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Space for peaceful protests is vanishing in Hong Kong as pro-democracy coalition is disbanded

Civil Human Rights Front announced its disbandment on August 15, 2021

The following post is an English translation of a Chinese report published on Hong Kong-based CitizenNews on August 14, 2021. It is republished by Kodao through Global Voices under a content partnership agreement. 

Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), a coalition of pro-democracy political and citizen groups for the mobilisation of large-scale rallies, announced its disbandment on August 15, 2021. 

Many anticipated the group would eventually dissolve when the Hong Kong Police Force started investigating the group in April 2021, citing national security concerns

Throughout its tenure, the umbrella organization frequently hosted major mass rallies in Hong Kong, including the 2019 anti-China extradition protests. Since its establishment in 2002, the Hong Kong police had collaborated with the group to ensure rallies were orderly, safe and peaceful. Yet, upon the enactment of the national security law (NSL) on June 30, 2020, the Police Force banned the CHRF’s 2020 July 1 pro-democracy rally for the first time since the annual protests began in 2002, citing COVID-19 and security concerns. In May 2021 the coalition was flagged as an illegal entity.

CHRF has represented the rational, peaceful and moderate front of Hong Kong’s civil society since its establishment. For 18 years, it served as a platform for civic groups to communicate and build consensus on common agendas for positive social change. Though no protests have been organised since the NSL was implemented, police vowed to investigate key figures of the group for potential national security infractions. 

The Civil Human Rights Front’s origins

The Civil Human Rights Front was established in 2002 by Rose Wu, a veteran feminist and a faculty member at CUHK’s School of Theology. The group hoped to provide a loose platform for civil groups to regularly discuss human rights and social justice. Eventually, more than 30 groups had joined the coalition, which was officially launched on September 13, 2002. 

At that time, the most pressing issue in Hong Kong was the legislation of Basic Law Article 23 — a local version of the national security law. The CHRF hosted its first rally in December 2002 against the proposed law and unexpectedly drew 60,000 demonstrators — ten times more than anticipated. 

On July 1, 2003, the CHRF organized its second rally against local national security legislation. Around 500,000 people turned out, making it the second-largest protest in the city since the mass rally against China’s crackdown on the Tiananmen student movement in 1989. The rally forced the Hong Kong government to halt the legislation. 

Since then, July 1 rallies have become an annual event for citizens to voice out their discontent. As the rally host, the CHRF would decide on the annual agenda while other organisations and protesters would use the occasion to voice their demands.

Between 2005 and 2013, the agenda of the annual rally covered a wide range of issues including universal suffrage, minimum wage, environmental concern, property bubbles, the introduction of a national education curriculum and more. The turnout ranged from 21,000 to 430,000 depending on the political climate at the time.

In 2014, 510,000 people joined a rally demanding genuine universal suffrage of the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. After the rally, two student activist groups, Hong Kong Federation of Student Unions and Scholarism staged a rehearsal of ‘Occupy Central Protests‘, a massive civil disobedience campaign that advocates for democratic election reform with no pre-screening for candidates according to international standards of universal suffrage. During the sit-in, 511 protesters were arrested.

Since then, many started to question the effectiveness of the annual ‘ritualistic’ peaceful rallies organized by the CHRF and called for more radical forms of protest and civil disobedience. 

CHRF: The rational and peaceful front of Hong Kong protests

Civil engagement ebbed after the Occupy Central sit-in protests in 2014 failed to bring democratic changes in the city. As a large number of activists were arrested for participating in the peaceful sit-in, some protesters became sceptical of orderly, symbolic acts of protest in favour of more disruptive resistance. The number of participants in demonstrations dropped dramatically until February 2019 when the government introduced an amendment to the Extradition Bill or The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019.

In response to the government decision to bypass the Bill Committee and submit the controversial bill directly to the Legislative Council for second reading on June 12, 2019, the CHRF organized the anti-China extradition rally on June 9. The government decided to proceed with the reading despite the 1 million demonstrators who had turned out against the bill. After the rally, some protesters clashed with police outside the Legislative Council. 

On June 12, the CHRF hosted an authorized peaceful assembly at Lung Wui Road. On the same day, some protesters surrounded the Legislature and a few clashed with the riot police. The police force ended up firing tear gas, bean bag rounds and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters, including thousands of peaceful protesters at Lung Wui Road. At the end of the day, the police justified its actions by labelling the protest a riot, a crime that could lead to a maximum of 10 years imprisonment. The CHRF called for another rally on June 16. 

Although the government announced on June 15 they would suspend the amendment to the extradition law, the police operation on June 12 had turned the single-issue protests into a city-wide political movement with five demands: the withdrawal of the fugitive law amendment, holding the police accountable for the violent clampdown on June 12, the release of the arrested protesters, changing the ‘riot’ label of the June 12 protests, and stepping down of the Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Over 2 million people turned out for the June 16 protest, which made headlines worldwide.

After the 2019 July 1 rally, which ended when a few dozen radical activists stormed the Legislative Council complex, the anti-China extradition movement evolved into a series of decentralised protests hosted by different activist groups. Very often, these protests ended in clashes between riot police and protesters. 

In response to the violent clashes between riot police and demonstrators and between pro-Bejing and pro-democracy protesters such as the Yuen Long subway attack incident on July 21, the CHRF hosted a ‘be water assembly’ at Victoria Park on August 18, 2019, condemning the collusion between the police and the pro-Beijing mobs, more than 1,700,000 joined the protest. 

The Hong Kong government and the pro-establishment groups condemned the CHRF and the pro-democracy political parties for not cutting ties with the radical protesters. 

Since March 2021, when Singapore-based Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao reported that the Hong Kong police had launched an investigation on the CHRF, many coalition members have cut ties with the group. One month later in April 2020, the Hong Kong police accused the CHRF of violating the Societies Ordinance for failing to register as a legal entity.  The last convenor of CHRF Figo Chan was sentenced to jail for participating in an illegal assembly on October 1, 2019. The umbrella group was left with no leadership. 

The final disbandment of the CHRF was announced on August 15 through a statement

CHRF originally hoped to continue to face the challenge with everyone in the existing ways, but convenor Figo Chan is already in jail because of several cases, and the secretariat can no longer maintain its operations. With no members participating in the next secretariat, we can only begrudgingly announce our disbandment.

Myanmar’s anti-coup protesters include DIY shields, women’s sarongs in their defensive arsenal

Protesters never seem to run out of ideas, or audacity

By Global Voices South East Asia

This edited article originally appeared on the blog of a Global Voices contributor who doesn’t wish to be identified.

The death toll of Myanmar’s protesters had already reached more than 217 by Wednesday, March 17 as the military ramped up its violent crackdown on the anti-coup resistance.

The Myanmar military, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, staged a coup on February 1 and replaced the civilian government with a “military council,” having accused elected leaders of the National League for Democracy of committing massive fraud in the November 2020 election.

Read More: Coup and resistance in Myanmar: A timeline of the first month under the 2021 military junta

The military has been conducting nightly raids and arbitrary arrests. Many people have died during these detentions from beatings and torture—acts of terror intended to instil fear. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, there were 1,873 confirmed political prisoners as of March 14.

Despite the intensified violence unleashed by security forces in recent weeks, young pro-democracy protesters continued to show no signs of fear or slowing down their peaceful protests across the country. They even came up with different physical and psychological defence strategies to deter the riot police.

In Yangon, people set up protest stations in their own neighbourhoods with makeshift defence barriers, rather than going to a massive gathering point as protesters had done in February. The barriers, made of local resources such as sandbags, large trash bins, concrete blocks, bricks and even large PVC pipes, were meant to slow down the soldiers while protesters retreated to safety.

Frontline protectors, mainly local youths, are often the first line of defence. This is a dangerous spot since their DIY shields, made of plastic, wood, or iron from recycled barrels, do not protect them from live ammunition. Wearing DIY vests and construction hats, they risk their lives to buy some time for other protesters to escape before the arrival of police and military forces. The riot police are mostly soldiers dressed in police uniforms. Many frontline protesters were violently beaten [Warning: VIOLENT IMAGERY] or tortured [GRAPHIC IMAGERY] during detention.

Tear gas bombs are defused by frontline protesters by using wet blankets and water bags that have been prepared by residents of the neighbourhood. They also use improvised gas masks, goggles, and other protective gear.

Demoralizing the coup leader

Protesters have been placing pictures of Min Aung Hlaing on the streets or on the ground in front of defence barriers based on the belief that soldiers stepping on the face of their leader could be accused of showing disrespect. This tactic aims to slow down the soldiers because they would have to remove the pictures first before attacking protesters. Some protesters put pictures of the general on their shields hoping that soldiers would not shoot directly into the face of their leader.

The tactic worked for a few days as soldiers tediously removed images of the general before advancing toward the protesters. As more crackdowns happened, the tactic has become less effective as riot police ignored the images. The footage of a soldier deliberately goose-stepping on the general’s face has become viral.

In Myaung Mya and other cities people placed pictures of the general on tombs as a way to demoralize the coup leader.

ထဘီ ခံတပ်: Women’s sarong defence line

ထဘီခံတပ် (“Hta-main-khan-tat”), which means “women’s sarong defence line,” draws from the superstition that male soldiers who go under a clothesline used for women’s clothes, particularly women’s sarongs (ထဘီ/hta-main) and underwear, would fall in battle.

The idea comes from the deep-rooted misogyny within Myanmar’s military that regards women or women’s bodies as being inferior or impure. Myanmar’s military subscribes to the patriarchal superstition that women’s sarongs impair the virtue of men (ဘုန်း or “Hpone”), and thus, soldiers will lose protection in battle.

Indeed, soldiers stopped and tried to remove the clotheslines of women’s sarongs on the streets before they moved forward.

In some cities, protesters have gone as far as publicly putting Min Aung Hlaing’s pictures on women’s underwear as well as menstrual pads.

While these moves are welcomed as effective ways to slow down, people were also urged not to promote misogyny. A Twitter user pointed out that while battling against the violent military, protesters must also battle against internalized sexism.

It is awesome that we are using sarong clotheslines to fight back the extreme patriarchy of the terrorist [military council]. But we must also understand among ourselves that sarong clotheslines are there to protect people and they are not there to be inferior.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, Myanmar women protesters marched in front of a rally holding up sarong flags to fight both the military dictatorship and society’s misogyny.

On social media, young men also posted pictures of themselves wearing women’s sarongs on their heads and holding up three fingers to symbolize their rejection of the idea about ဘုန်း (“Hpone”) or male virtue.

An activist, Aung Myo Min, wrote about the opportunity to fight both the dictatorship and misogyny.

Translation:

The words that my grandma used to say when I was young now became true. She said “don’t low down on women. We will raise our hta-main (sarong) flag.”

This is the day we break down both the military dictatorship and the beliefs that sarongs are inferior and women are weak.

Today..

International Women Day

08–03–2021

Original:

ငယ်ငယ်က အဖွားပြောပြောနေတဲ့ မိန်းမတွေကို အထင်မသေးနဲ့.. ထမီအလံထူပစ်မယ်ဆိုတဲ့ စကား လက်တွေ့ဖြစ်လာပြီ….

ထမိန်ဆိုတာ ယုတ်ညံ့တယ်…

အမျိုးသမီးဆိုတာ ပျော့ညံ့တယ်ဆိုတဲ့အတွေးအခေါ်ဟောင်းတွေကို စစ်အာဏာရှင်စနစ်နဲ့အတူ ရိုက်ချိုးပစ်တဲ့နေ့…

ဒီနေ့…

အပြည်ပြည်ဆိုင်ရာအမျိုးသမီးများနေ့

၈-၃-၂၀၂၁

Avoiding confrontation with military forces

In some cities like MyitkyinaNyaung Oo and Dawei, protesters picked unusual times such as five or six in the morning to avoid the riot police. Night-time prayers and protests have also been organized across the country. Some cities also tried “guerilla protests” in which protesters evaded crackdowns by showing up on different streets from where riot police were deployed.

Meanwhile, some held protests in rivers where protesters rode on boats, or in farms, while others climbed mountains to protest.

In some cities, a “peopleless protest” was done by leaving placards and other protest materials on the streets. In Mindat, a “completely silent protest” took place where nobody came out on the streets and markets were closed for the whole day.

Ethnic armed groups on the side of civilians

In some states, ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) stepped in to protect the protesters. One of the EAOs, the Karen National Union (KNU), has announced that it will protect civilians from the military.

Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front (KNPL) came and protected the protesters in Loikaw, Kayah state, on March 13.

Civil defence force

Despite the atrocities perpetrated by the Myanmar military, protesters have not resorted to retaliation as the majority continued to uphold the non-violent principle of the movement.

However, with the alarming rise of the daily death toll of protesters, some have called for the formation of a preemptive strike force like a civil defence force to fight back against violent oppression. Since March 13, protesters in Yangon and Taunggyi have raised black flags as a sign to retaliate or strike back if violent crackdowns continue.

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, which was established by ousted elected members of parliament, announced on March 14 that protesters and civilians, in general, have the right to lawfully use other means of defence against the armed terrorists, i.e. the military.#

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Kodao publishes Global Voices articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

‘You messed with the wrong generation’: Daily protests pose strong challenge to Myanmar coup

By Global Voices Southeast Asia

The civil disobedience movement launched in response to the February 1 military coup has continued to gather support across Myanmar.

Communication lines have been intermittently disrupted since the coup and internet connectivity was totally cut off on February 6. When service was restored the following day, the world saw images and reports of massive pro-democracy rallies in the streets of Myanmar cities and towns.

Global Voices interviewed local researchers and foreign residents (whose identities have been withheld for security reasons) about the protest movement. One foreign resident shared this account from over the weekend:

The civil disobedience movement asked the public to go out in the streets on Friday [February 5]. The protests swelled on Saturday. Then internet connection was cut off in the country. Protests continued on Sunday until today [February 7]. Hundreds of thousands participated in almost all regions and cities. Police are deployed in the streets but so far no arrests were made. Protest is peaceful. Meanwhile the Than Pone is still being done every night at 8PM.

Than Pone—which means “iron buckets”—is the name given to the banging of pots to ward off evil spirits. Since the coup, collective pot-banging takes place  three times a day in some areas: at 8am, 2pm, and 8pm, for a total of 15 minutes.

Local researchers told Global Voices that many internet users “got pissed off that the internet was shut down and joined the protest.” One researcher had no internet at home so went out to meet a friend and ended up in the crowd.

They observed that people offered the police flowers, water bottles and snacks during the protest in Yangon on February 6.

These videos shared by the researchers offer a glimpse of the large protest in Yangon, the country’s largest city:

Disinformation runs rampant during internet shutdown

Disinformation has been rampant since the coup. One of the most notorious sources of disinformation is Radio Free Myanmar, which mimics the logo and naming convention of the news website Radio Free Asia.

Local researchers noted that verifying information became more difficult when the internet was blocked:

When you don’t have internet for two days, there is no way to verify those news. Even politicians starting to believe those are rumours.

They were referring inaccurate reports circulating outside Myanmar based on discussions taken place on Chinese social media platform Weibo, such as the military’s supposed readiness to repatriate Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, or that soldiers had staged the coup to protecting the people.

The symbol of the civil disobedience campaign is inspired by the Hollywood film ‘Hunger games’ three-finger salute. Photo supplied to Global Voices by local researchers, used with permission.

The researchers also reported that some Buddhist ultra-nationalists have been attempting to mislead coup supporters by claiming that the three-finger salute widely used in anti-coup protests is in fact a Muslim gesture that means “I am the son/daughter of Muhammad.”

Civil disobedience campaign gathers public support

The disinformation appears to be a desperate reaction by coup supporters as the civil disobedience campaign gains traction. Here are some photos depicting the defiance of many groups across Myanmar:

Even Japanese beer giant Kirin was forced to sever business ties with the military after the coup.

The Burmese Ghouls, a professional esports team that rarely comments on politics, publicly condemned the coup.

In response to the week-long protests, Myanmar military authorities have banned public gatherings of more than five people in some townships. The police also used water cannons to disperse a protest in Naypyidaw, the country’s capital.

These two recent developments will certainly affect the trajectory of the protest movement in the coming days. #

*With additional reporting from Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory project.

  • This article is published by Kodao as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Winds of democracy in the Philippines

By Sonny Africa

Delivered at the International People’s Research Network (IPRN) Webinar on “Building People’s Democracy” held on November 27, 2020

What struggles to build a democratic society truly fulfill the aspirations of the people? IBON will briefly share our experience in the Philippine context and look forward to discussions to enrich this from different perspectives. The winds of democracy are blowing strong here.

We can start by affirming the essential character of the Philippine state. It remains as it has always been – political and economic elites inextricably intertwined and using the powers of government to advance their narrow interests. But it may be useful to look at some major developments over the last four decades of neoliberal globalization. This may help clarify authoritarian trends seen today and also point to areas needing particular attention.

Globalization and democracy

The 1980s saw hype about the “end of history” and the supposed triumph of Western liberal democracy with its distinct blend of free markets and private property, civil liberties and human rights, and supposed political freedoms. (Even then, giant China was of course a conveniently disregarded outlier.) Since then, there has been an increase in pluralist electoral democracies enshrining the popular vote for choosing leaders – as in the Philippines upon the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. (Even Russia started choosing its president by popular vote in 1991.) There has also been a huge expansion in mass media and then the internet which, it was argued, strengthened liberal democracies by democratizing information.

In economic systems, free market policies of neoliberal globalization were promised to unleash economic potential, develop backward economies, and bring prosperity to all. In reality, we’re all familiar with how neoliberal globalization has resulted in greater exploitation, greater destruction of natural resources and the environment, and greater wealth and economic power in the hands of a few. Hundreds of millions or even billions of people exploited, abused and left behind made the rumble underfoot grow stronger as economic crises erupted and deepened.

Elites however twisted this dissatisfaction, went on an all-out disinformation offensive in mass media and the internet, and manipulated elections to rise to power as today’s populist authoritarianisms – the Philippines’ own Pres. Duterte is a case in point. In too many places around the world, demagogues of different degrees are elected and have risen to the top of falsely democratic political systems.

They mostly keep the forms of liberal democratic institutions in place – free elections, the branches of government, mass media, even civil society. But these are wielded self-interestedly, subverted in practice, and any portions particularly inconvenient are carved out. But they are fundamentally authoritarians and we see everywhere the growing use of state violence, against any and all opposition, to protect elite economic interests and to retain political power.

These processes have played out in the Philippines as elsewhere. In our specific circumstances, how do we build a democratic society?

People, most of all

The most critical foundation remains people’s organizations with a vision of a democratic society. The Philippines is fortunate to have a long-standing core of this in the mass movement built up over decades. These include the country’s largest organizations of politicized peasants, formal and informal workers, youth and students, women, indigenous people, teachers and academics, and more.

The mass movement combines concrete struggles on immediate concerns with constant education work on systemic issues. Concrete struggles and constant education are both essential to build solid core constituencies for genuinely transformative change for the better.

These organizations are at the forefront of challenging anti-people social and economic policies and countering neoliberal globalization. They are also an army that reaches out not just to their direct constituencies and networks but also communicates to the widest number of people through mass media, social media, and other internet platforms.

They are supplemented by tactical formations and alliances on urgent issues to more immediately reach out to and mobilize the wider public. For instance, the steady assault of the regime on accustomed liberal democratic institutions creates wide opportunity for this. The attacks on senators, congressional representatives, the Supreme Court chief justice, the Ombudsman, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), major broadcast and internet media outfits, civil society, activists and others have stirred wide outrage. This scattered dissent needs to be brought together.

Progressives in government

At the same time, people’s organizations have enough strength and flexibility to also directly engage in traditional elite-dominated governance through elected parliamentarians such as via the party-list system in Congress. Progressive party-list groups have always been among the frontrunners in Congressional elections and already form a solid pro-people bloc in the House of Representatives.

While fully part of the traditional institutionalized political system, progressive parliamentarians remain solidly grounded in people’s organizations and are relentless in challenging the boundaries of the country’s so-called democracy. As real representatives of and from the people, their legislative measures and political work are consistently biased for the people. They seek to deliver concrete benefits while consistently seeking to weaken the economic power and fight the political abuses of self-serving elites.

Through their visible public service, they enable the general public to see that more democratic economic and political policies are possible. But they are also the beachhead of democracy in the authoritarian Duterte government for launching attacks from within. They are valuable for reaching out to other progressives and potential allies within the government, and for organizing efforts to push for democratic changes in the centers of reactionary politics.

Research matters

The superstructures of power are defended not just by sheer violence but by the hegemony of self-serving and reactionary knowledge. We of course give special attention to the invisible power of ideas, values and beliefs in reproducing capitalism and today’s worsening authoritarianism. Among the most important ways to challenge this is with solid research from the perspective of and upholding the aspirations of the people for social justice, equity, and a decent life for all.

The struggle of ideas is one of the most urgent realms of political struggle. Solid research and tenacious advocacy are vital to overcome the dominance of ruling class ideas and values. More and more people must unlearn that oppression is just to be accepted and that the only improvement in our material conditions is what ruling elites will allow.

Solid research is vital to support the campaigns of people’s organizations and of progressives in government. For instance, research on economic issues reveals what changes decades of imperialist globalization have wrought as well as confirms what remains the same. And we know that ideas are meaningless if not transformed into a political force so these need to be formed with or by the mass movement and then taken up by it.

Solid research is vital to credibly challenge anti-people policies and to articulate our new ideas and visions for a more just and democratic society. We challenge capitalism not just because it is exploitative and oppressive but also because it isn’t immutable, can be replaced, and should be replaced. We look to the socialist alternative not just because we imagine it as just, humane and liberating, but also because it is possible and can already start to be built. Research makes our critique potent and also makes our alternative real.

Research is about ideas and we are today facing a deluge. What does it take to be dynamic in the digital age with its endless tsunami of trivialities and information? It isn’t enough that our analysis is correct and that we are credible – to communicate today we have to be real-time, interactive, and nimble with text, photos, graphics, audio, video and animation. And while we will continue to distribute our research, we also have to be ever more accessible not just conceptually but also literally. More than ever, people constantly seek information with a mere click of their finger or a swipe of their thumb.

Democracy in progress

Finally, we all know the value of seeing that oppressive structures can be changed and that what is accepted as ‘normal’ can be replaced. In the Philippines, the most radical flank and most direct challenge to the oppressive status quo are the scattered but growing sites of democratic governance in the countryside. In many rural areas across the country, communities are undertaking examples of how local political and economic democracy can be interlinked to benefit the majority people and not a few elites. These are areas where landlords, agri-business, and mining corporations do not dominate and where people’s organizations have taken control of their communities and their lives. They push the envelope of our democratic struggles.

On a historical scale, there’s no doubt that the world is changing for the better. There’s too much creativity, energy and bravery committed to that for it to be otherwise. Perhaps in fits and starts, or with setbacks big and small – but, still, we’re inexorably moving forward on the back of millions of steps and struggles every day around the world. #

Thai LGBTQ+ activists and pro-democracy protesters march together for equality

They also state demands for reforms of the Thai monarchy

This article was originally published on Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand.

Thai women, members of the LGBTQ community, and pro-democracy protesters joined a Pride parade last November 7 in Bangkok to call for equality for all marginalized groups, as well as for Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha’s resignation, a new constitution, and monarchy reform.

The march, organized by the gender equality activist groups Seri Toey Plus and Women for Freedom and Democracy, started at the Samyan intersection in central Bangkok. Carrying several large rainbow flags as well as placards calling for gender equality, marriage equality, abortion rights, and legalization of sex work, protesters marched along Rama IV Road, before stopping on Silom Road, a landmark in the center of the city.

During the march, the Women for Freedom and Democracy group, joined by a group of drummers from the theatre group B-Floor, organised a performance of a Thai version of the Chilean feminist anthem “A Rapist in Your Path” to protest against sexual violence, victim blaming, and rape culture.

Originally conceived by the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis and sung in Spanish, the song has been translated and sung at women’s rights protests across the world as a way of speaking out about sexual violence and the patriarchal power structure that represses women.

The Thai version was translated by the Women for Freedom and Democracy Group. The lyrics state that “the state that ignores our voice is the state that rapes us”, and name “the police, the military, the courts of justice, the entire country, the monarchy” as complicit in gender-based violence.

The Thai version also uses imagery from the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, which is also popular in Thai culture. The story refers to Rama’s wife Sita, who was forced by her husband to walk through fire to prove her purity after her long captivity by Rama’s rival Ravana.

Arriving at the Saladaeng Intersection, the protesters sat down and hold up their hands in the three-finger ‘Hunger Games’ salute while the national anthem is played from speakers on the truck leading them. Photo and caption from Prachatai

The march stopped under Bangkok skytrain Saladaeng BTS Station, where protesters used the truck that led the march as a stage for dances and speeches on various social issues, such as legalization of sex work, abortion rights, gender-based discrimination in STEM fields, sexual harassment against women activists, being LGBTQ in a Muslim community, ethnic group and immigrant rights, and the patriarchal power structure in the Thai monarchy. The event included a performance by a group of drag queens.

The activists also spoke out against sexual harassment and called for women and LGBTQ people to be represented on protest stages, and stated the pro-democracy movement’s three demands, which are Gen Prayut’s resignation, a new constitution, and monarchy reform. #

LGBTQ rights and sex worker rights activist Sirisak Chaited dressed in a towel with the message “sex work is not a crime” during the march to call for the legalization of sex work. Photo and caption from Prachatai

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Kodao republishes articles on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Myanmar 2020 election: ‘A critical moment in the consolidation of democratic transition’

‘Structural shortcomings continue to undermine the democratic character of the process’

By Mong Palatino / Global Voices

Myanmar’s election on November 8 is described by United States-based group The Carter Center as “a critical moment in the consolidation of Myanmar’s ongoing democratic transition.” The Carter Center is one of two international election observation missions accredited by Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC).

Myanmar was governed by a military dictatorship for several decades, then transitioned into civilian rule in 2010. The 2008 Constitution, however, ensured that the military would continue to exercise political influence, including on the Parliament. The opposition National League for Democracy defeated the military-backed party in the historic 2015 general election.

The Carter Center released its preliminary assessment of Myanmar’s election process on October 13. It noted the challenges in holding an election during a pandemic and recognized the efforts of the UEC in keeping the process on track.

On the other hand, it also identified the electoral system’s “structural shortcomings”:

(…) structural shortcomings continue to undermine the democratic character of the process, including quotas for unelected military appointees in all legislative bodies, restrictive eligibility criteria for the presidency, inequalities in constituency populations resulting in unequal representation.

It also mentioned that the “discriminatory legal regulations for citizenship effectively disenfranchise several ethnic minorities, particularly the Rohingya.” Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as one of its ethnic groups.

The Carter Center’s observation mission, led by Sean Dunne, is composed of a core team of six experts and 24 long-term observers. Global Voices reached out to Dunne via email to learn more about their monitoring process in Myanmar.

Mong Palatino (MP): The Carter Center also monitored the 2015 election. How would you compare the electoral landscape during that year in relation to the present?

Sean Dunne (SD): The 2015 elections were really a watershed moment for Myanmar’s democratic transition with the opening of space for political competition and the peaceful transfer of power to the main opposition party. As is often the case with second round transitional elections, this election is likely to be more intensely contested among parties and candidates. This imposes more pressure on the election authorities to ensure a fair process in line with international principles for democratic elections.

MP: How do you plan to fulfill your mission given the pandemic situation?

SD: The Carter Center has taken a range of steps to maintain its observation efforts despite the pandemic. We were able to recruit and accredit Myanmar citizens to become our long-term election observers and have recruited foreign nationals locally and abroad to take on the short-term observer roles for the mission. We have made use of technology to assist in our virtual interviewing and engagement with stakeholders, conducting over 500 interviews so far with election and security officials, political parties and candidates, and civil society representatives.

MP: A recent news report mentioned the cancellation of elections in some townships because of security concerns. Can you comment on this?

SD: The constitution and election laws permit for the postponement of elections due to local insecurity and natural disasters. It was a recommendation of The Carter Center and other observation missions in 2015 that the criteria for these postponements be more transparent.

MP: What are some of the crucial electoral policies should the UEC undertake in the next few weeks to make the elections more free and fair?

SD: The process of elections must not only be fair but be seen to be fair. Transparency and frequent consultation with political parties, candidates and other stakeholders are crucial to the acceptance of the results. All aspects of the electoral process should be open to international and domestic observers to strengthen transparency.

MP: Do you have a message to members of the international community which are also monitoring Myanmar’s democratic transition?

SD: The second cycle of transitional elections are always vital to entrench democratic practices. These elections are an essential measure of progress. Post-election, ongoing democratic reforms need to be a priority, including adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. #

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Kodao Publishes Global Voices articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Thailand’s democracy protests reflect rising dissatisfaction over the monarchy

By Winston Chiu / Global Voices

Despite the announcement of an emergency decree on October 15 and police crackdown on October 16, tens of thousands of Thai protesters continued protesting in the streets over the weekend demanding democratic reform.

A major grievance was directed at the monarchy as reflected in a global Change.org petition demanding the Thai king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, “permanently return to Thailand” and “discharge his royal duties as the reigning monarch in his country”.

The petition appealed specifically to authorities in Germany:

We request that The Federal Republic of Germany, pursuant to the first paragraph of Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, declare Vajiralongkorn a persona non grata within the territories of The Federal Republic of Germany. Thus, disallowing the King to continue any further residence in Germany.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended to the throne in 2016 has been a controversial figure; he has direct control over two army units and multi-billion-dollar holdings, and he spends most of his time in Germany.

A Thai activist, Junya Yimprasert, who is now residing in Europe told DW News:

The Thai people are getting angrier because he is not in Germany just as a tourist and hasn’t stopped intervening in Thai politics…He is here in Germany and continues to have influence.

The petition was blocked from Thai access by three major Internet operators since October 15 according to a report from Thai Netizen Network on Facebook. In Thailand, any critical comments about the King and the royal family could be charged under criminal code section 112 and result in a sentence of 3 to 15 years in jail.

The King has recently returned to Thailand from Germany in order to attend the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s memorial day on October 13. The declaration of the state of emergency was announced two days later on October 15, after a peaceful confrontation between pro-democracy protesters and royal family supporters near the Grand Palace on October 14.

At the confrontation spot, peaceful pro-democracy protesters were chanting with the three-finger salute as Queen Suthida’s vehicle passed. At least two activists were arrested for allegedly attempting violence against the Queen, a charge that could lead to life imprisonment if found guilty.

The three-finger salute also signifies three key protest demands: the dissolution of parliament, ending intimidation of the people which includes the abolition of royal defamation law, and the drafting of a new constitution that would lead to the reformation of the monarchy.

These demands are reflected in the following parody:

@minimonilogist translated the Thai lyrics in the Twitter thread:

King Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time in Germany with his concubines living in luxuries while the people of Thailand is facing the economic crisis which got worse than before due to COVID-19. He travels back and forth on Thai airway which is currently in bankruptcy – But with the government’s support, it continues to survive using people’s taxes. Many Thai businessmen, who have been exploiting their workers, support the King’s reign, offer their money for the king to spend as he pleases. Thailand’s annual fund goes mostly to support the monarch and the rest of the royal family (approx. $641M). This is why the people protest, we are having a crisis, many live in poverty. Yet the king is spending our taxes and abusing his power through the government and the police. We ARE ANGRY! Both the monarchy and the coup need to end! We want real democracy for the people and only for the people. Not dictatorship in a democracy disguise!

The King’s residence in Germany is a major target of complaints:

As pointed out by Bangkok-based writer Tyler Roney, Thailand is going in a historical moment of political change:

Support from the ‘Milk Tea Alliance’ and Hong Kong-based activists

To support Thai pro-democracy protesters, Milk Tea Alliance, a Southeast Asia pro-democracy netizen network, has helped raise attention from international communities using hashtags #standwiththailand and #milkteaalliance on different social media platforms.

The Thai demonstrations share similarities with last year’s Hong Kong anti-extradition protests and Hong Kong netizens are vocal in expressing their support for Thai protesters. Prominent activist Joshua Wong posted a Thai protest video made by a Thailand-born Taiwanese:

Exiled Hong Kong activist Nathan Law wrote:

Hong Kong-based freelance journalist Frances Hui wrote:

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Kodao publishes Global Voices reports as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Ang pagkaka-pareho ni Marcos at Duterte

Sa paggunita ng mga aktibistang grupo sa ika-48 na anibersaryo ng Batas Militar, inihambing ni Atty Neri Colmenares ang pagkakapareho ng diktadurya ni Ferdinand Marcos at kasalukuyang gubyerno ni Pangulong Rodrigo Duterte. Biktima ng torture noon si Colmenares at biktima pa rin siya ng pang-uupat ng gubyerno ngayon. (Bidyo ni Jek Alcaraz/Kodao)

Quarantine Curbs Access to Information

By Karol Ilagan/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

IS FREEDOM of information one of the casualties of Covid-19?

Since April, the staff of the Digital News Exchange (DNX), a community-based news site in Bacolod City, has had zero success in getting a response to its requests for information on Covid-19-related procurement and cash aid.

They’re not the only ones. Journalists around the country say both national and local government agencies have either delayed or denied their information requests. Officials, they said, were particularly reluctant to release information that would hold them accountable for their spending.

So far, only one in 10 of the Covid-19 requests filed in the government’s eFOI portal between March 13 and May 27, 2020 has been granted. Most of these requests were for information on Covid-19 spending and financial assistance, according to data from the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), the manager of the eFOI platform where information requests from national government agencies in the executive branch are filed. 

The PCOO has so far received 1,332 requests from journalists and the public for Covid-19-related information. More than half of those requests are still being processed while about a third have been denied supposedly because they were lodged in the wrong agency, the requester did not provide his/her complete details, or the information is already available online. (See Charts 1 and 2.)

Most of the denials were requests for Covid-19 spending or Social Amelioration Program (SAP) data from the Departments of Social Welfare and Development, Labor and Employment, Interior and Local Government, and Budget and Management. The PCOO refused to entertain these requests; instead it advised requestors to ask their local government unit or call a DSWD hotline number. (See Table 1 below.)

Like many journalists around the country, DNX was particularly interested in how funds allocated for Covid-19 relief have been spent. It is working on a project called Money Watch to monitor how money from Bacolod City’s P100-million calamity fund was allocated. 

It’s been eight weeks since the DNX staff sent the city government and its Department of Social Services and Development a request for data on pandemic-related spending. But up to now, they have not heard back.

City officials were not always so stingy with information. In mid-March, as the lockdown started, they responded promptly when DNX reporters asked about Covid-19 preparations. This positive response prompted DNX reporters to forego filing formal information requests for the time being. They also feared that formal requests would be processed only when the quarantine was already over. But in April, when DNX asked for spending details, city officials were no longer as open as before. “Finding sources is as difficult as catching a greased pig let loose,” said Julius Mariveles, DNX’s executive editor. 

Like city officials, barangay officials, who are responsible for releasing cash subsidies, delivering relief goods, and keeping the peace in their communities, were also unwilling to give information. Mariveles says being “out on the field” has become a common excuse for these officials’ inability to provide data.

DNX has so far released just one Money Watch story. It revealed discrepancies in the number of targeted and actual beneficiaries of the city’s Covid-19 financial assistance, as well as the lack of reports from several barangays.

The national government has allocated at least P500 billion to address the impact of the pandemic that has killed nearly a thousand Filipinos and placed millions out of work because of the lockdown. This amount does not include emergency funds that local governments can tap in addition to any revenue and savings that they may also decide to use for Covid-19-related expenses. 

DNX’s small team of four reporters tried their best to report on how Bacolod apportioned public funds for coronavirus projects. But they were at their wit’s end: With limited access to data and sources plus pandemic-related constraints on field reporting, there was only so much they could do.

In Metro Manila, Cebu, and other parts of the country, journalists who shared their experiences with PCIJ encountered varying levels of difficulty, depending on the type of information they were requesting. While information about the national government’s plan and budget to fight the virus are readily available online, getting more detailed information on how the plans are being implemented and the money spent is another story. 

Obtaining details about Covid-19 spending at the local level has been especially difficult. Unlike frontline agencies at the national level, local governments do not proactively publish data on their websites. Moreover, with press briefings now online, officials and their PR staff often screen questions from the media, making it harder for reporters to demand answers. 

Since March, when government offices were wholly or partly closed, most routine requests for information have not been processed. The Philippines is among many governments in the world that had to suspend the processing of freedom-of-information or FOI requests because of the pandemic. 

The PCOO has so far issued four advisories notifying offices in the executive branch of the suspension of FOI processing. The advisories apply only to agencies covered by Executive Order 2, s. 2016, which laid out the Duterte administration’s FOI guidelines. 

On June 1, PCOO lifted the suspension of FOI processing, except in areas under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). But it said agencies with sufficient capacity can go ahead and process FOI requests despite quarantine regulations.

The other branches of government – Congress, the judiciary and local governments – were not covered by the suspension, but their responses to information requests were understandably slowed down because offices have not been in full operation for at least 10 weeks. Although the ECQ in Metro Manila was lifted on June 1, government offices still follow alternative work arrangements, which means shortened hours or suspension of certain services.

These measures have exacerbated delays in the release of information crucial for holding government accountable. For example, for over a year now, PCIJ’s longstanding request for the statements of assets of national government officials has been pending because the Office of the Ombudsman has yet to issue guidelines for releasing such documents. 

To be sure, a number of national agencies, particularly those at the frontlines of Covid-19 response, have published records proactively, without the need for a formal information request. Some departments, despite operating on a skeleton staff, continue to accept and respond to requests by email. 

But things were better last year. From October 2018 to September 2019, the PCOO received 18,036 eFOI requests or an average of 347 requests per week. Nearly half of these requests were granted. During the ongoing quarantine until May 27, an average of 318 requests were lodged in the eFOI portal every week but the success rate was just 17 percent. 

According to Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, public-records requests must be addressed within 15 working days. Executive Order 2, s. 2016 gave executive agencies more time — not longer than 20 business days — to respond to such requests. 
 
With the lockdown, however, government agencies could not meet these deadlines. PCOO Assistant Secretary Kristian R. Ablan says PCOO suspended the required processing time because of the “justifiable concerns” of FOI officers that they may be held liable if they fail to address requests within the prescribed period.
 
FOI officers working from home said they lacked internet connection, office equipment such as laptop computers and scanners and digital copies of files. They also found it difficult to coordinate remotely with record custodians. 

The health and safety of the FOI officers were also factored in. “We didn’t want to put their health at risk during ECQ,” he says.

Jenina Joy Chavez, co-convener of the Right to Know, Right Now!Coalition (R2KRN), acknowledged these difficulties. Speaking at an online forum on May 27, she said suspending FOI operations may be necessary, but she also asked whether the government has done anything to help agencies respond to information requests even during a lockdown.

“Whether or not we’re in quarantine, the importance of the right to information remains the same,” said Chavez. During the quarantine, citizens yielded or entrusted power and resources to government, she said. Transparency measures are needed so the public is able to seek accountability and protection. 

On March 29, R2KRN asked the inter-agency task force and departments implementing the government’s Covid-19 action plan for a copy of the plans and structure of the task force as well as for specific sets of documents and data held by the departments of health, social welfare, agriculture, labor, and budget, and the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System.

The status of this request is being published online and updated weekly by the coalition members, including PCIJ. Most of the information requested has been partially fulfilled, but most of the releases are in PDFs, not in open-data or spreadsheet format that make the numbers easier to analyze.

R2KRN publishes weekly reports on the quality of information being provided by frontline agencies. Its May 5 report said that the health department is perhaps the only government agency that collects, processes, posts, and updates information on a regular basis. 

The coalition also raised questions about the completeness of the data. For instance, the daily Covid-19 case counts do not give a full picture of how the virus is spreading. Moreover, only 1,782 of more than 23,000 registered health facilities have submitted details on health capacity and needs. “With incomplete information, it is not clear how capable the health system really is to deal with the Covid-19 emergency,” R2KRN said.

In its May 12 report, R2KRN noted the sparse data released by the DSWD’s Disaster Response Operations Monitoring and Information Center (DROMIC), where updates on Covid-19 assistance are posted.  

The DROMIC provides data broken down by province and city, but does not say how many families have received assistance. It also does not disaggregate new from cumulative data, which would have been helpful in determining the rate of response by government and private entities.

The attempt to publish the list of SAP beneficiaries was commendable, said R2KRN. 

However, most of the links are down. The list is also partial and only includes areas that have reports from the DSWD’s field offices. Information can be downloaded but only as PDFs. 

Ryan Macasero, Rappler’s Cebu Bureau reporter, says he has been able to obtain Covid-19-related information but the process has become more laborious. Getting answers from officials, who may only be reached through virtual press briefings or call and chat, has taken more time and effort. 

“It makes their lives easier, but our jobs more difficult,” he says.

What seems to work, Macasero says, is when many reporters ask the same question. 

“We back each other up in the agencies’/office’s official media group chats and say we have the same question to try to emphasize that it’s important they answer us regarding these questions, because it’s information the public needs to know.” –With additional research   by Arjay Guarino, PCIJ, June 2020

Press freedom advocates hold black screen broadcast protests over ABS-CBN shutdown

By Sanafe Marcelo

The #BlackScreenBroadcast happened Friday evening, May 8, as press freedom advocates and rights groups held a two-hour black screen broadcast until 10 pm to denounce the National Telecommunications Commission’s (NTC) cease and desist order against ABS-CBN.

Groups such as the University of the Philippines Film Institute, the Altermidya Network and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines took to Facebook to broadcast a black screen symbolizing the sign off the media giant was forced to undergo by the Rodrigo Duterte government.

“As ABS-CBN shuts down, we go live in the dark. Imagine what a world would look like without freedom of expression. A world without stories, without conversations, without the exchange of ideas, without the checking of truth. Imagine not being able to imagine. When the powerful reign. When critics are silent. When the world goes dark. So tonight, we go live in the dark,” the group explained.

The online protest was in solidarity with ABS-CBN, to condemn the shutdown of the network and fight against the attack on press freedom.

Also on Friday night, the group Dakila, together with other press freedom advocates, launched the petition “Channel our Light; Solidarity statement of the Arts, Media and s Community” that garnered 781 signatures as of press time.

“The shutting down of the country’s largest media network, the attacks on the independent press, the orchestrated spread of disinformation, and the killings of journalists all lay down a worrying pattern of repression and conditions for more hardship. In effect, we are deprived of accessible, credible, and accurate information and our right to speak truth to power, both crucial to saving lives,’ Dakila said in the petition

The protest actions has started in January, led by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, when news of plans by the Office of the Solicitor General to contest the network’s continued operations was first published.

The group led different protest actions worldwide that stopped when the corona virus lockdown started.

When ABS-CBN was finally forced to stopped broadcasting on free television and radio, however, the protest actions resumed.

Last Tuesday and Friday, the NUJP also held simultaneous online protests. #