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. 8: An Enabling Environment for Civil Society Organizations in East Asia

TDB Vol 1. No. 8: An Enabling Environment for Civil Society Organizations in East Asia

Amid a worldwide deterioration in freedom of association and expression, civic activists must urgently discuss how a more enabling environment can be created for civil society organizations (CSO). Last month, a Taiwan Alliance in International Development (Taiwan AID) workshop, co-sponsored by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, provided such an opportunity. Alison Hsiao gives the highlights.

 

About 6 billion people live in countries where civic space is either closed, repressed or obstructed, according to the latest findings by the CIVICUS Monitor made public in April.

“Only 3 percent of the entire population around the world live in countries where space for civic activism is truly open,” Henri Valot, lead adviser at USAID’s Voice and Accountability, Accelere Education Programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told a workshop in Taipei last week, citing the report.

According to Maria Teresa Lauron, co-chair of CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness, there is a global trend toward shrinking and closing civic space, with governments “not only in the south but also in the north” implementing restrictive laws hindering and disabling conditions for CSO formation, registration and operation.

 

Asia

Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-ruled China is known for the limited maneuvering room for NGOs and civic movements. It has recently attempted to further restrain civic activities by unveiling, in April 2016, the Law on Management of Domestic Activities of Overseas Non-governmental Organizations.

The law requires overseas NGOs, which arguably have enjoyed more freedom in China and therefore have served as a critical source of resources and information for domestic NGOs, to report to the Ministry of Public Security rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs as domestic NGOs must do, and to find a sponsor or “business supervisory unit” for registration, according to Chan Kin-man (陳健民), associate professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and co-founder of Occupy Central with Love and Peace.

“The sponsors could be difficult to find as they would have to shoulder political responsibilities [if the NGOs cross Beijing’s red lines],” Chan said, adding that exceptions are possible for “sponsors” seeking financial opportunities in those NGOs and for those that have guanxi (political connections).

With recent developments surrounding the new legislation, “the grey area that Chinese NGOs used to enjoy is disappearing,” he said.

“The large third sector is expanding, but civil society is actually shrinking in China,” as Beijing continues to crack down on dissenting groups while supporting “governmental non-governmental organizations,” a term Chan used to refer to “NGOs” supported by government funding and which therefore adhere to the government’s agenda.

Linh Phuong Nguyen, executive director of the Research Center of Management and Sustainable Development in Vietnam, also told of the barriers facing CSOs in Vietnam.

Vietnamese CSOs, like their counterparts in China, need government approval before receiving international aid, she said, adding that it usually takes six months to a year before permissions can be obtained — if at all.

A draft law of association was put forward by the Vietnamese government in 2016 — “supposedly committed to creating an enabling environment for the CSOs, but in reality, there was no outside participation in the drafting process” — and if passed, would create a more restrictive environment for CSOs, Nguyen said.

Linh Phuong Nguyen, executive director of the Research Center of Management and Sustainable Development in Vietnam, discusses tightening regulations in Vietnam.

The situation is equally dire in the Philippines. Despite his earlier announcement on negotiating peace with the country’s communist groups that have been waging armed resistance for the past 48 years, “[President] Duterte announced [in May] that he’s going after human rights defenders” and “[just in the night before the workshop took place on May 24], martial law was declared in Mindanao,” Lauron said.

As the above cases make clear, the development of civic space in Asia faces extraordinary challenges. According to the CIVICUS report, none of the Asian countries is in the “Open” category in the civic space tracking chart, with the best performers in Asia — Japan and South Korea — categorized as having a “Narrowed” civic space. (The conspicuous absence is Taiwan, which is colored grey, without information on the evaluation map.)

According to the CIVICUS report, none of the Asian countries is in the “Open” category in the civic space tracking chart, with the best performers in Asia — Japan and South Korea — categorized as having a “Narrowed” civic space.

Akio Takayanagi, policy adviser at Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation, outlined the depressing state of affairs in Japan, which is generally regarded as a developed democracy, citing the World Press Freedom Index that put Japan in 72nd place in the ranking of media freedom in 2017, a stunning gradual downgrading from 11th spot in 2011.

Additionally, an “anti-conspiracy bill” — pushed by the Japanese government and passed by the House of Representatives — could “lead to undue restrictions to the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression,” United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy Joseph Cannataci warned.

If it becomes law, the bill will allow the authorities to “criminalize acts of preparation to commit crimes such as terrorism,” Takayanagi said.

 

The Taiwan model

Left out by the global assessment, Taiwan has proven an encouraging exception to regional and global trends.

Tracing the transformation of CSO-state relations in Taiwan, Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌), distinguished research fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, said that beginning with the democratization movements in the 1990s, the country’s CSOs have moved from external control to free association and self-governance, from state monitoring to self-discipline and accountability, and from state dependence to public empowerment.

Nevertheless, there are problems that need to be resolved to ensure a better functioning of CSOs in Taiwan and to strengthen its civic space. Jay Hung (洪智杰), Taiwan AID executive director, noted that while most CSOs in Taiwan align themselves with government requirements concerning internal management, “disclosure of financial reports and work plans to the general public, however, is not mandatory,” which could generate doubts with the public.

There is also the problem of “being strong in domestic affairs but lacking in global thinking and actions,” said Chien Shiuh-shen (簡旭伸), a professor of development geography at National Taiwan University, adding that activists over the years have sometimes worked too closely with the long-time opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and lost momentum after the DPP assumed power for the first time in 2000.

Chien Shiuh-shen of National Taiwan University discusses the ‘Taiwan model.’

But the second democratic “alternation of ruling party” in Taiwan in 2016 has helped push legal and social change, which bodes well for the country’s civic space.

Amendments to the Civil Association Act, which regulates all “people’s groups” including political parties, civic groups and occupational associations, as well as new laws mulled by the government, would further strengthen regulations governing NGOs by enhancing their transparency and changing the language governing the establishment of civil associations from “applying for approval from the authorities” to “registration.”

Activists and CSOs have also “learned the lessons” from their experiences during the first transition of power, including the notion that they should “never say yes to the government all the time,” even if the ruling party was once an ally, Hsiao said.

Chien cited the ruling by Taiwan’s Judicial Yuan on May 24 in favor of same-sex marriage as a demonstration of Taiwan’s profound social progress, three decades after the lifting of martial law.

This is an experience in development that can be shared among Asian countries as the “Taiwan model,” he said, “which is in the social dimension” and is different from the “four tigers” type of economic model upheld in the past.

 

Enabling environment for CSOs

Besides sharing the Taiwan model, there exist global frameworks that, if observed, could help create a more enabling environment for CSOs, among them the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Goal 16.10, which encourages governments to “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms,” and Goal 17.17, which urges governments to “Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships,” for example, are civic-space promoting, said Douglas Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, USA.

Anselmo Lee, secretary-general of the Asia Democracy Network, also weighed in.

“We have to remind the governments that it is their legal obligation” to follow those frameworks developed by the global organization of which they are members, he said.

Meanwhile, the mere presence of regulatory or policy frameworks, or more quantifiable socio-economic development (GDP, life expectancy, literacy and so on), which some argue indicates the existence of an enabling environment for CSOs, may fall short of being comprehensive, Valot said.

The capability approach, first conceived by Amyarta Sen in the debate on welfare economics and defining individual’s wellbeing in terms of their capabilities to achieve their goals, has been applied to assess the environment for civil society, Valot said. It not only means that the socio-economic environment, which should include gender equality and equity in general, but also socio-cultural (participation trends, tolerance, trust), political/governmental and legal environments (civil society infrastructure, state effectiveness, policy dialogue, rule of law, and so on), have to be taken into consideration, he said.

Henri Valot, lead adviser at USAID’s Voice and Accountability, Accelere Education Programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, discusses the widening gap between countries and social groups.

Cultivating an enabling environment therefore requires both government input and CSO efforts. Trust between the two needs to be built and CSOs have to work on their professional capacity and undertake self-regulation to be seen as dependable actors, Lauron said.

Global networking is crucial, especially people-to-people exchanges. “Every Philippine activist is also an internationalist because we see that the problems facing the Pilipino society are not limited to our domestic context but must be situated” in the world economic and political context, Lauron said. “Political education among activists and civil society is therefore important as we have to know the forces we’re confronting with in order to develop new strategies and for the approaches to be effective.”

Lauron was responding to concerns raised by Chien about civil movements being restricted to the local and domestic level without global connections.

To share the “Taiwan model” or other experiences of civil society across countries, “we must move beyond organizations and formal institutions [that tend to be] distrusted by citizens and society,” Rutzen said, adding that one effective approach lies with youth engagement.

Lauron echoed this sentiment.

“A new generation of civil society leaders and movement leaders need to be developed; seeds can multiply,” she said.

 

All photos courtesy of Taiwan Aid.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 4: Trends in physical violence and assaults on the press

TDB Vol. 1 No. 4: Trends in physical violence and assaults on the press

Physical violence and denial of access to members of the press are two tactics that have been used with alarming frequency in recent months by civic groups bent on blocking legislation proposed by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. J. Michael Cole reports.

 

Same-sex marriage and pension reform are two pieces of legislation that have resulted in escalatory action since late 2016 by civic organizations that are primarily associated with the pan-blue camp. In the former case, conservative Christian organizations have spearheaded efforts to block a marriage equality bill; in the latter, retired personnel, as well as deep-blue organizations such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have led the movement. While marginal, the Alliance has a track record of disruptive behavior and physical violence against officials.

As a result of the spiralling unrest, rather than be debated rationally the complex issues have become politicized, giving rise to a spectacle of emotions, crass party politics, divisiveness and disruptiveness. While passing off as normal civil society and purportedly emulating the student-led Sunflower Movement of 2014, the opposition groups are discrediting Taiwan’s democracy and undermine government institutions in the pursuit of goals that do not enjoy majority support across society and which tend to be diametrically opposed to the aspirations of younger generations.

More than 80% of young people in Taiwan support same-sex marriage; a majority of young people, meanwhile, support measures that will ensure the viability and sustainability of the pension system, which under current rules and after decades of abuse threaten to break the state coffers in the not-too-distant future.

Furthermore, the two groups mentioned above have taken actions that would have been inconceivable to the young members of the Sunflower Movement and groups associated with it, primarily violence against individuals and the systematic targeting of members of the press. Alarmingly, both trends have accelerated in recent months.

On several occasions since late last year, members of the LGBTQ community have been physically assaulted by groups opposed to same-sex marriage; in a few cases the assaults resulted in minor injuries. The use of violence against elected officials from the Tsai administration, as well as DPP legislators, has also become more frequent, with several incidents occurring outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei this morning (April 19). Despite a police presence at the scene — clearly insufficient and often disorganized — a number of officials were grabbed at, pushed, or body-slammed; Deputy Taipei Mayor Charles Lin was pushed against a police fence, injuring his hand; another (Tainan City Councilor Wang Ding-yu) was repeatedly pushed and had a water bottle thrown at his face. New Power Party (NPP) Legislator Hsu Yung-ming was also pushed and splashed with water.

On an evening talk show on SET-TV, a convener of the Changhua Military Civil Servants and Teachers Association argued that “DPP rhetoric” had made them “very emotional” and that they could not be held responsible if they “killed someone.” Worryingly, this was not the first time that a member of groups opposed to pension reform referred to “killing.” In an earlier protest, someone argued (arguably in the heat of the moment) that President Tsai herself should be killed.

According to Wang, the protest groups may have been infiltrated by Chinese trouble makers. There is also a possibility that members of crime syndicates, many of them pro-China, are also playing a role in the protests, not so much out of interest in the policies but simply to undermine democracy and destabilize the Tsai administration. With more radical elements highjacking the movement, the grievances of the more moderate members of society who stand to be affected by pension reforms, and who understandably will seek to lose as little as possible in the bargain, risk being lost in the noise.

During the April 19 protest, which also spilled to the DPP headquarters, several members of the press reported being denied access to the venue. Protesters routinely asked journalists to see their press pass; media that were deemed to be too closely associated with the green camp (DPP and NPP) were surrounded by protesters and ordered to leave the scene; pan-blue and pro-China media, meanwhile, were left alone. The windshield of a SET-TV news vehicle was also smashed with a hammer. (During the Sunflower occupation, a journalist from the pro-KMT China Times Group was heckled by protesters but was never prevented from doing her work; criticism of the incident ensured this did not happen again.)

Photo: Yahoo News

Similar disruptive actions against members of the press (also mainly pro-green camp media) have occurred during protests organized by opponents of same-sex marriage legislation since 2016.

Both controversies have undermined democratic mechanisms and tarnished Taiwan’s image, which for some protesters appears to be the intended outcome. Shortcomings in personal protection for elected officials by law enforcement agencies, as well as failure to arrest and prosecute protesters for physical assault, have also contributed to repetition and escalation. Police’s unwillingness to ensure that members of the press have full access to protest sites and can carry out their work without interference has also created a hostile environment for journalists.

(Top photo: Match.net.tw)

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