TDB Vol. 1 No. 12: Young Activists Fight for Democracy in Asia

TDB Vol. 1 No. 12: Young Activists Fight for Democracy in Asia

Following a nine-day workshop in Taipei, a group of young democracy activists from around Asia elaborated various strategies to tighten regional cooperation and facilitate information-sharing in times of democratic recession. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

At the conclusion of a nine-day Asia Young Leaders for Democracy (AYLD) program hosted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) in Taipei earlier this month, young participants from around Asia issued a document that is known as the AYLD Declaration. Covering a wide range of issues, the declaration was drafted by the 20 participants, most of whom come from countries that face many challenges in achieving or sustaining democracy.

In itself, the fact that a declaration was issued by a group of young people with different national backgrounds can be hailed as an accomplishment. As many of us know, consensus is rarely the outcome of official region-wide conferences.

Still, adopting a declaration that could be approved by all through a democratic process nevertheless proved challenging, which the young democracy advocates knew all too well from their own experiences back home, where efforts to discredit democracy have been gaining momentum. As the democracy-skeptic camp often argues, efficiency, ostensibly key for development, often suffers from long democratic procedures; so if a trade-off at the expense of democracy is the inevitable cost, then so be it.

Consensus-building isn’t easy, even among ardent supporters of democracy.

“Democracy needs time,” the participants admitted. And as if to prove this, they requested more time to arrive at a final draft of their declaration. Notwithstanding the delays, the young participants were keenly aware that the case for an alternative model to democracy — autocratic governance — is based on a “false promises of economic prosperity and national glory (Clause 1).”

While some efficiency must be sacrificed for the sake of democracy, the “best solution” is not, and never was, what democracy is about, as one participant said during the discussions. Another cited Winston Churchill, who once famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

As democracy is said to be in recession with the rise of “illiberal democracy,” the young democracy leaders responded to the trend with an emphasis on fighting disinformation and extremism (Clause 2 & 3), which serve as incubators for and are the product of illiberal democracy, respectively.

The declaration also contains much evidence that the young democracy leaders fully understand what democracy is not: majoritarianism with the majority having all the say. Votes may be necessary, but deliberation and compromise among groups and people, with members of a program or a community having equal rights and access, are indispensable.

The rights of minority groups and political participation have to be guaranteed (Clause 4 & 5): “All human beings, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability, age, language, religion, social class, sexual orientation and gender identity, deserve equal rights and equal dignity,” the declaration says, following a debate on whether “women’s political participation” should enjoy a highlighted focus with a separate clause.

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

“Democracy needs time” could also be taken to mean that the realization of true democracy is a long haul that requires people, especially the young, to resolutely and actively engage in monitoring, maintaining and improving the democracy agendas in their respective countries.

The task, however, can be particularly daunting for those who live in countries where governments wield power without proper checks and where people in general are ignorant about (or nonchalant) human rights violations. Inter-country and regional alliances and cooperation are therefore essential for activists and dissidents for the sharing of hands-on experience and solidarity building.

To this end, the 2017 AYLD participants came up with three action plans to strengthen the network they creatdd during the program and the principles they have vowed to uphold in the declaration.

The Asia News for Democracy has been set up and will serve as a platform for Asia-related news-sharing to enhance regional partners’ understanding and facilitate networking initiatives.

Moreover, two types of workshops have been proposed to promote democracy and its consolidation: a workshop at the country-level on disinformation for schools and organizations to improve young people’s information literacy and skills to combat “fake news”; and regular regional joint workshops to building regional communities and share first-hand information to young human rights defenders, with a focus on cyber security, utilization of new technology, legal training and protest-organizing strategies.

AYLD participants break into small groups as the project drafts its declaration.

The people behind the idea of holding regional workshops also agreed that lessons can be learned not only from what works, but also from failure. Stories of botched-up tactics and flops can be just as educational and rewarding as those touting successes. In the long run, they said, failure can be a series of steps and milestones leading to success.

Two visits by AYLD members — to the Jing-mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park and the Nylon Deng Memorial Museum — drove in the fact that failure can be but a temporary setback. While both sites are dedicated to activists and dissidents who “failed” in the face of an authoritarian regime, today they are now remembered with respect and pride, and the principles they fought for have prevailed over the forces of repression that, at the time, seemed implacable.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 11: Memory, Amnesia, and Martial Law in Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 11: Memory, Amnesia, and Martial Law in Taiwan

As Taiwan marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law, much still needs to be done to ensure that a proper account of what happened is given as the memories, victims and perpetrators fade into the past. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

It was 1980, a year after the Formosa Magazine Incident. Still in high school, Chen Tsui-lien (陳翠蓮) was asked to “serve the country” after enrolling in university.

Her mission? To “catch the bad guys,” like those involved in the Formosa Magazine Incident, who, according to the school discipline director, were captured thanks to the assistance of many “patriotic youths.”

Selected by the system, Chen said was proud to be one of the students chosen for the spying assignment.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law in Taiwan, which had been declared in 1949. To coincide with various commemorative events this year, the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (TATR), an organization dedicated to transitional justice in Taiwan, has launched an initiative calling on “ordinary people to share their memories of the Martial Law period.

During her high school years, immersed in an educational environment closely monitored and calibrated for collective action and inebriated with stilted patriotic refrains, Chen, now a history professor at National Taiwan University, was a what we could call a “defiant” daughter: she was appalled by her father’s criticism of nationalistic songs and accused him of being “unpatriotic.”

Professor Chen Tsui-lien tells about the state’s attempt to recruit her as a spy during an event organized by the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (photo courtesy of TATR).

“My parents couldn’t sleep at night after I told them how excited I was that I was going to help the country,” Chen said of her spying assignment during a talk organized by TATR last month.

Chen’s father, however, explicitly told her that she should not accept the school director’s offer. “You’re out of your head for wanting to go. You will be responsible for many lives,” he said.

“I cried so hard because this ban,” she told a laughing crowd.

Chen is among the lucky ones who eventually sensed “cracks” in the Potemkin village created by the authoritarian government’s propaganda later in her college years.

“Once you noticed the inconsistencies in their narratives, there was no turning back,” she said.

But “sensing cracks” was far from ordinary. While there indeed were hot-blooded activists who were extremely committed to fighting authoritarianism, several others — like Chen’s parents — only secretly harbored an attitude of resistance. And then there were the “free riders,” those for whom the TATR event would be more appropriately titled “ordinary people’s no-memory of the Martial Law period,” said NTU history professor Chou Wan-yao (周婉窈).

“It’s undeniable that in the latter part of the Martial Law period, which overlapped with an era of high economic growth, many were occupied by the sole idea of making money and accustomed to the life under Martial Law,” Chou said.

Admittedly life could be pretty safe — as long as you stayed away from the “unpatriotic activities and riots that disturbed social stability,” which is how resistance was portrayed by the regime. The mentality explains why many Taiwanese, especially those who are now in their 50s, remember pre-Martial Law life with nostalgia.

“There is a reason why Taiwan’s democratization has been called a ‘quiet revolution,’” NTU political science professor Huang Chang-ling (黃長玲) said. “And this trait does make the country’s transitional justice harder to achieve.”

The problems arising from historical amnesia soon manifested themselves after TATR invited ordinary people to share their stories online and to present (if they had any) memorabilia to accompany their narratives.

Among the items posted was an encyclopedia with blacked out, or “sanitized,” entries about the People’s Republic of China that attested to the era’s censorship. Other participants shared their memories of being indoctrinated with Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People at school, being punished for speaking “dialects,” or even being forced to tear out the star logos (unfortunately red) printed on their Converse All Star shoes.

A ‘sanitized’ version of the Encyclopedia Americana, with passages blacked-out by state censors. The encyclopedia is kept at the National Chiao Tung University Library (photo courtesy of TATR).

Soon enough, the stories attracted criticism by people who accused the witnesses of lying and fabrication. Some questioned the authenticity of memories they said cannot be verified, while others turned to their own memories and stated that since they did not experience such traumas, the stories must therefore be fake.

The attacks forced TATR to issue a statement calling on netizens to respect the diversity of memories of life under Martial Law held by people from different regions, generations and groups, and not to dismiss other people’s life experiences.

“The same questioning logic can always be applied to the questioners themselves,” it said.

“Contemporary studies of personal and collective memories indicate that how the past is narrated can indeed be influenced by the time and situation in which the memories were told, the passage of time and the interaction between the narrator and the hearer,” it said. “But the past is not easily the product of manipulation in a democratic society where files are declassified, different groups of people’s memories are told and historical studies are done in an open and free academic environment.”

When “ordinary people” debate past events, what is really at stake but still lacking is a national report by the government detailing how many people were executed, jailed (and for how long) and subjected to surveillance, and how the institutions behind these operations played their roles and coordinated with each other.

“The state may have offered compensation to the victims of the White Terror, continues to declassify files, maintains historical sites and has even published the victims’ memoirs and interviews, but it has otherwise been completely silent about its past crimes [as an authoritarian regime],” Huang said.

“The public’s understanding of the White Terror has become hollow,” she said, adding that the victims are now little more than “elders in the family.”

People today mostly hear about the White Terror through stories that come up, inadvertently or not, during family conversations, which also refer to the persecutors as “the evil KMT.”

“It’s not exactly wrong to think of them in that way,” Huang adds, “but it certainly shows that the issue of state violence and its complexity has not been truly deliberated and reflected upon.”

Huang Chang-ling speaks during an event organized by the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (photo courtesy of TATR).

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