The first word I learned in Bahasa Melayu, the language spoken in Brunei, was “Selamat Datang.” It means, in essence, “welcome.”
Back in April, I traveled to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei, to participate in the ASEAN Youth Forum 2013 and the ASEAN People’s Forum 2013. ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is a group of ten countries (Brunei, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Phillipines, Indonesia, Lao PDR, and Malaysia) working towards economic, social and political cooperation, including formal regional economic integration as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.
I was also, however, very eager to explore Brunei, my distant neighbor in the ASEAN community. This peaceful and prosperous country benefits from extensive petroleum and natural gas fields and has of one of the highest per capita GDPs in Asia. Brunei’s wealth is visible everywhere. For instance, the highways are well built and almost every family owns their own car.
As an Islamic country where 70% of population is Muslim, people way of life is bounded politically, legally and culturally by the religion. Brunei is a dry country, with a national law prohibiting the sale of alcohol. There are no night clubs or pubs, so the night life instead consists of drinking a coffee or tea.
Most people go to mosque every Friday. I was excited to buy a traditional Muslim cap, a ‘Kapi Yo,’ from a local market, but on Friday afternoon, my friend told me to take the cap off. “If they think you are a Muslim and not going to the mosque you will be fined 50 Dollars.” I later had a chance to visit the Muslim mosque which is very huge and splendidly beautiful, with a dome made from real gold!
We started the ASEAN Youth Forum (AYF) 2013 at the Brunei National Youth Center, a very nice accommodation close to a local market and a Chinese Buddhist temple. This year we had to call our forum the ‘Regional Youth Forum,’ because we didn’t have permission from the government to use the word ‘ASEAN’. This was a challenge and surprise, since government agencies and NGOs have been using ‘ASEAN’ for four decades. To be polite, we changed the name, but yet the question lingered in the minds of our fellow youth activists.
During the AYF, we shared a lot of experience and. Together we organized an engaging discussion of youth participation and involvement in the Three Pillars of ASEAN. It was my great honor to co-facilitate this session and to provide a summary and critique of the ASEAN community regarding the Three Pillars, which include socio-cultural cooperation, political security cooperation and economic cooperation to ensure peace, stability and shared prosperity in the region. Then we invited representatives of each country to give a brief presentation on the issues that challenge youths in their home country. What we have learned together is how our role as the Youth Power is important beyond those individual challenges and obstacles.
Following the AYF, our lovely Bruneian friends took us by a speed boat, or ‘water taxi,’ to the Kampong Ayer ‘water villages,’ where unique wooden houses are situated above the river after Brunei bay. There were schools, mosques, police station, shops, restaurants, hospitals etc. in this above water village. In this village we could see the livelihood of the lower class, keeping alive the old memory of Brunei history.
The next day, I attended the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (APF) or formally named ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC), one of the three pillars regarding the Socio-Cultural Community. People of ASEAN have organized this platform to make dialogue, share experiences, and plan for their ASEAN community. This people’s meeting is parallel to the ASEAN Summit where only the head of governments are allowed to talk.
The atmosphere of this forum is usually informal, but this year the organizer categorized and separated groups by by country. This worried me, because I used to take this opportunity to make friends with those interesting people from different countries, but my worries were quickly erased. When the meeting began, many participants broke from the structure, sitting together across ‘borders.’
On the second day of APF, I was invited to be a speaker in the youth workshop giving a presentation on environmental and human rights protection. I got an opportunity to share experience how alumni of the EarthRights School Mekong have worked together on EarthRights issues, across borders, using online media.
The AYF and APF 2014 will be in Yangon, Myanmar. Participants from Myanmar were very popular during this year’s conference, both because the country is changing so rapidly and because the delegates themselves were so amazing and enthusiastic to commit to their society. They gave me hope for all of ASEAN.
Lastly, looking ahead, my hope is for an ASEAN community which will benefit all the people equally, bridging the gap between those people how have already benefited from economic integration and those who have not. My hope for the ASEAN community is that it will provide a platform connecting people of ASEAN countries, not only economically but also socially and culturally. That it will help eliminate hatred and ignorance among the people of ASEAN, especially the legacy of extreme nationalism, and help us to avoid future conflict and initiate a sustainable, peaceful and just regional community.
 Recently, ASEAN NGOs and civil society have been proposing the idea of Environmental cooperation as a fourth pillar, to strengthen the mechanism for natural resources and environmental protection across borders.
Photo by Sam Garza, used under Creative Commons.