27 September 2016 

Galileo de Guzman Castillo blogs on his experience at the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples Forum (ACSC/APF), held in Timor-Leste in August, and reflects on the future identity and direction of the ACSC/APF as a space for ASEAN civil society groups and people's movements.

A HIDDEN PARADISE. Pristine turquoise bay surrounded by magnificent mountains, found at the back of the statue of Cristo Rei in Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste.

Let me begin by stating that it must be recognized and affirmed that even if Timor-Leste, a “tiny” nation in Southeast Asia (15,410 km2 total area, ranked 159th in the world) is still not a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, the Timorese people and civil society are part of our region and its processes. Thus, when “ASEAN peoples” is mentioned hereafter, it refers to all peoples of Southeast Asia, including the Timorese people.

For the same reason above, the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples Forum (ACSC/APF)[i] in Timor-Leste was held as a show of solidarity and support to our Timorese brothers and sisters.

However, it is important not to forget that the decision not to hold the ACSC/APF 2016 in Lao People's Democratic Republic, the current chair of ASEAN and host of the summits this year, was due to the restricted and limited freedom of expression on key issues and concerns of ASEAN peoples (including, but not limited to human rights violations, huge hydropower dams, indigenous peoples' rights, democracy and multi-party systems, LGBT issues, and the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a prominent member of Lao civil society), and the fact that there has not been any guarantee from the Laos government to ensure that enforced disappearances will not happen again like it happened with Sombath Somphone after the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) in 2012.

These restrictions and limitations regarding issues of expressions are clearly against ACSC/APF’s engagement modality,[ii] and consequently, the 11th ACSC/APF was held in Dili, Timor-Leste on August 2-5, 2016.

On the first day of ACSC/APF, delegates had the choice to participate in community site visits organized by local non-government organizations. Only about 50 ACSC/APF delegates joined the activity. My fellow colleague from Cambodia, Sophea Chrek, and I joined the RAEBIA group.

RAEBIA stands for “Resilient Agriculture and Economy through Biodiversity in Action.” The name of the organization was derived from two words of the Timorese Kemak language — Rae (land) and Bia (water). The organization promotes sustainable land use, conservation agriculture, and agro-biodiversity in their communities.

In the morning, we visited the Centro Rekurso Biodiversidade no Formasaun Ilimanu or the Community Resource and Learning Centre situated on top of the mountains, about an hour away from Dili. Behau is the name of the group of farmers who maintain it.

We got to taste a cup each of traditionally brewed organic coffee and the food organically grown by RAEBIA’s farming communities.

We also learned about the organization’s conservation agriculture projects and agro-biodiversity programs across the country, including activities involving the following: 1) crops and horticulture, 2) livestock, 3) climate change, 4) rural economy, 5) gender equity, and 6) young farmers.

SAÚDE! Those who joined the RAEBIA community site visit were able to get a taste of the local organic coffee of Timor-Leste, prepared in the traditional way.

In the afternoon, we returned to Dili to catch the start of conference registration and the formal opening of the exhibit.

A town hall dialogue with ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights was included in the program to “discuss human rights issues in the context of ASEAN integration and the regional trend of democratic erosion.”

I opted not to participate in the event as I found it rather inapt for a Peoples’ Forum to open with a dialogue between ASEAN civil society and government.

Afterwards, all delegates were invited to a welcome cocktail and cultural night hosted by the President of the Republic of Timor-Leste at the Palacio Nobre Lahane.

A WELCOME GREETING. Local Timorese people showcased their dance talents in front of the ACSC/APF delegates from different countries.

The ACSC/APF participants were welcomed with a traditional dance performed by local Timorese people clad in white, black, red, and yellow – the colors of the Timor-Leste flag.

I could only guess if the performance was likurai, a Tetum dance used to welcome warriors returning from battle — or tebedai, a circle dance accompanied by a drum, performed throughout Timor-Leste.

Either way, we were greeted with smiles and an awesome performance.

The next day, at the opening ceremony of the ACSC/APF in Centro de Convenções de Dili, we were again greeted with a traditional dance to kickoff the program.

OPENING CEREMONY. Another impressive dance performance to welcome all the participants during the second day of ACSC/APF.

The two co-chairs of ACSC/APF 2016, Fernando da Costa (Timor-Leste) and Jerald Joseph (Malaysia) delivered their opening speeches, as well as Maydom Chanthanasinh, chair of the Laos National Organizing Committee and Rui Maria de Araújo, the current Prime Minister of Timor-Leste.

It was the first time a head of state has engaged in an open dialogue with ACSC/APF participants. The heart of Prime Minister Araújo’s speech was the collaborative relationship between government and civil society in the process of nation-building.

Three plenary sessions were then held throughout the day. The topics were “Grassroots Voices: From the Margins to the Center”, “Maritime and Territorial Issues on ASEAN Peoples”, and “Shrinking Civic Spaces in ASEAN.”

The ASEAN Freedom Film Festival capped off the second day of ACSC/APF.

Films tackling enforced disappearance, the El Niño crisis and the Kidapawan massacre, Kalimantan’s 18 years of forest fire and haze, the struggle of West Papuans, and the stolen children of Timor-Leste were shown.

The film festival aimed to be a “casual platform and space for participants to share and deepen understanding and build networks on common concerns.”

ACSC/APF 2016. Around 800 delegates from different national and regional processes participated in the 11th year of the ACSC/APF.

The third day of the event was primarily devoted to thematic workshop sessions organized by various civil society organizations from the region.

Former East Timorese President and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão (currently serving as the Minister of Planning and Strategic Investment) was slated in the morning to talk about “Celebrating ASEAN Change: People at the Centre” but he was not able to appear during his scheduled timeslot, and did not speak.

The co-chairs of the ACSC/APF 2016 decided to just allot the time for delegates to voice their concerns and issued in an impromptu plenary session, albeit this session was cut short after just two or three interventions from the floor.

A total of 35 workshops were organized with different themes and thematic focus: human rights, worker’s rights, disability rights, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (SOGIE), maritime disputes, freedom of religion or belief, human security, Rohingya, the Internet and connectivity, women and gender, youth, sustainable development, hydropower dams, migrant workers, death penalties, racism, economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR), land tenure, Patani and self-determination, and transitional justice.

Focus on the Global South organized a thematic workshop session on environment and natural resources themed “HUMANITY AND NATURE: Traditional, Cultural and Alternative Perspectives on Humanity’s Relationship with Nature.”

The goal of the workshop was to bring voice to the ideas, philosophy, and work on sustainable development of civil society leaders in the region like Sombath Somphone from Laos, and the visions of others who have been “disappeared”.

Focus also co-organized the workshop on “Addressing shrinking space in ASEAN region for the protection of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs),” a session that provided space to discuss and explore strategic and practical measures to promote greater safety for HRDs in the region.

SHRINKING SPACE. Ng Shui Meng speaking at the human rights defenders thematic workshop session.

Individuals representing different countries in the region spoke about dangers facing HRDs such as criminalization of dissent, harassment, and enforced disappearance.

But according to Ng Shui Meng, the wife of Sombath Somphone, the concept of being a human rights defender is almost unknown in Laos; because the use of the term “human rights” in Laos is considered subversive.

She argued, “The greatest threat to human rights defenders is not military or state oppression… it is fear – fear to do or say something that will dissatisfy the government.”

Sombath Somphone is a Lao community development worker who disappeared on the 15th of December 2012 in the capital of Laos, Vientiane and has not been seen since.

At the time of this article’s posting, 1382 days has passed or 3 years, 9 months, 12 days since Sombath Somphone disappeared.

HUMANITY AND NATURE. Ng Shui Meng shares perspectives on the life, work, and philosophy of her husband, Sombath Somphone, while Niall Almond of La'o Hamutuk and Sam Zarifi of the International Commission of Jurists listen.

Ng Shui Meng also spoke at the Humanity and Nature thematic workshop session, together with other members of civil society in the region.

This session was an offshoot of the Sombath Symposium[iii], also organized by Focus on the Global South and The Sombath Initiative last February in Bangkok, Thailand.

Topics discussed included Sombath Somphone’s ideas and philosophy, livelihood perspectives from the Philippines on agro-ecology, and Tara Bandu (translating to “to place a prohibition”) – a traditional wisdom from Timor-Leste for social and environmental protection.

The workshop became a space for sharing of different perspectives, traditions, and knowledge systems about the human/nature interrelationships, identifying threats to human ecological systems, re-examining and rethinking predominant development paradigms and resource governance in ASEAN, and finding ways to actualize alternative perspectives that would restore harmonious relationship between humanity and nature.

On the fourth and last day of ACSC/APF, a plenary session in the morning with Xanana Gusmão was held – although the scheduled program for the day had to be adjusted to accommodate the session with Xanana — and he talked about the potential of collaboration between the government and civil society, citing the Timor-Leste experience.

He concluded his address with an appeal for regional solidarity from ASEAN civil society: “I ask of you one last thing; the Timorese have a final struggle to achieve our sovereignty…”

“Determining our maritime boundaries is a matter of sovereignty. It is the final step in our struggle. We fought for sovereignty over our land, and now we are fighting for sovereignty over our seas.”

This appeal has been made amidst the ongoing dispute between Timor-Leste and Australia over maritime boundaries.

Another plenary session was held on “ASEAN Bodies Anchoring People at its Core” with the Malaysian Representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) Edmund Bon, Philippine Representative to the ASEAN Commission on the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) Aurora Javate de Dios, and Convenor of the Task Force on ASEAN Migrant Workers (TF-AMW) Sinapan Samydorai.

The session looked into the effectiveness of ASEAN bodies in achieving a people-centered, just, and inclusive ASEAN community. 

PEOPLE-CENTERED GOVERNMENT. Xanana Gusmão was flanked by ACSC/APF 2016 co-chairs Fernando da Costa (Timor-Leste) and Jerald Joseph (Malaysia) as he delivered his speech in plenary.

EXPANDING PEOPLES’ SOLIDARITY. Four days of celebrating diversity and learning from each other.

Thereafter, Corinna Lopa shared to the body the draft of her 10-year Review of ACSC/APF Engaging ASEAN. The review was done to evaluate and assess the 10-year engagement by civil society with ASEAN, focusing on the evolution of ACSC/APF over the years as an engagement modality with ASEAN.

The plenary session with Corinna also aimed to get comments and feedback from the ACSC/APF 2016 participants before the evaluation report is finalized.

(note: The final version of the 10-year Review of ACSC/APF Engaging ASEAN has already been submitted by Corinna Lopa and circulated by the Secretariat to the different national processes. The culmination of all the discussions around this will take place during the ACSC/APF Strategic Workshop on 24-26 October 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia).

 The issue of “government-organized non-governmental organizations” (GONGOs) became a hotly debated topic as delegates from Vietnam, Brunei, and Laos questioned the inclusion of GONGOs in Corinna’s report, with some even asking for the whole section on GONGOs to be officially removed from the 10-year review.

While the GONGO is a critical issue, it was a pity only one representative per country was called to share his or her feedback and recommendations and allowed to speak his or her thoughts about the evaluation report and the ACSC/APF in general.

(note: I was one of the first to raise their hand – I did not know at that time that the process would be asking only one delegate per country for comments and feedback)

 As the Philippine representative to the drafting committee, I expressed concerns about the ACSC/APF 2016 CSO Statement which was submitted to the ASEAN Governments prior to the ACSC/APF, without giving an opportunity for all ACSC/APF participants to discuss, finalize, approve, and adopt the statement in a plenary session during the actual ACSC/APF.

I was also cut short by the moderator while wrapping up the points I raised about the statement due to “time constraints,” and thus, was not able to elaborate on all the recommendations.

It is ironic that ASEAN people and civil society themselves were reduced to pleading for “a little more time” to be heard during a plenary session of the ACSC/APF and unable to completely articulate their thoughts.

As the only Philippine delegate to be called during the plenary to share his thoughts, I felt that the session could have been more inclusive and participatory, consistent with the engagement modality of ACSC/APF.

TURNOVER CEREMONY. East Timorese and Philippine civil society gathered in front of the stage to the cheers of the watching ACSC/APF crowd.

In the end, the ACSC/APF culminated with the launch of a campaign on the Timor Sea issue for Timor-Leste’s full sovereignty and the formal handover of the ACSC/APF Chairpersonship to the Philippines, as host of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary in 2017.

One thing I realized as ACSC/APF came to a close was that the Timorese are a truly kind, hospitable, and spirited people who are very much involved in social and political activism.

If it is the common voice of the Timorese people to be part of ASEAN then that should be respected and supported, but not whilst putting aside the concerns of other civil society in the region about the possible repercussions on the developing economy and human rights of the Timorese people upon joining ASEAN.

This includes the impacts to the people and the environment of new generation free trade agreements (FTAs) being negotiated by ASEAN with its trade partners (e.g. the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP).

WHERE IS SOMBATH SOMPHONE? ACSC/APF 2016 delegates are asking…

I also realized that there is a need to rethink the future identity of ACSC/APF, most especially when there are views that the direction that ACSC/APF is taking now puts the emphasis more on “institutionalization,” which is alarming to say the least as this direction leads to the shrinking of space for critical discourse and engagement.

If the future direction of ACSC/APF points to it becoming more and more of a space influenced by the government rather than a space for ASEAN peoples, civil society and social movements to freely discuss critical issues, then it contradicts the purpose of why it has been established in the first place.

If the ACSC/APF is institutionalized, then how can one say that it is an independent and inclusive civil society mechanism in engaging ASEAN? How can one say that it is an effective platform for Southeast Asian peoples to voice their issues and concerns in ASEAN?

By the same token, it must be ensured that the principles of civil society collegiality, collective leadership, and participatory approaches are not forgotten, amidst the differences in social, political, and economic contexts of each national process.

At the conclusion of the 11th year of ACSC/APF in Timor-Leste, a critical question was raised — “What is the true spirit of ACSC/APF?”

More importantly, “What should be the spirit of ACSC/APF?” 

FREE THE FIVE CAMBODIAN HRDS. The imprisonment of the five prominent Cambodian HRDs showed the increasingly hostile environment in Cambodia for civil society and human rights defenders.

I felt the true spirit of ACSC/APF when I witnessed many individuals from different countries from various backgrounds with a slew of advocacies coming together as one to support different calls and campaigns of ASEAN peoples and civil society; building unities amidst diversity, notwithstanding the differences of opinion on some matters.

I felt the true spirit of ACSC/APF when I saw different people holding the banner of the Sombath Initiative as they collectively asked the question: Where is Sombath Somphone?; when I saw different individuals calling for the release of the five Cambodian HRDs; when I saw different groups shouting for freedom for West Papua; building solidarity amidst diversity, notwithstanding the differences in country issues and concerns.

I felt the true spirit of ACSC/APF during the demonstration in front of Australian Embassy in Dili to support Timor-Leste’s struggle against the illegal occupation of Timor Sea by Australia; building regional cooperation amidst diversity, notwithstanding the differences in national and local contexts.

This realization was further brought to life during the solidarity night at the Secretary of State for Youth and Sports Office. It was a night filled with music, dance, and shared joy. It was a night of building understanding across cultures, societies, and political systems; of building common peoples' platforms – not of the absurd idea of “institutionalizing the ACSC/APF.”

Never mind the language barrier; freedom of expression and solidarity are the language themselves.

If ASEAN peoples and civil society can unite for a regional solidarity campaign and advocacy actions to support one of their brothers or sisters in the region, then aren’t we moving towards what we meant by a “people-centered, just, and inclusive ASEAN community?” If we see the convergence of perspectives, ideas, and alternatives of ASEAN peoples and civil society, then, aren’t we moving towards what we meant by “being rooted in the struggles of grassroots communities and peoples’ movements of Southeast Asian countries?”

Amidst the diversity in ASEAN, the diversity among Southeast Asian peoples, the diversity of civil society approaches, and the diversity of discourses — what then are the qualities that should form the definitive elements in the character of ACSC/APF?

What then would be the strategic directions that ASEAN peoples and civil society must embark on in the future?

These are questions that need not be answered now, but should be considered in exploring, developing, and embracing new engagement modalities in the future.

A point of reflection for the ACSC/APF in the Philippines next year, in ASEAN’s 50th founding anniversary year and the 12th year of ACSC/APF.

A DANCE. How fitting it is to end the ACSC/APF 2016 the same way it began?

MEDIAN LINE NOW! An activist from the Movimento Kontra Okupasaun Tasi Timor (Movement Against the Occupation of the Timor Sea) or MKOTT led the march towards the Australian Embassy.

SOLIDARITY MARCH. Shouts of “Median line now!”, “Australia, hands off Timor’s Oil!”, and “Don’t occupy Timor Sea!” filled the air at the launch of the Timor Sea Solidarity Campaign.

SOLIDARITY NIGHT 1.0. The smiles were evident (and contagious).

SOLIDARITY NIGHT 2.0. The joining of hands together came naturally with the music and dance.

A DISCOVERED PARADISE. How would Timor-Leste look like — ten, twenty, thirty years hence? Sunrise at Tasitolu, a protected area on the coast of East Timor.


All pictures by Galileo de Guzman Castillo. For the complete ACSC/APF 2016 Photo Album, please go to: https://www.flickr.com/photos/focussouth/albums/72157674361751346

[i] The ACSC/APF is an annual / regular forum of CSOs in ASEAN Member States, which is held as a parallel meeting to the ASEAN Summit of Heads of State. The meeting is hosted by civil society of the country that currently chairs the ASEAN in that year. Participants of this forum come from civil society organizations, NGOs, people’s organizations, and people’s movements. The ACSC/APF also features a forum through which participants can better understand the host country from the perspective of civil society. In this meeting, CSOs bring up broad issues from different sectors and concerns, such as human rights, development, trade, environment, youth, and culture, affecting many countries in the region. For more information, please go to: http://aseanpeople.org/about/background/

[ii] The following outline ACSC/APF’s engagement modality:

OPENING DOORS: to provide a platform for more people to be involved.

PARTICIPATION: to get as many groups and communities as genuine partners. This would involve getting people from grassroots communities, Sabah and Sarawak and also groups who are not generally in the front line.

CONSULTATIVE/DIALOGUE: inclusive engagement in the dialogue processes.

COALITION BUILDING: as some of the members are part of different networks, there is an opportunity to build coalitions.

CONSENSUS: in the spirit of democratic decision process, we endeavor for consensus building and respect of ideas.

CITIZEN SPACES: spaces for common people to voice their issues.

RESPECT DIVERSITY AND INCLUSIVITY: to respect differences of opinions, representation of people/issues, openness to learn and to engage.

NON-VIOLENCE: to reject promotion of violence or incitement of hatred.

For more information, please go to: http://aseanpeople.org/about/guiding-principles-engagement-modality/