Lahpai Seng Raw, Magsaysay award laureate and co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation and Airavati, delivered the keynote speech for the Sombath Somphone public lecture series at the Chulalongkorn University Right Livelihood Summer School (CURLS) on August 2, 2018. The main theme of the 2018 lecture series is: ASEAN Responses to Historic and Contemporary Social Challenges.
The Sombath Somphone Public Lecture aims at keeping alive the legacy of Sombath Somphone, the internationally acclaimed Laotian community development worker who was abducted in Vientiane on December 15, 2012, never to be seen or heard from again.
According to Lahpai Seng Raw, occurrences of enforced disappearances like that of Sombath Somphone, are not uncommon in her country of Myanmar or in other countries within the region. It is an obvious form of State repression, and there is compelling evidence of ongoing ‘State repression’ in several countries that have recent histories of dictatorial rule, despite claims of being on the path to reform.
Lahpai Seng Raw challenges ASEAN’s longstanding policy of “constructive engagement” or “turning battle fields into market places“. She says that while they may make for attractive slogans, whether such policies areactually effective are open to question. In the case of Myanmar, for example, where conflicts have been on-going for many decades, the question arises as to who is really benefitting from the transitional impasse. On the other hand, as the attempt to solve conflict by forcecontinues, precious resources – human, economic and natural – have been squandered away, so that today, thecountry has the worst social, health and humanitarian indicators in the ASEAN region, which should be of grave concern to all neighboring countries.
With regard to the Myanmar situation, she cautions the ASEAN neighbors to recognize that Myanmar is still at the beginning of a period of critical change — not at an end. She makes the plea to ASEAN nations, based upon their own experiences, ensure that meaningful and inclusive peace and support reform processes that are sustainable and just.
She also touches on the hot topic issues making international headlines currently – that of the Rohingya crisis and the arrest and trial of two Myanmar Reuters journalists. On the critical issues of citizenship and identity and freedom of expression, she stresses the need for transparent, just and inclusive citizenship lawsthat are fairly and uniformly enforced, and the inherent right for freedom of expression without fear of reprisaland prosecution.
Another question raised is the role, or absence thereof,of ASEAN when it comes to humanitarian aid, peace processes and development within the region. It seems engagement on such matters has come solely from big powers outside the region.
Lahpai Seng Raw concludes by saying that democratic reform can only be achieved though the engaged efforts of civil society across the region, that international entities like ASEAN should not be bodies for elites but reflections of their peoples and constituent parts.