Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR) and civil society organisations of South-East Asia gathered together at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta, Indonesia from 1-3 September 2023 for the annual ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum, with the theme of ‘Reclaiming safe space, restoring democracy in South-East Asia”. AJAR also participated as a member of the Regional Program Committee, representing the country-based National Organising Committee from Indonesia – alongside partners, organised workshops, art exhibitions, and movie screenings.
Over the three intensive days, the participants raised their collective voices through a total of four plenary sessions, 29 workshops through six convergence spaces: Peace and Human Security, Alternative Regionalism, Human Rights and Safe Space for Marginalized Groups, Climate and Environmental Justice, Integrated Approaches to Socio-economic Justice, as well as Democracy and Anti-authoritarianism, and 25 side-events to highlight acts of impunity and pressing concerns affecting the ASEAN Member States, Timor-Leste, and the region as a whole, especially in relation to political violence, identified as one of the leading human rights issues in ASEAN.
Such impunity, underscored by the lack of respect for human rights, can be eradicated when, as mentioned during a plenary session, “Peoples [should be the ones who] move the minds of their Leaders”.
Solidarity for Human Rights and Shared Understanding among the People in South-East Asia
AJAR delved more into the issue of democracy and anti-authoritarianism through the event’s convergence space, by holding two workshops: the first one, titled “State Violation: Revealing the Truth, Promoting Justice, and Fulfilling Reparation for Victims in Asia” where we learned innovative efforts from civil society across the region. Speaking in the sessions are Gus Miclat from Initiatives of International Dialogue (the Philippines), Gaudencio Souza from Centro Nacional Chega! (Timor-Leste), Pornpern Khongkachonkiet from Cross-Cultural Foundation (Thailand), and Indria Fernida from Asia Justice and Rights (presenting our work in Indonesia and the region).
The workshop addressed the significant challenges and continuing agenda in implementing transitional justice in South-East Asia. Cases of human rights abuses and impunity in countries like Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia continue to happen, yet the effort to advance justice and accountability in the region remains complex and nuanced. Speaking to a full audience of 60 people, each of the speakers offered glimmers of hope, as many survivor communities, however spread out, are still resilient in advocating for their causes, and in many instances, supported by the active participation of the youth who gained understanding of the issues. Interesting initiatives, for example, also arose in Timor-Leste, where youth are visibly vocal in organising activities aimed at acknowledging past atrocities and supporting survivors.
AJAR also participated in the discourse of another Convergence Space, “Peace and Human Security”, by holding a second workshop titled “The Urgency for Revealing Truth and Providing Justice for Victims and Family of the Disappeared” to over 70 participants, featuring our Executive Director, Galuh Wandita, Dimas Bagus Arya from KontraS (Indonesia), and Feliciano da Costa Araujo from Asosiasaun HAK (Timor-Leste). The speakers explained that during the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste from 1975 to 1999, there were reports of widespread human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings. Many people went missing during this period, and their families were left without information about their whereabouts or fates.
AJAR, together with KontraS, Asosiasaun HAK, supported Centro Nacional Chega! and the National Commission on Human Rights in Indonesia have been initiating the civil society-led search for the ‘stolen children’, and succeeded in locating 171 of them across Indonesia, and reuniting them with their families in Timor-Leste for over ten years. A duty that should have been done by the government of both countries as stated in the recommendations of the two truth commissions, Galuh Wandita reminded, especially as apparent in the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR)’s chapter on the Violations on the Rights of the Child. The subsequent Commission of Truth and Friendship also stated the unfulfilled duty to identify the whereabouts of all Timor-Leste children who were separated from their parents and to notify their families.
Raising Awareness for the People of Burma
The situation in Myanmar is one of the highest regional concerns as many civil society organisations continue actively to foster cooperation to prevent grave human rights violations in the country. AJAR organised an art exhibition and movie screening as ACSC/APF side-event to amplify the voices of the people there. Joining forces with Doh Hlay, an artist collective dedicated to raising awareness about the challenges faced by the people of Myanmar, together we hold an exhibition depicting the political and social struggles endured by the people of Myanmar, shedding light on the personal and psychological toll inflicted by the military junta. Aptly titled Voices of Resilience: Reflection from Burma, the exhibition is to pay homage to the many people in the country unable to access their rights. Doh Hlay stated that they want to give a space for voices to speak their truths. Their stories may be difficult to hear but sharing them is part of the process of collective healing. Listening to their voices can only guide us, and our pursuit for justice, and the desire to build a more inclusive future.
Three movies were also screened on the last two days of the forum. Supported by Doh Hlay as well, we were proud to screen a variety of films about life in Burma before, and after the coup happened – “No Fear from Mistake” directed by Aung Thu, “No Laughing Matter” by Pe Maung Same, and “My Leg” by Khong Soe Moe Aung. Inviting the Burmese filmmaker through a web conference, the discussion was made livelier with the presence of artist Ma Hnin, Valentim da Costa Pinto from FONGTIL of Timor-Leste, and Luthfan Nur Rochman from Forum Lenteng of Indonesia.
The abovementioned pressing issues, albeit short in presentation, have been collectively voiced out by a broad spectrum of people-oriented groups and civil society across the ASEAN region and beyond that gathered in Jakarta. AJAR echoed the collective call, that urges ASEAN, as well as their member states, to recognise their key role in addressing these issues in cooperation with civil society through meaningful dialogues across the three pillars – ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). The ASEAN Civil Society Conference-ASEAN Peoples Forum have great expectations for ASEAN to fully practice and live up to its aspiration of a people-centred ASEAN and sincerely hope that all ASEAN Member States and Timor-Leste can fully recognise the issues and implement the recommendations.