September 18, 2016: The National Organising Committee for AEPF11 commissioned a documentary video, which is available now. Produced by Nara, a journalist at Marshal Creative Studio, it captures the spirit, the themes, the people and the voices of AEPF11 - just have a look:

Documentary video of AEPF11

by  Niels Jongerius and Matthijs Peters (TNI), 28 July 2016

Between 4 and 6 July, over 750 activists, academics, social movements and civil society representatives from all over Asia and Europe gathered in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to share national and international struggles, exchange ideas and build new alliances during the Asia-Europe People’s Forum(AEPF).


The event, organised ahead of the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting for heads of states (ASEM), offered a valuable space for activists from both regions to share experiences and develop proposals for common coordination and actions. For TNI, which was co-initiator of the very first 1996 AEPF in Bangkok and has had a presence at the event ever since, the meetings in Ulaanbaatar provided a valuable opportunity to continue building convergences on shared struggles and connect with likeminded movements.

For 20 years, the AEPF has provided a unique and dynamic platform for dialogue and exchange between European and Asian people’s movements. Its first edition was organised by social movements to create a counter voice to the first ASEM meeting in 1996 in Bangkok and to stress the importance of a people’s voice during such summits. Since then, the AEPF has become a recurring bi-annual event preceding the ASEM meetings, which is organised alternatingly in Asia and Europe. Its network has expanded over the years, with new movements and organisations being mobilized with each meeting. The aims of the AEPF are to strengthen activists’ networks across Europe and Asia, analyse issues of common interest and provide people’s networks with a channel for critical engagement.

This year’s AEPF was kicked off by an opening ceremony in Mongolia’s presidential palace on Genghis Khan Square, the heart of the country’s capital city. Speeches by the Mongolian president, representatives from the national and international organising committees and other activists highlighted the importance of the forum for giving a voice to thousands of people across the two continents. The ceremony included a strong declaration on behalf of Ng Shui Meng, the wife of Sombath Somphone who coordinated the 2012 AEPF in Laos and whose forced disappearance remains a great concern to activists from both Asia and Europe. Somphone’s disappearance exemplified the fierce repression and criminalization that many activists are dealing with in their struggles today. His wife’s declaration therefore signified a symbolic start towards three days of exchanges and network building aimed at strengthening those struggles and countering such repressions in the future.

Over the course of three days, more than 500 Mongolians from all over the country, together with 250 international guests were active in a large number of workshops and meetings. The workshops were organized around seven thematic clusters that encompassed current global struggles such as climate justice; land and resource grabbing cases and peace and security issues. Moreover, space was also provided to discuss more recent developments such as China’s growing influence both in Asia and globally, or the ‘Brexit’ vote and its implications for progressives across the world. These issues led to vigorous, and at times heated discussions between both Asian and European participants. Especially the active participation by Mongolian civil society members and academics, whose engagement and critical approach to national and international policies was inspiring, made for lively debates and interesting exchanges of experiences and further proposals. Many of the discussions during the workshops also showed how Mongolia’s socio-economic and political governance issues related to major concerns in both Asian and European countries.

Since the 1990’s, Mongolia’s economy has been the subject of a widespread liberalization programme aimed at opening up the country’s markets and allowing in foreign investment. Like many other countries, Mongolia’s transition to a market-economy in the past decades has led to increasing wealth inequalities along with increasing corporate influence. Due to the country’s abundant natural resources, foreign direct investment has been focused almost exclusively on the extraction industries, with coal, gold and rare earth minerals much sought after. Minerals represent about 80% of the total value of the country’s exports. In the past years, transnational corporations from mostly Western countries have become a dominant player in the country’s mining sector, thereby extracting the country’s wealth while grabbing land and resources and causing environmental degradation and social conflicts. Mongolian governments have made attempts in the past years to regulate the mining sector. However, a new study from TNI that was launched during the AEPF shows how foreign companies have answered these attempts with investment claims at international arbitration courts.  

Mongolia’s struggles share a familiar pattern in both Asian and European countries, where the increasing neoliberalisation of policies and society has marked a preference of the market over the interests of people and the environment. In this context, the contributions by Mongolian participants gave rise to interesting discussions on how to work together to counteract these developments in both regions and support affected people at local level. The struggle of Mongolian social movements against investment claims and trade and investment deals brought local struggles in convergence with for instance the European battles against TTIP and CETA, and the joint resistance against EU-Asian countries agreements and TPP, the trade and investment agreement between Pacific countries and the United States.

With a special focus on the mining industry, there was an interesting dialogue between mainly Asian countries resisting the extractive industries. These discussions focused on the vulnerability of countries to protect their territories from Transnational Corporations and the struggles of communities to prevent companies from taking their lands and livelihoods or causing environmental damages. Mongolian, Philippine and Kyrgyzstani together with German, Romanian and British activists discussed how to better prevent destructive mining, reject the myth of responsible mining and develop common campaign strategies against mining giants operating in their respective countries, which are the same in most of the cases. Participants also identified the threat of trade and investment agreements to their struggles, through the possibility for TNCs to sue states and undermine peoples’ resistances.

The common challenges to tackle the climate crisis and move towards a sustainable energy model were discussed among organizations from both regions, who exchanged experiences of their local strategies and planned some common proposals to stop false solutions, promote real solutions and demand urgent action from governments.

In order to better understand the struggles and promote exchange with anti-mining activists, but also to reflect upon the activities of small-scale miners in Mongolia, TNI members and other European activists also had the chance to travel to Mongolia’s rural areas in the days following the AEPF, to engage with and learn from both sides. The trip included meetings with artisan and cooperative miners as well as social and environmental activists resisting the damaging operations of transnational mining corporations.

After three days of intense but refreshing discussions, a Final Declaration was presented, which reflected the ideas and outcomes of the forum. Some notable issues drawn up in the statement included a call to ASEM countries to put pressure on the Lao government in order to ensure that Somphone and his family receive the justice they deserve and to put pressure on the military regime in Thailand to return to a democratic and just state respectful of human rights. Another key issue included in the declaration was a strong call upon the ASEM governments to support the campaign for a treaty to stop corporate impunity. The Final Declaration was ultimately presented during the opening ceremony of the ASEM11 on 15 July 2016.

TNI

by Alex Scrivener, Global Justice Now, 13 July 2016

Outer Mongolia has, like Timbuktu, always been one of those places well known (from an anglo-centric perspective) for being very far away from the UK. However, the Asia-Europe People's Forum held in Ulaanbaatar wasn't far enough away for the subject of Brexit not to be an ever-present shadow over discussions.

The Asia-Europe People's Forum (AEPF) is held to coincide with ASEM, the high-level meeting of political leaders from Asia and Europe held once every two years. It brings together civil society from across both continents to, as the official byline of the conference states,  'build new solidarities'.

Usually at these kinds of events, the main aim for people like me coming from the UK is to listen to voices from the global south that are insufficiently well heard in our own country. We try to play a humble role – seeking to coordinate with allies from the global south in ways that will strengthen our collective hand in battles with multinationals or our own governments. The intricacies of UK politics are rarely centrally important or even very relevant to the social movements and civil society organisations that frequent such gatherings. In other words, rightly or wrongly, as Brits we are used to be being givers rather than receivers of solidarity.

But there was a big difference this time. Brexit had thrust the UK uncomfortably into the limelight. It was us who now needed the solidarity and support from our Asian and European allies. People from all over Europe and Asia wanted to discuss what had happened and how this would impact upon the wider movement. A special meeting was held one evening to discuss Brexit at which those of us from the UK were called upon to explain what had happened.

Some of the contributions from Asia were amongst the most interesting. There were questions about the implications of Brexit on regional integration in other parts of the world. What are the implications going to be for bodies like ASEAN, the group of southeast Asian countries seeking integration on a model similar to that of the EU? Could trouble in the EU put a stop to integration in other parts of the world? There were also worries about the rising tide of anti-immigration feeling with anecdotal evidence that, since the referendum was called, Asian people are already being denied visitor visas in much larger numbers. From some of the Europeans, feelings of intense sorrow about Brexit came alongside the feeling that maybe, just maybe, with  one of Europe’s most neoliberal states out of the way, it would now be possible to build a more progressive Europe without us.

But overall the attitude towards those of us from the UK was one of overwhelming solidarity. It felt incredibly good to be part of this extended civil society family at this time. And it left me with the strong feeling that we must ensure that we live up to our side of the bargain. Post-Brexit UK is very likely to fall back on even more exploitative trade relations with countries in Asia than has been the case until now. There is a huge risk of climate change targets being abandoned in the rush to secure growth at all costs. Already corporation tax is being lowered and financial regulation may be further liberalised as the UK positions itself to be a massive tax haven for multinationals and hedge funds. If we fail to fight this, the impact could be disastrous and will be felt hardest by those living in the global south. We have a responsibility to respond to the wave of solidarity from our friends across the world with action to fight the worst effects of Brexit.

Of course, having said all this, there was a lot more to the AEPF than discussions of Brexit. The meeting was a fascinating opportunity to talk to people and organisations I would never otherwise have had to opportunity to have met. It was also a brilliant opportunity to exchange ideas and test new approaches with a diverse and friendly group of people.

For example, at a migration event I was invited to speak at, I set out Global Justice Now’s position that the so called  ‘migrant crisis' in Europe is in fact a crisis of poverty and inequality and that we need free movement for people from the global south. I went in not knowing what to expect. But I needn't have worried.  There was broad agreement about what we needed to call for. I heard Indians talk about their struggle against the rising tide of racism set off by their nationalist BJP government. I heard a Berlin city councillor talk of how he had personally worked to set up accommodation for Syrian refugees. And I heard much criticism of southeast Asian governments' refusal to take in Rohingya refugees from Burma who had been left floating in the Andaman Sea, much like their counterparts in the Mediterranean. This other refugee crisis, almost unreported in the West, is a strong reminder that this is a global struggle, not just a European one. And the fact the meeting was in Mongolia was quite an inspiration, considering its strong nomadic lifestyle that has free movement at its core.

At another event on trade deals and climate change, there was a fascinating discussion on strategies for combating extreme neoliberal deals like TTIP and their impact upon climate change. The most interesting debate centred around what sort of alternatives we should be pushing for. Is it enough for us to simply be resisting deals like TTIP and TPP? Should we start advocating for alternative, progressive multilateral frameworks on trade or does this agenda risk being co-opted by powerful interests?

And there were many contributions from Mongolians about the problems surrounding extractive industries polluting the environment in the country. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of opportunity to venture far beyond the city of Ulaanbaatar, what little I did see did make me understand why extractivism is felt especially painfully by people in this society that prides itself on its relationship with its beautiful environment.

So while any personal hopes I may have harboured on my way to Mongolia of putting Brexit out of my mind were not fulfilled, for me, the AEPF did genuinely live up to its billing as a place to build new solidarities. If we are to get anywhere in this increasingly uncertain world, we are going to need as much of it as we can get.

Link: Global Justice Now

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