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PSPD  l  People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

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  • 2008.04.07
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After completing my graduate study at SungKongHoe University on Master of Arts in Inter-Asia NGO Studies (MAINS) Program, I have the rare opportunity to do a month’s internship with People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) before going back home to Philippines.

It may have been a short period of time to really do a meaningful internship but my interaction with the civil society groups in between deadlines while studying has shown and enlightened me on Korean society. Inadequate as it may seem for me to really engage better with the Korean people because of my inability to speak the language (Hang-gul); it has been a rich and stimulating experience for me.

 

The impression I got about Korea and its people before coming here and from what I would hear from back home every now and then is different from my own perspective now and which is based from my personal interaction with the Korean people in person. Though my interaction and engagement are mostly with Korean activists and members of the citizen movements, I meet ordinary people that I must say are generally; shy, but kind and respectful. The shyness I reckon is coming from the fact that we cannot communicate properly with English language but that is not a big problem for me, sometimes a nod and smile is enough to greet each other.

 

I remember when I was still living at Dongsin apartment near my university and I have a few Korean friends there in the market area. A couple that delivers Korean and Chinese food, a couple who does laundry and dry cleaning, the store owners and an old woman who cleans the surroundings of our apartment almost everyday. We have learned the art of very simple English and Korean language and yes, sign language to understand each other. But my experienced with the old woman cleaner is to me extraordinary when we would talk for at least 5 to 15 minutes in our own languages every now and then and leave each other as if we have fully understood each other well. After two quarters, one morning, I was surprised that she manages to say  “hello” to me with a big smile and then we would start talking again in our own languages, I could only guess what she was saying but I was happy talking to her.  I bid her goodbye one day and told her that I am leaving our apartment and will go back home soon too. Again I could only guess that she will realize that I have left already by now.

 

This story illustrates that though there are language barriers, we need to reach out to ordinary and real people that are mostly affected and in a vulnerable situation anywhere else, and there are many of them in Asia.

 

But what I would like to discuss is about understanding Asian solidarity and how solidarity can be forge. When this topic comes up, the biggest question that would come out is, but what is Asian? How can we form solidarity when we could not even define what is Asian identity. Some of my friends at MAINS and I are having debate about Asian identity, and for some of them, there is no such thing as a regional identity and being Asian is an identity imposed on us by our western colonizers and therefore they don’t subscribe to the idea of developing an “Asian” identity. They argue that it is not necessary anyway, because Asia is not a homogenous region, it is the largest and geographically contested anyway and so diverse that there seems to be nothing common for everyone to begin with – except maybe for rice eating and chopstick region, but then again, not everybody’s  staple food is rice and not everyone uses chopsticks.

But let’s move away from mundane and maybe trivial things and seriously look at what’s in store for the peoples of Asia. Bearing in mind the reality that one of the hindrances to acknowledge being Asian as an identity are rooted on the historical, political, economic and cultural diversity. I am aware too that many ordinary Koreans and Filipinos would like to associates themselves with the Western culture. They thought that the West can offer them the best to make their quality of life better. There may be a grain of truth to this, but reality bites that one has to work really hard for it too, as one is in his/her own country.  

 

Being Asian, I must admit that it is too broad a concept to reckon with, but let me try to articulate my personal views on how we can try to come up with a shared understanding of Asian solidarity as Asian activists.

 

Many issues that Asian activists advocate for are around the themes of democracy and human rights. And I would like to expound on these two issues.

 

Campaigning for Democracy still!

 

Generally speaking, Asian democracy as a model is something that is still on the conceptualization phase, this is so, primarily because Western model of democracy seems to be failing us and Asia remains to be a region with uneven political maturity as far as electoral democracy and good governance is concerned; many states still act with impunity coupled with elite democracy. The voice of the ordinary people are only heard during the election time and promises to better serve their citizens are consistently broken or go the other way once politicians are in power.

 

Secondly, the electoral reforms are incomplete and political reforms are much more incomplete after the transition from authoritarian to democratic system as in the case of Philippines, Korea, Indonesia and Thailand, while Malaysia is still struggling to hold their regular elections. While China and India are two powerful countries and India is seen to be the biggest democracy in Asia, China’s democracy is something that we were all watching and observing to where their own model is heading too as well Singapore and Brunei does not seem to bother much on political pressure from civil society groups because their economy is their priority and believed in the notion that if they are economically stable, it will follow that there is more substance to democracy than the rhetoric of civil liberties. I would say that when we talk of reforms, there should not be a hierarchy but instead a holistic approach is necessary to achieve real democratic change.. This may be is easier said than done if the people that are continiously elected to the government do not really represent the interest of the majority of poor and marginalized people. This situation has resulted in a vicious cycle of injustices when elections are becoming an expensive and privilege exercise for the people. Other cynics argue that it’s the electorate that vote these corrupt politicians, if the electorate is not mature enough to vote for the leaders of their country, then they deserve the state leaders that they get! I could agree on this argument only at face value and I must emphasize that the uneven playing field in the exercise of democratic rights in the electoral field is precisely making the whole exercise advantageous only for the elite and powerful. Even if the wishes of the general people are expressed through ballots, the political power of the few can changed the results in their favor.

 

Finally, after more than 20 years of experience of installing democratic governments in the region, the challenges remain immense. The threats to real democratic change are always present; the people’s democratic participation is not sustained but rather reactive if things are exposed and getting out of hand. The ‘check and balance’ within the government system is lacking if not very weak which must be a given mechanism in a democratic system of government. Activist from different social movements are faced with the daunting tasks of a “watchdog” and at the same time are confronted with the fast turn of events at the political front, sometimes making decisions and strategies not acceptable to the activists community as a whole as in the case of Thailand and Philippines. In these countries there were times that they have to collaborate albeit critically, with military intervention to political crisis hence rendering the opposition force of the people’s movement divided. And every time the progressive force is dividing, it is an additional strength on the elite power.

 

Why Human Rights?

 

The reason why human rights is one of the biggest issues for social movements and non-governmental organizations (NGO) is the fact that there are massive human rights abuses and violations happening around the region to this day. If in the 40s there were liberation movement against western colonization and in the 60s we saw the strong peace movements against the destruction brought about by WW II and the brutal Cold War as exemplified by Vietnam War, the 70s was the start of the democratic movement against dictatorships in many countries in Asia. This historical baggage is not easy to unpack in the mindset of many remaining leaders in this region that continue to influence the long and winding road to real democracy and respect for human rights. Human rights have been viewed by many Asian governments as a western concept that needs to be deconstructed and reoriented towards Asian values. Debates on human rights and Asian values have not been fully exhausted so let me add my two cents worth on this matter too.

 

First, if we really understand the essence of human rights, it is embodied in some of our rich Asian value and culture already that needs to be harnessed more. There is nothing Asian if our governments are killing our own people because of political belief, ethnicity, sexual preference and free expression and association. These rights are inherent in almost all core values that we believe in, the problem lies in the interpretation of these values by few people with deep political and economic interests. The distortion of fundamental respect for one’s person is rooted in the desire to hold on to power at all costs and are making the “western concept” as an excuse to violate them.

 

Second, we in the social movement have come a long way though in mainstreaming human rights promotion and protection in this region but the democratic trappings in some countries are making our advocacy for human rights a little complicated rather than a straight forward concern. Many governments are still getting away with their crimes of human rights violations and equally, armed opposition groups are committing human rights abuses and all these are done with impunity. I believe that this has become one of the main challenges for activists to make democracy work for the people – that human rights are guaranteed and respected at all times.

 

Lastly, we must continue to make governments accountable for their actions in relation to the human rights conventions and treaties that they have signed and ratified. We do not have to find grand reasons to make them responsible, they have agreed to these responsibilities already and to demand for it is just but logical. Ordinary people should be able to learn, claim and live their human rights to the fullest. We can advocate for this to happen, but at the end of the day the government should ensure and deliver. It is still the states responsibility and NGOs and social movements should not take that responsibility away from the governments by the alternatives that they offer. We have to keep the pressure to make the government system and policies function properly.

 

When systems are functioning well, our efforts as NGO and members of social movements would bear more positive fruits to make ordinary people’s quality of life better.

 

I would like to conclude through my main message that as Asian activists our solidarity is express by gathering more strength nationally while working within the confines of our own countries and at the same time lending support to countries that continues to struggle for democratic change like Burma. Let us not forget the old times that we were inspiring one another by our strong political support, not just through solidarity messages but through a more meaningful and strategic choices of supporting one another. Gone are the days when we are communicating regularly on the real situation of our own countries, nowadays we just rely on the websites and periodic email exchanges, gone are the days that we were also putting ourselves on the line whenever regional or international support are wanting, when our face to face inter-action with one another is necessary to talk about strategies. Nowadays, even conferences and meetings are not substantive enough to address practical and concrete solidarity work. We network and share what we do, but it seems like we have ran out of ways and means to genuinely support one another.

 

I may be wrong, but words should be followed by actions, the project for democratization in Asia and respect for basic human rights are issues that needs more creativity, sustainability, endurance  and perseverance on our part if we want to see real solidarity happening in this region.

(Jessica Umanos Soto)



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