.
Human rights, workers’ rights and salaries are not addressed under the AEC but partially covered by the other two community blueprints: political-security and socio-cultural.
These are separate debates which are not really linked and connected with each other.
Though Asean has made some progress on human rights following the agreement on the Asean Human Rights
Charter a few years ago, no one should expect Asean to achieve consensus on workers’ rights since it is not even on the agenda.
Besides the AEC, Asean also has the Triangle project, which is designed to strengthen regional policies on the governance of labor migration between the member states.
The project enhances the capacity of governments, workers’ and employers’ organisations to help reduce labor exploitation and inequalities of migrants from Asean.
The project increases labor rights protection and decent work opportunities for migrant workers in Southeast Asia. But these are not sufficient. Massive influx of foreign capital
The AEC has made legal provisions (approved by various bodies of the member countries, including the central banks and the securities commissions) that allow for cross-border investments, and border-less movement of capital.
These are the parameters that will allow foreign and local entities to move their cash around, to engage in mergers and acquisitions as well as to start their businesses within any AEC states without hassle.
There are fears that the unsuspecting public might become the victims while capitalists may be overprotected by the new rulings that will be in place once the AEC comes into full force.
The massive influx of capital risks over empowering foreign and regional investors to acquire the labour force they require, at constant low wages and under unfair working conditions.
This could lead to further exploitation of workers in the region.
To address such weaknesses, the AEC has the moral obligation to open up to the ideas that have made the EU stronger today.
These are the free movements of labor, the process of referendums and the consolidation of the people’s rights in the wake of the onslaught from over-powering bosses.