Taipei : Empowering Conference of Asian NGOs
Park, Won-Sok (PSPD)
From November 12 to 26, 2000, the first Asian NGO Fair, entitled Empowering Conference of Asias NGOs in Taipei, was held in Taipei. Around 50 NGOs from 6 countries – Taiwan, Hong Kong(Special Administrative Region of China), Japan, France, the Philippines, and Korea – participated in the fair. The focus was on 8 major topics: urban transformation, women and gender, youth and education, community safety, environment, labor, art and music, and international relief. The fair was composed of exchange programs from Nov. 12 to 23, and of the main conference from Nov. 24 to 26. Through the exchange programs, participants visited Taiwanese NGOs, mainly located in Taipei, and exchanged experiences on NGO activities. Besides that, I personally took opportunities to meet a judicial reform group, human rights groups, labor movement activists, and student political activists.
Because of the time limit, it was difficult to get a good grasp of Taiwanese NGOs, but I thought that they had been acting energetically. In particular, they had a noteworthy outcome from their anti-nuclear activity, and in housing and urban transformation, with public participation in those issues also increasing. On November 12, just before I arrived in Taipei, environmental activists groups led an anti-No. 4 power plant construction rally in which as many as 50,000 citizens joined. The housing movement of Taiwan was also impressive. The Taiwanese housing problem has been threatening the quality of life for the past 50 years – in the case of metropolitan areas, the housing situation is worse – and at the same time it has become synonymous with unreliable public policies of the government. The Taiwanese housing movement was set on its way in a 1989 large-scale rally in Taipei, when no fewer than 100,000 citizens, complaining of a steep increase in housing prices, demanded a reform in the housing policies of the government and a crackdown on speculation in real-estate.
The rally was a landmark for the Taiwanese housing movement because through it social perception was widely spread that the housing problem had to be addressed not only by individual efforts but also by governmental intervention. In short, social perception of a right to housing was formed. Additionally the start of the housing movement, boosted by the 1989 rally, activated the Taiwanese civil movement. For the past 10 years, the housing movement has grown up to be one of the representative social movements in Taiwan. It has created organizations which specialize in urban transformation, and groups who provide the homeless with rental information, widening its scope of activity into sectors such as human-friendly and environment-friendly city planning and community preservation. Besides this one, Taiwanese NGOs are active in every field, including human rights, labor, the environment, and women.
Judged from a critical viewpoint, the Taiwanese civil movement has few watchdogs on political corruption and absurdities. Also, it is not yet equipped with a political process through which the assignments of the social movements can be fulfilled. Though the two, the Taiwanese social movement and its Korean counterpart, have undergone similar political changes in a democracy movement, they are different from each other in that Koreas social movement, unlike its Taiwanese counterpart, is very political and carries out a containment function towards political power.
Like Korea, which has been in the course of democratization since the 1987 June Struggle, Taiwan has proceeded with democracy since the 1987 Martial Law. However, democracy in the two countries has not yet fully advanced. Therefore, the success of social movements in the two countries still hinges on the achievement of democratization, which practically starts from expanding a watch and containment function towards political power. The Taiwanese social movement has to strengthen its role as a direct watchdog on political power, administrative power, and economic power, covering local areas as well as urban ones. And this means that solidarity between social movement organizations has to be consolidated even more.
The main conference of the Asian NGOs Fair was held in the 228 Memorial Museum in downtown Taipei, an area clustered with government offices. The 228 Memorial Museum is a sanctuary in Taiwan history and its democracy movement. The Chiang Kai Shek and Guomindang, defeated by the Communists, massacred intellectuals and innocent people brutally on February 28, 1948, right before they arrived in Taiwan – the so-called ‘White Terror. The 228 Memorial Museum was built to preserve the history of the massacre and to keep alive the memory of the victims. Through photos, documents, news articles, and other items kept in the museum, the history of Taiwan since the Japanese colonial rule was in a good state of preservation.
During the period of the main conference, all the participant NGOs opened public relation booths where they introduced Taipei citizens to their activities. The major programs of the main conference included ‘Humanitarian relief work (CARE, France), ‘The role of NGOs in the course of democratization’ (Korea), ‘The relationship between NGOs and the government’ (Japan), and `Management of NGOs’ (Taiwan), among others. Discussion followed the speeches of keynote speakers on each topic. The topic which drew the most attention was The role of NGOs in the course of democratization, announced by Prof. cho Hee-Yeon of sungkonghoe University, Korea. Taiwanese NGO activists and progressive researchers had a great interest in that topic in particular, joining the discussion.
Considering that the two countries, Korea and Taiwan, are similar in that they have undergone political and economical changes under typical nationalism, this topic was not fully dealt in this conference. However the topic will surely be a considerably important research theme in the aspects of mutual understanding and exchange between the Taiwanese social movement and its Korean counterpart. Besides announcements by keynote speakers, each subdivision had workshops reviewing the results of the conference. In the workshop, all participants submitted an English announcement to express their thoughts and impressions about this event. The announcements presented by the participants are expected to be issued as an official print.
This fair was distinguished in that it made use of PR through media. The fair was relayed online and the host organization opened an official web-site, which provided the schedule and programs of the event and linked with participant NGOs’ homepages. Also, film screenings prepared by NGOs took place inside and outside the museum. Korean NGOs also prepared a documentary film on activities of CAGE(Civil Action for General Election 2000), but it couldn’t be screened because of a mistake made in conveyance. The film we took with us was a Korean edition without English subtitles. There were lots of press interviews as part of the PR during the period of this conference. Even before the main conference, some subdivisions spoke on TV shows and the radio, giving press interviews. What is interesting is that the Taipei City Government, host of the fair, positively recommended giving NGOs a press interview. When I visited an official of the City Government, I also received a proposal from his secretary for an exclusive press interview. I refused the proposal because it looked like it was being used for the City Governments PR. This might be a groundless anxiety.
I got the impression that the Taipei fair was like an assortment of puzzle pieces without a design, in that it gathered together NGOs that are different from each other in experience and character. It was an ill-organized event because there were few realistic topics and common issues even though some issues like animal protection and anti-nuclear activities were shared interests. In addition, due to the disconnected program of subdivisions, there were not enough exchanges between participants. However, in consideration of the purpose and character of a fair, that is, ‘showing’, we can say that the event achieved its purpose. It sufficiently showed participants and visitors the activities of various Asian NGOs.
Despite the participation of lots of Taipei NGOs, this event hosted by the City Government left some room for further discussion about the way it was organized. The government initiated all the planning, while the NGOs seemed passive. The most serious flaw of this fair, I think, is that the organizer prepared no exchange program through which all participants could join in conversation, promoting mutual understanding. I cannot help thinking that this is not a problem of incomplete preparation or lack of experience but the result of a bureaucratic way of thinking. On the last day of the fair, some activists, including me, from Korea, Hong Kong(Special Administrative Region of China) and Japan, had such a critical mind, that we took action. We seriously discussed about what message we should leave, reaching a conclusion that we should make a statement containing our criticisms. After much discussion, we were able to agree on a slogan, and in the closing ceremony, under the slogan, we made the following statement.
I think this brief statement poses questions available not only to Taiwanese NGOs, but also to other Asian NGOs. Unfortunately, I was given no time to seriously talk with Taiwanese NGOs about the questions brought forward in the statement, and I couldn’t hear their opinions on statements containing somewhat critical viewpoints about their activity. I hope I will get an opportunity to do that again in Taiwan, in Korea, or wherever.
The interview with Mr. Lin, Cheng-Hsui, Director of the Bureau of Civil Affairs. What’s the purpose of this fair?
Personally, I have come to have an increasing interest in the expansion of civil rights since I began to work as an officer of the City Government. Also, the Taipei City Government would like to team up with international NGOs to boost Taiwan’s international presence.
The Taipei City Government mainly consists of Members of Guomindang(. What’s the trouble you had in moving forward with this event?
We have conservative officers in the City Government, sometimes having a conflict of opinions. But I stressed that activities like this are geared toward protecting the weak, and the incumbent mayor agreed with my opinion. The biggest trouble was that we had to be helped with planning and organizing through acquaintances. The main job of the Bureau of Civil Affairs is census registration, and we couldn’t do this with only internal staff.
The program excluded labor and human rights and so on. Is there any particular reason?
We regret the point too. We wanted to include labor and human rights, but we lacked time. And in these fields, Taiwan NGOs have made relatively active exchanges with their counterparts outside the country.
What do you think the ideal relationship between NGO and GO is?
Fundamentally, an NGO should be independent from a government. If an NGO depends on a government financially, autonomy is impaired. A government has to focus on making policies to activate NGOs, rather than intervene. Personally, I have a plan to build an NGO center in Taipei to provide NGOs more convenient and efficient infrastructure. The center will be rented to NGOs at a low price and provide them with internet connections – a friendly environment, and so on.
I know that you were once a dissident as an anti-nuclear activist and a student movement activist. Whats your impression about the reality of politics?
I have lots of jobs to do in political circles which are much different from the past world in which I joined. In particular, I usually come into contact and communicate with NGOs to reflect their opinions into the policies of the City Government. I assume my present political activities are an extension of my past activities. But I have a wish to go back to a civic movement again.
How much do you know about Koreas social movement? What do you think of it?
I visited Korea. Koreas social movement has been energetic. There are few countries like that in the world, as well as in Asia. Koreas social movement has the experience of the long confrontation with autocratic governments and has a strong power of cohesion. The Taiwanese social movement has to learn this point through exchanges with its Korean counterparts.
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