Despite so much excitement in the run-up to the inception of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, experts and activists on human rights and democracy are ambivalent about what AEC’s repercussions will be on human rights and democracy.

They have expressed concerns about AEC’s negative impact on unskilled labour, the environment, community rights, income disparity and more.

Sriprapha Petcharamesree, Thailand’s representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (ACHR), said there is no mention of issues like human rights or democracy in the AEC blueprint, not even issues like corporate social responsibility or good governance. Originally, the plan was to achieve an Asean Community but it has now been reduced to an Asean Economic Community, said Sriprapha.

Sriprapha said although there will be free flow of goods by 2015, the free flow of human resources is only limited to skilled labour.

“When we talk about human rights, we ought to talk about low-skill labour rights, too. But that’s not to be found in the [AEC] blue print,” she said, adding that there is no guarantee that human rights will improve as a result of the AEC.

Yao Swee Seng, executive director of the Bangkok-based Forum Asia, a regional NGO working on human rights issues, said low-skill labour will not “enjoy the same treatment and rights”.

“This will cause a lot of discrimination,” said Yap, who is from Malaysia, adding the income disparity between skilled and unskilled labour would likely exacerbate under the AEC as skilled labour would gain even more advantages.

Another issue of concern is the AEC’s impact on the environment. Naruemon Tapchumpol, a Chulalongkorn University political scientist who teaches regional developments, said she is concerned about the AEC’s impact on the environment such as mega-dam projects and what it means to the rights of affected local community.

Naruemon said each nation still operates in its national framework and it is unclear whether AEC is a boon or bane for democracy, human rights and freedom of speech in the region.

“The Philippines is the most free [in freedom of expression]. Indonesia may be No 2. Thailand may be third, except on the issue of lese majeste and the highest institution. In Singapore, you can say anything but criticise the government. In Vietnam, there is no right to assembly, only ‘social gathering in a big crowd’. In Laos, there’s no freedom of expression and registration for civil society organisation is limited. So it’s hard to find a country that would shoulder [human rights and democracy,” said Naruemon.

Naruemon said it might be time to review Asean’s long-held principle of non-interference now that the AEC is on the horizon. Without any commitment and pro-active goal of promoting human rights and democracy in the region, there will not be much hope, she added. Naruemon still hopes that more advanced environmental law in some Asean countries like Thailand would have a positive impact on some other Asean-member states.

Yap, meanwhile, is worried that AEC will mean doing away with legal safeguards on the environment and pollution, particularly in countries like Burma and Cambodia.

“Lots of companies are going in and causing deforestation, dam building and frictions. The national law remains very weak,” said Yap. “The AEC is both a challenge and also an opportunity for people to see the negative impact of the current [economic] model pursued by Asean. All these problems will pop up: growing struggle against development projects that is not in people’s interests and more.”

Sriprapha said Asean should also at least pay attention to issues of corporate social responsibility and good governance, with the AEC now approaching. –The Nation