Anti-ASEAN demonstration in connection to the 2011 ASEAN summit in Bali, Indonesia.
Anti-ASEAN demonstration in connection to the 2011 ASEAN summit in Bali, Indonesia.

While protests against ASEAN have not been as frequent as those targeting the EU or highly contested global economic institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and WTO, there have been a number of demonstrations against ASEAN since the late 1990s. An overview of such protest events (as reported in major media outlets) show some interesting patterns and a great diversity of types of protests. Most protests against ASEAN have occurred at summit venues in the less authoritarian member states, including the Philippines, Thailand under civilian rule, and Indonesia since the fall of Suharto. A few protests have challenged the authority of ASEAN in general, but most protests have had a specific focus, the most common demand being that ASEAN should take a tougher stance towards Myanmar because of severe human rights abuses in the country. The scale of protest events ranges a handful of people to thousands of demonstrators. One example is a peaceful demonstration in Singapore by nine foreign students (in groups of three as Singaporean law prohibits the assembly of five or more people without police permission) demanding that ASEAN react to human rights abuses in Myanmar. Another example is the 2009 demonstration at the ASEAN summit venue in Pattaya, Thailand, when hundreds of “Red Shirt” activists reportedly stormed the building leading to the evacuation of political leaders and the declaration of a state of emergency. The main target of the latter protest, however, was the Thai government rather than ASEAN.

If we want to understand what these and other protests against ASEAN do to the organization’s legitimacy, we first have to clarify the meaning of legitimacy. The social legitimacy of an institution depends on the beliefs various actors hold about the institution and more precisely whether or not they recognize its authority as rightful. Protests may indicate the lack of such recognition among the protesters, but the broader impact on the legitimacy of an IO depends on how other actors react to the protests and to what extent and how the protests make them change their legitimacy beliefs in relation to the IO. These other actors might include state and business elites, IO staff, civil society organizations, as well as the general public in IO member states. We have little knowledge about legitimacy beliefs in general among different groups, and especially related to protest events. Theoretically, we can expect effects ranging from none to strong and from more negative to more positive legitimacy beliefs.

One argument is that all publicity is good for an IO. Protests enhance the visibility of the IO and this might lead to strengthened legitimacy in the long run as various groups become more aware of the existence and activities of the IO. This is especially so if the targeted IO meets the protests with acts of relegitimation which might resonate well with other (and possibly more powerful) actors. Moreover, an IO can afford to ignore weak protesters as long as it retains the consent of more powerful political elites. The legitimacy effects of protests might also vary depending on the character of protests. Diffuse protests targeting the IO as a whole clearly challenge the legitimacy of the organization. This was the case in 2006 and 2007 when massive demonstrations took place in relation to ASEAN summits in Cebu, the Philippines. More specific protests, as several demonstrations criticizing ASEAN’s lack of reaction to severe human rights abuses in Myanmar, might actually result in legitimation effects as they at least implicitly recognize ASEAN as a relevant and rightful authority.

How, then, should we go about studying the effects of protests on IO legitimacy in a more systematic way? Existing survey data is of little help as surveys typically do not include questions on reactions to protest events. Survey experiments could possibly provide some insights into the general attitudes of selected actors towards protests. In-depth case studies drawing on document analysis as well as interviews with key actors in order to examine claims by protesters and reactions among IO-representatives as well as other important actors might be the most promising approach. 

Anders Uhlin