The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

What role for civil society in imagining a “borderless ASEAN”?

Posted in ASEAN-Canada Partnership by NTSblog on July 11, 2014

With continued calls and planning for a “borderless ASEAN” in 2015,[1] existing cross-border or transboundary institutions and policies need to be examined. I have been particularly concerned with the processes of evaluating the environmental and social impacts of existing cross-border development. This matters because sustainable development and growth in the region require the capacity to evaluate and respond to impacts that cross national borders. The major challenge I identify in preliminary analysis is the inclusion and recognition of cross-border civil society networks and their potential contributions to imagining a more sustainable, borderless ASEAN.

Regarding governance and assessment of cross-border natural resources, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is an important institution to examine within Southeast Asia. It the only transboundary river basin commission in the region.[2]

However, recent incidents involving the proposed Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River in Laos have called into question the MRC’s legitimacy in the region. The Xayaburi project is being pursued by the Laos government even as a cross-border Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the 12 Hydropower Projects on the Mainstream Mekong commissioned by the MRC Secretariat and member governments concluded that the project (as part of the series of mainstream dams) poses a high risk to people and ecologies of the basin.[3] The 2010 SEA also report states that a moratorium on the mainstream dam projects is needed in order to better understand the risks posed to lower Mekong countries.

But, what is the role for civil society in this process of cross-border decision-making and assessment?

As part of my research, I attended the most recent MRC International Workshop and the 2nd MRC Summit in early April 2014 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Four years on from the landmark SEA, the mainstream dams were still at the forefront of concerns; although these concerns were voiced largely outside the official meeting, for instance, in the press or at parallel meetings.

As an observer, the lack of discussion and lack of representation of people affected by the proposed developments in the basin at the MRC Conference and MRC Summit was disconcerting. Outside the MRC meetings, the Save the Mekong Coalition, representing a broad group of individuals and organizations, held a parallel meeting which focused on civil society’s role and also highlighted their exclusion from the Summit. In a letter sent to regional prime ministers, the coalition called for a halt to development, and noted that “the MRC has failed to define its role and facilitate inclusive and accountable decision-making.”[4]

Lack of involvement by affected people or engagement with civil society in the region, formal or otherwise, exemplifies one of the most pressing challenges for proponents of both “borderless ASEAN” and sustainable regional growth in the coming years. Alternatively, this gap represents a significant opportunity for regional intuitions to recognize regional civil society’s ongoing work to meaningful engage and imagine a more sustainable regional development.


[1]According to ASEAN, “borderless ASEAN 2015” hinges on establishing the the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) for improved regional economic integration, “with the following key characteristics: (a) a single market and production base, (b) a highly competitive economic region, (c) a region of equitable economic development, and (d) a region fully integrated into the global economy.”

[2]Since 2001 the MRC includes ASEAN as a partner organization.

[3] ICEM. 2010. MRC Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of hydropower on the Mekong Mainstream. Hanoi, Viet Nam.

[4]See letter dated 3 April 2014 at

This blog post has been written by Vanessa Lamb. Vanessa is a Post-doctoral Associate at the York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR) in Toronto, and Junior Fellow (2013-2014) under the ASEAN-Canada Research Partnership. For more information on the ASEAN-Canada Research Partnership, please click here.


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