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

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