EVENT [REPORT]: Policy Forum on Resource Politics and the Public Sphere In Southeast Asia: Deliberation, Accountability and Alternatives [Bangkok, 13 December 2018]

In Southeast Asia, access to resources, ranging from land and water, to clean air and energy, are central to livelihoods and wellbeing. The distribution of access to resources reflect state policies and societal values, as well as the inclusiveness and accountability of decision-making processes that link them together and result in their translation into practice. The public sphere is the arena where state policies and societal values interact and are debated, including on potentially contested issues such as access to resources. It includes public venues, and via the mass media and social media.

Civil, political and media freedoms are necessary for a vibrant public sphere, but they are increasingly challenged in Southeast Asia, and in practice accountability occurs only in part. Opportunities to utilize the public sphere for accountability and exploring alternatives vary across Southeast Asia due to diverse political and legal systems. It is important to reflect on the implications of these trends, and explore established and new opportunities to maintain an active public sphere for deliberating public policies and societal values, ensuring accountable decision-making and debating alternative development visions.

To address the challenge and opportunities of the public sphere in Southeast Asia, on 13 December 2018 the Center for Social Development Studies co-organized a policy forum together with the Foundation for Community Educational Media (FCEM), and Heinrich Boell Stiftung (HBS) Southeast Asia Office. Civil society, academics, journalists, lawyers, and other stakeholders joined the event at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University to discuss the trends, opportunities and challenges of the public sphere for ensuring fair resource politics in Southeast Asia.

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The Deputy Dean for Research Affairs of the Faculty of Political Science, Asst. Prof. Dr. Pandit Chanrojanakit, welcomed the participants by highlighting the importance of these kinds of discussions to explore the alternative ways of maintaining public participation in the continuously shrinking civic space in Southeast Asia. He also highlighted the main questions that the policy forum should address, namely: the role of civil society, government and business; an evaluation of the opportunities and challenges in local, national and transnational laws; and the role of mass media and social media.

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The first session, moderated by Jakkrit Sangkamanee from the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, explored the trends, opportunities, and challenges related to resource politics and the public sphere in Southeast Asia. Naruemon Thabchumpon from the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, reflected on how the public sphere has shaped Thailand’s resource politics. She explained on how democracy has evolved in Thailand with a shrinking public sphere and raised the important question of how civil society movements can respond to these challenges. Asfinawati, the Executive Director of Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), talked about the difficulties organizations in Indonesia are facing due to existing and new laws - such as the blasphemy law and the electronic information and transaction law – that is narrowing the civic space, but she also highlighted the opportunities and strategies of local and traditional communities movements that are occurring across Indonesia.  Benjamin Tay, the President of the People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM Haze), reflected on Singapore’s experience of haze, explaining the impacts of the haze to Singaporean people’s livelihoods and highlighting the importance of community engagement both locally and across borders, as well as raising public awareness through the media. Mong Palatino, the Southeast Asia Regional Director of GlobalVoices, raised the situations of grave concern in the Philippines, particularly for environmental defenders with the targeted killings and surge of violence towards them. He noted how it has also led to a disturbing trend in the region on impunity and silencing the media.

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The second session, moderated by Chantana Banpasirichote from the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, discussed transboundary accountability mechanisms and the public sphere. Eang Vuthy, the Executive Director of Equitable Cambodia, shared lessons learned from civil society in Cambodia on land issues, demonstrating how it is possible to transform community-company land conflicts through dialogue, but it is also necessary to empower communities so that they can participate effectively in the process. Premrudee Daoroung from Project Sevana Southeast Asia/Lao Dam Investment Monitor discussed about hydropower projects in Lao and how existing mechanisms in Laos has supported the expansion of the dam business, whilst not ensuring project developer’s accountability. Carl Middleton from the Center for Social Development Studies, Chulalongkorn University, explored hard-law and soft-law transnational accountability mechanisms and the public sphere in Southeast Asia. He argued that transnational public spheres are created, affirmed and reinforced only through the actions of affected communities, civil society groups, and allied individuals. Commissioner Edmund Bon, Malaysia Representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, discussed about the right to development and how it could facilitate public opinion and create the public sphere.

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The third session, moderated by Chiranuch Premchaiporn from the Foundation for Community Educational Media (FCEM), discussed the role of public spaces, mass media and social media in protecting the local commons and community livelihoods. Tran Vi from the Legal Initiatives for Vietnam presented an overview of the impacts of industrial pollution caused by Formosa, a Taiwanese company, that affected Vietnam in 2016. She explained the history and ongoing efforts of civil society, including how Vietnamese and Taiwanese groups have collaborated to assist people in affected areas. Mokh Sobirin, the Executive Director of Desantara Foundation and from the Kendeng Movement in Indonesia, demonstrated how the momentum of local people’s movements, when supported by the urban middle class, can be a vital element for democratization and ensuring an active public sphere in the case of natural resources management in Indonesia. Tay Zar Myo Win, an independent researcher and previously a MAIDS student at Chulalongkorn University, shared lessons from electricity planning in Dawei City, Myanmar. He  concluded that the public sphere can contribute towards the accountability of the government by allowing civil society and the people to communicate with and hold accountable the government even in hybrid governance regimes that are not fully democratic. Vincy Usun from Baram Kini reflected on the anti-dam protest movement in Baram, Serawak, and how the civil society movement was successful in their efforts to stop the Baram Dam with their people’s movement, blockades, talk sessions in the cities, and dialogues sessions between professionals.

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The last session, moderated by Srijula Yongstar from Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southeast Asia Regional Office explored the alternative spaces for counter discourses. Kyi Phyo from Mekong Energy and Ecology Network (MEENet) and Aung Myint Tun from Green Rights Organization presented the successful example of how communities and civil society had managed energy, water and forest resources in Danu self-administrative area in Southern Shan, Myanmar at the local level. Charoenkwan Chuntarawichit, a youth member from the Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand (SPFT), discussed about access to land and livelihoods in Southern Thailand, comparing the land allocation for Special Economic Zone versus arable land.  Toshi Doi, a Senior Advisor from Mekong Watch, drew lessons from his recent research on Laos’ dominant development narrative that emphasizes on large hydropower dam construction, in contrast to how communities provide alternatives to the dominant narratives through local stories. Lastly, Kirsten Han from New Naratif shared about this new online multi-media platform that aims to provide an alternative media analysis of what is happening regionally in Southeast Asia, and to bring important issues from each country to the attention of regional readers.

For the closing remarks, Mr. Manfred Hornung from Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southeast Asia, emphasized the importance of protecting the multiple public spaces where different approaches to development can be deliberated and tested, whilst not viewing these different approaches as ‘alternatives’ as that could reduce their perceived value but rather seeing them as viable replacements for the current mainstream development. He acknowledge that there is a shrinking space that can limit the freedom of expression, even though the public space at large should be the space for anyone to express their opinion. Naruemon Thabchumpon from the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University ended the forum with a story of how she was inspired by the committed spirit of two women activists who passed away recently, highlighting that in the matter of public sphere, it’s not about waiting for those in authority to grant public space, but how communities and civil society can create these spaces as well. Appreciating that many people had attended the policy forum and actively participated, she shared her optimism that people in Southeast Asia still and will continue to protect spaces to voice their opinions on things that matter to their societies.

The presentations from this public forum can be accessed here. All of the sessions were broadcast on Facebook Live and can also be viewed on the above link.

EVENT: 'Water and the Neighborhood': A Diversity of Ideas Flow Through Media Workshops at Chulalongkorn University

By Robert Irven

This week, the Center for Social Development Studies (CSDS) at Chulalongkorn University, in partnership with The Third Pole, welcomed journalists from Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and India for a three-day media workshop entitled “Water and the Neighborhood.” Discussion centered on the social and ecological issues surrounding the major transboundary rivers of South and Southeast Asia, including the Brahmaputra, Mekong and Salween Rivers. 

Also in attendance was the new class of graduate students from the Faculty of Political Science’s Master of Arts in International Development Studies (MAIDS). They took the opportunity to kick off their studies and discuss development in action. They also had a chance for some initial fieldwork with a visit to Koh Kret Island on the Chaophraya River on the second day of the workshop. 

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Participants and guests from the first day of the media workshop (Photo by Robert Irven, 2017)

The speakers held a vast array of experiences and backgrounds, including from international organizations such as UN Environment. the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), and the Mekong River Commission, academics such as from the Indian Institute of Technology (Guwahati), as well as media organizations such as the Mekong Eye and civil society groups such as International Rivers. They engaged in a variety of presentations and discussions with the goal of sharing knowledge, exploring the context of transboundary river contestation and cooperation, and providing journalism-specific insights to benefit those in the field on the front lines of these often highly contentious, transboundary issues.  

While presentations ranged in scope and topic, common themes and questions helped focus debate that allowed for meaningful interactions in a multicultural gathering and saw academics, civil society organizations and journalists all learning from one another. One commonly discussed theme, for example, was the importance of placing riparian communities central to decision-making, including through engagement with River Basin Organizations (RBO’s). Whether in the form of formal networks, as represented by inter-governmental RBOs, or via informal arrangements, networks are now seen as vital to the regional conservation and sustainable development of these delicate ecologies, where humans and the natural world intersect in a variety of ways. From the Salween River, shared between China, Myanmar and Thailand, to the Brahmaputra/Jamuna River that starts in China and flows through four countries in South Asia, accelerated and often poorly planned large water infrastructure projects are threatening the existing ways of life of tens of millions of people that depend on the life-giving qualities of these waterways, where communities that have built their lives around nature for centuries. RBO’s at their best may act as a focal point for community, government and non-state actors to gather knowledge and a platform to encourage conversation and decision-making from all sides. 

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Field trip to Ko Kret to learn about traditional life and flood adaptation (Photo by Robert Irven, 2017) 

As the Director of the MAIDS Program, Assistant Professor Dr. Naruemon Thabchumpon, reiterated during the kickoff of the event, the fate of the region’s rivers and basins and the communities that depend on them hang in the balance, so it is the type of cooperation and knowledge sharing undertaken at this event that becomes crucial for all nations to succeed in their conservation efforts. Saw John Bright, speaking for the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), pointed out that given the variety of challenges faced throughout the region, it will take equally innovative solutions and management to fix many of the long-term problems that are faced, including community based natural resource management and in the case of the Salween River, he proposed support for the establishment of a “Salween Peace Park.” 

Without the discovery and documenting of new and lesser-known stories by the media and academics alike, inclusive and fair decision-making around transboundary rivers is highly unlikely. With the tools and knowledge gained over the past week, journalists and experts alike left not only better prepared to continue their work on these issues, but more energized and galvanized for the challenges ahead.