Renew, Reclaim, Resist. Pondering Strategies and Counter-strategies to Protect Civic Space

Innovation for Change-East Asia’s Reflection-Retreat on Civic Space for East Asian Civil Society Leaders, Thought Leaders, Public Intellectuals and Academics

Through the two-day Reflection-Retreat on Civic Space, Innovation for Change-East Asia provided a venue for civil society leaders of various generations, academics, public intellectuals and thought leaders to gather and collectively study, jointly analyze, and reflect on the threats and challenges to civic space in East Asia, and to ponder on innovative, cutting edge strategies and counter-strategies, so as to inform the strategic development of campaigns, advocacies, and innovation initiatives in East Asia for the future.

Over 25 human rights defenders and activists took time away from their respective work and advocacies to join us in Hong Kong to reflect on ‘civic space’ – what it means, who are involved, what is at stake, why we keep doing what we have long committed to do, why has it evolved into its present state, and what must be done individually, professionally, collectively, locally, regionally, and globally to continue defending, expanding, and creating civic space that is effective in promoting and protecting democracy and civil liberties for all.

This space devoted to an introspective look into why rights defenders do what they do despite the challenges and the mounting threats to freedoms and security was both timely, given the constricting of civic space in most of Asia, and a welcome break, as activists, thought leaders, intellectuals, and academics were afforded the opportunity to step back, assess, question, affirm, and recommit to ensure the inner reflection fuels a stronger resolve for the work we do that impacts the outer world.

The relaxed and open atmosphere for the two-day retreat encouraged active participation from everyone to draw from personal experiences – identifying what has worked in their respective advocacies and strategies, convergence points that present opportunities for solidarity work, challenges that demand innovative responses and counter-strategies, and pockets of hope to inspire improved and stronger campaigns and initiatives in the region.

Day 1 of the Reflection-Retreat had the participants ‘Mapping Civic Space.’ Common observation from everyone was that civic space is closing. Activists from civil society, academe, and even media, have been harassed, threatened, or harmed for simply doing the work they do. Governments have been clamping down on civil society, using even the Constitution and legal instruments to curtail freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful action. Source of funding has become a contentious issue, with CSOs depending on foreign funding being branded as ‘influenced’ by foreign interests and politics.

On the other hand, there remain pockets of hope amid the closing of civic space in Asia. People are organizing, the youth are empowered, social media is being utilized as a tool for organizing and getting people together, and there is clamor for synergy and exchanges among senior and veteran activists and the young millennials who are taking up the cudgels.

In the afternoon of Day 1, Shawn Shieh shared his think piece, “A Manifesto for Revitalizing Civil Society in Asia-Pacific in the 21st Century.” Shawn said that in this age of closing civic space and democratic withdrawal, it is time to rethink the concept of civil society – what civil society’s role and goals should be and who it should partner with to achieve those goals.

The more important end for civil society in reclaiming civic space, he said, is to help build the political and social infrastructure – the skills, practices and institutions – necessary for strong, participatory and inclusive governance and democracy.

We will need to change our mindset about who we are and start thinking creatively about ways to engage and win over local partners and communities. This process of building the infrastructure will require reclaiming both civic language and civic space through a process of localization in these countries.

We should see shrinking civic space not as a threat but as an opportunity to rethink old business models shaped by foreign funding, priorities and standards, and begin the hard work of innovating new models that engage more closely with local funders, partners and communities.”

Another highlight of Day 1 was the afternoon workshop on, “Why Not?”. Participants were asked to come up with their wildest ideas based on the ‘pockets of hope’ and ‘energy zones’ identified in the session on ‘Mapping Civic Space’. What could possibly work? What has not been done before that may be attempted now? If we can think it, why not try it? Hmmm…

Day 2 featured an Innovation for Change staple, Unconference Session, which encourages participants to engage in learning exchanges that are needs-based as identified by the participants themselves. At this Reflection-Retreat, three sessions were held focusing on the situation in Cambodia and Thailand, Non-Violent Action led by PeaceMOMO, and FakeBlock session led by the NUJP.

The second think piece, “Our Civic Space is Shrinking: What is Going On and How Can We Resist?“, was also presented on Day 2 by Dr. Khoo Ying Hooi. The paper explores the problem of shrinking civic space as neither new nor a short­‐term phenomenon. Shrinking civic space is real while it is diverse in its manifestation and severity.

In the era where information is uncontrollably spreading, this rising hostility toward press freedom is a grave concern with the amplifying authoritarianism in the region.”

Closing civic space is not merely a concern of the people working in the human rights or social justice sectors, it has to be “rebranded” as a concern of everyone as it impacts everyone in the long­‐term.”

A workshop on identifying the good and bad practices in the work of defending civic space followed. Included in the list of good practices are crowd funding opportunities that also serve as venues for public education and fund raising, trainings for those in the communities as well as CSO staff, spaces for dialogues among members of staff and management, promotion of the concept of self-care for human rights defenders, and risk assessment and protocols for security of HRDs. The bad practices mentioned were the lack of consultations with the public, the tendency to follow the (donor’s) money, lack of attention to the families of CSO staff, rise of GONGOs, lack of effective communication of CSO work to the public, and working in an atmosphere where “no one is indispensable”.

A special workshop session on Sustainable Activism was led by Gayoon Baek and Jowoon Kim in the afternoon. The importance of work-life balance was stressed as well as the concept of self-care.

The two-day Reflection-Retreat ended with participants sharing thoughts on further building solidarity, reaching out, networking, and acknowledging the importance of self-care for rights defenders – of finding time and space for reflection and introspection to periodically assess what works, what needs improvement, and apply locally (or in our own organizations) what we learn from the experience of others.

 

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