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The Asia-Pacific Solidarity Conference

The Asia-Pacific Solidarity Conference

By Max Lane and John Percy

Introduction

The immensely successful Asia Pacific Solidarity Conference, held in Sydney on April 10–13, was an historic event for the left, both for Australia and the region.

More than 750 people participated. In addition to Australian activists, there were 67 representatives from Asian, Pacific, European, Latin American and United States left parties and other organisations.

The conference was characterised by an electric atmosphere of solidarity and struggle, with both in-depth discussions in workshops and plenary sessions and also packed-out evening cultural and solidarity events.

It was organised under the auspices of the Asia Pacific Institute for Democratisation and Development (api) and hosted by the Democratic Socialist Party (dsp) of Australia.

One highlight was the showing of David Bradbury’s new film Jabiluka to a packed hall of more than 800 people, followed by a panel of Aboriginal women speakers, all of whom are at the forefront of different struggles.

Val Power from the Kumarangk Coalition, which is fighting the construction of the Hindmarsh Island bridge in South Australia, Wadjulabinna from the Capricornia Lands Council and Jenny Munro from the Metropolitan Lands Council in Sydney together created a powerful atmosphere of solidarity with Aborigines’ struggle for native title. This was followed by another appeal for solidarity by a representative of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. A representative of the Torres Strait Islanders also read protest poems to the conference.

International participants

International participants came from the Japanese Communist Party (jcp); the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (kctu); the sanlakas national democratic federation, the Union for Socialist Ideas and Action (bisigBukluran para sa Ikauunlad ng Sosyalistang Isip at Gawa), the Women’s Health Organisation, the socialist youth organisation Kamalayan, akbayan! citizens’ action party and Initiatives for International Dialogue (all from the Philippines); the Thai Assembly for the Poor; the Malaysian People’s Party (prm—Partai Rakyat Malaysi); the Singapore Workers Party; the Singapore Democratic Party; the Indonesian People’s Democratic Party (prd—Partai Rakyat Demokratik); the Free Aceh Movement; fretilin (Frente Revolucionara do Timor Leste Independente) from East Timor; the All-Burma Students Democratic Front; the All-Burma Students Democratic Organisation; Karen and Mon representatives; the Cambodian Documentation Centre; the Cambodian Women’s Development Agency; the Labour Party of Pakistan (lpp); the New Socialist Party of Sri Lanka (nssp—Nama Sama Samaja Party); the Communist Party of India–Marxist Leninist (cpi–ml) (Liberation); the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist–Leninist) (cpn–uml); Melanesian Solidarity from Papua New Guinea; the Bougainville Interim Government; the New Zealand Alliance and NewLabour Party; Maori representatives from the New Zealand non-government organisation Corso; the Polynesian Liberation Front (flp Front de Libération Polynesienne ) from Tahiti; and the Free West Papua Movement (opm—Organisasi Papua Merdeka).

The conference also received a special video message of solidarity from José Ramos Horta, East Timorese Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The New Zealand East Timor Independence Committee also sent solidarity greetings.

From outside the Asia–Pacific region there were representatives from the Party of Democratic Socialism (pdsPartei des Demokratischen Sozialismus)of Germany; the Revolutionary Communist League (lcrLigue Communiste Révolutionnaire) of France; the United Left (iuIzquierda Unida) in Spain; the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ödp—Özgürlük ve Dayanisma Partisi) in Turkey; Solidarity (a us socialist organisation); Indonesia Alert! (a us-based support magazine for the Indonesian democratic movement); the British Socialist Party, an Austrian socialist group, and the Norwegian Indonesian and East Timor Committee.

A representative of an organisation of Indonesians in the Netherlands, the Coordinating Movement in Support of the Peoples Resistance, also attended. The conference also received a solidarity message from the Socialist Party of the Netherlands.

A conference highlight was the speech by Dorotea Wilson, a member of the National Directorate of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (fsln—Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) of Nicaragua. Academic researchers and commentators from Malaysia and Sri Lanka and journalists from Japan also attended the conference.

Organisations in struggle

In such an ideologically diverse gathering, what accounted for the wonderful atmosphere of solidarity and unity? What made it so natural for several hundred people to stand and sing the "Internationale" in the final plenary?

First, whatever the different political outlooks and methods of struggle of the groups, they were all organisations at the forefront of the struggle to mobilise people in resistance against foreign occupation, rule, savage neo-liberal offensives or attacks on their land rights.

The bulk of the international representatives were from political movements or parties at the forefront of struggles against state power in their countries. The political outlook and methods of struggle of the parties represented were very diverse. Among the community, socialist and democratic parties and movements, some organisations acted as a revolutionary opposition, while others were focused on immediate or medium-term reforms, although usually these were radical reforms. Some were focused on parliamentary struggle, others on mass struggle. Some emphasised educating Marxist cadre, others building activism. Some, like those from French Polynesia, East Timor, West Papua and Bougainville, were mostly concerned with ending colonial domination.

But there were no "armchair revolutionaries" posturing from the safety of irrelevance. The wide range of international guests were serious political people. The same applied to the Australian participants. Large numbers of activists from the dsp, Resistance, Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (asiet), Burma solidarity groups, anti-mining activists, international women’s day activists and others helped shape the character of this meeting.

The dsp had mobilised its cadre to organise the conference. Several dsp leaders spoke in plenary sessions, including national secretary John Percy as well as Peter Boyle, Pip Hinman, Lisa Macdonald and Max Lane. Other dsp, Resistance or asiet activists from around the country led campaign workshops to brainstorm how to build more effective international solidarity campaigns.

Well timed

The conference was certainly well timed. The economic crisis that has exploded throughout the East and South–East Asian region since July last year made the conference even more relevant.

The economic and political problems confronting the vast majority of the workers, peasants and urban poor of the region were exacerbated. The hype of the Asian miracle was shattered; the false hope of a capitalist, "free market" road out of poverty for the people of the Third World was exposed; the membership list of the club of rich men’s First World nations was shown to be closed.

The Asian economic crisis provided the very dramatic framework in the lead-up to the conference. The economic meltdown in Indonesia set the scene for the social and political crisis that escalated afterwards.

Many of the conference sessions directly addressed this escalation of the crisis, and discussed ways to build and coordinate the popular fightback. There were intense discussions among the international and local participants on a wide range of issues, including the nature of the economic crisis in Asia, the appropriate responses from popular movements, the developing negative role of many ngos, struggles against the military dictatorships of Indonesia and Burma, self-determination struggles in East Timor, Tahiti, Kanaky, Burma, Aceh, West Papua and Bougainville and the role of the women’s movement in the struggles of the region.

Solidarity with the PRD

The escalating political crackdown in Indonesia made the conference still more timely and urgent. Solidarity with the prd in Indonesia and the East Timorese resistance was a special feature of the conference.

A major contribution to the atmosphere of struggle and solidarity was the presence of leaders of the prd, fretilin, opm and the Free Aceh Movement. Several workshops and panels discussed the situation in Indonesia and East Timor and worked out plans for campaigns in Australia and internationally.

The impact of the prd was evident. In her speech, veteran Sandinista leader, Dorotea Wilson, explained that her new knowledge of the struggles of the prd, of fighters like Dita Sari and Budiman Sujatmiko, reminded her of the spirit which pervaded the fsln during its revolutionary struggle against Nicaragua’s Somoza dictatorship.

The conference was the venue for launching the Indonesian People’s Power Fighting fund. The fund is organised by asiet to provide financial assistance to the Indonesian democratic underground, mainly the prd. Within the first 24 hours, $1500 was raised from conference participants. Also launched was the first issue of Free Indonesia, the new magazine of the prd’s international office.

The conference was also privileged to hear Dr Mari Alkatiri, vice-chief of fretilin’s external delegation, speaking alongside Sutarji and Edwin Gozal from the prd about the struggle to overthrow Suharto and free East Timor.

It was unfortunate that Mugianto, another leader of the prd, was unable to attend. The conference heard that Mugianto was captured by the military on March 13 in Jakarta, along with two other prd activists. The three were tortured for three days before being handed over to the police for "legal processing". During one evening of political solidarity, a 15-minute interview with Mugianto, filmed some time before his arrest, was screened. In it he explained the history of his involvement in the political struggle in Indonesia, the goals of freedom and emancipation that inspire the prd and the risks faced by activists.

South Asian collaboration

There was an unprecedented exchange of information between organisations and individuals. Many major political organisations met for the first time or engaged in their first in-depth exchanges. Some were parties in neighbouring countries. For example, the conference brought together parties on the Indian sub-continent for the first time. The level of communication between left parties in the region increased by a huge factor. The conference also helped with the linking up of Pacific struggles.

At the end of the conference the plp, cpi–ml (Liberation) and the nssp announced their intention of holding a conference of left parties in south Asia in Lahore. They plan to invite all serious left parties, including the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), as well as parties from Nepal, Bangladesh and Kashmir. No such gathering has ever taken place before, and the idea was directly facilitated by the Asia Pacific Solidarity Conference.

Unfortunately, the subsequent Indian and Pakistan nuclear tests are making it more difficult for the comrades to pursue the contacts they’ve begun, and these might jeopardise the Lahore conference itself, apart from the horrible danger to peace and the setback to the development of independent working class consciousness that they are likely to create. Nevertheless the comrades still hope to proceed—Indian–Pakistani left contact and collaboration is now all the more vital.

The Pakistani, Indian and Sri Lankan parties need help with funding for the conference, and any Links readers with contacts, resources or ideas for funding should contact the lpp at <edu@found.edunet.sdnpk.undp.org>.

The Philippines

There was also much interest in the plenary on the left in the Philippines. The largest party in the Philippines, the Communist Party of the Philippines (cpp), has been undergoing a process of fracturing and regroupment which is impacting on the whole of the Philippines left. Representatives from several sections of the Filipino left presented analyses of the challenges they face. So strong was the interest that an additional workshop was added to allow further discussion.

The major groups represented were sanlakas, bisig and Kamalayan. sanlakas includes independent radical democrats, as well as leaders and activists from the cpp tradition, but primarily those rejecting the bureaucratic and guerillaist aspects of the cpp. Both sanlakas and Kamalayan are now recruiting activists who radicalised in the post-cpp era. bisig developed independently of the cpp and was often critical of the cpp’s bureaucratic and guerillaist aspects, while cooperating with it in a range of campaigns. bisig has managed to group together leaders and activists from Leninist, Christian-socialist and left social-democratic tendencies. It has also provided the major force for the new left electoral party, akbayan! Ana Maria Nemenzo, vice-chairperson of akbayan! and head of WomenHealth, also spoke at the plenary. The international launch of the new Filipino left newspaper, Progresibo, also took place during the conference.

The conference assisted the solidarity work of other groups in the rest of the Asia–Pacific region. All solidarity groups participating received a boost.

Workers solidarity

Struggle, solidarity and socialism were also key themes—solidarity in Australia and overseas especially. During the conference important practical steps were taken in extending international solidarity to the Australian waterside workers (wharfies) under attack from the Australian conservative Coalition government, the National Farmers Federation and the cargo handling company Patrick Stevedores.

One highlight was an enthusiastic rally in solidarity with the wharfies at the nearby picket line at Sydney’s Darling Harbour docks. On the last day, more than half the conference mobilised for a 7.00 a.m. solidarity rally with the Darling Harbour waterside workers.

A representative of the prd read a statement of support for the Maritime Union of Australia (mua) and the conference passed a strong motion condemning the Howard government for its anti-worker attacks. More than $1000 was collected and presented to the mua picketers when conference participants rallied at Darling Harbour.

Speakers from the dsp, sanlakas, the prd, fsln, the lpp, the New Zealand Alliance and us Solidarity addressed the rally. Jake Haub, secretary of the Darling Harbour mua rank-and-file committee, responded warmly to the solidarity speeches.

During the conference, a meeting between several Asian and Pacific leaders, industrial organisers from the dsp and Jim Donovan, secretary of the nsw branch of the mua, confirmed that there would be solidarity actions around the region. The first of these actions took place on April 13 in Manila, in the form of a picket outside the Australian embassy. Other actions took place in Pakistan and India.

Resolutions

On the final day the conference enthusiastically adopted resolutions on Asia–Pacific regional coordination, East Timor, Indonesia, Sri Lanka–Tamil Eelam, Burma and a statement by the Pacific delegates.

The conference also adopted a resolution endorsing actions to counter the apec summit in Auckland in September 1999, urging that the actions be broad, militant and activist-oriented. (The resolutions and other reports of the conference were published in an eight-page supplement to Green Left Weekly number 316, May 6, 1998, a valuable record of the achievements and outcomes. They are also available on the api web site at <www.peg.apc.org/~apiaustralia>.)

Feedback

The feedback from parties attending the conference was overwhelmingly positive. Some comments:

  • "The conference demonstrated new thinking; there’s a dearth of discussion anywhere else; it illustrated the diversity of the international movement, plus the energy and organisation shown by the dsp."
  • "The best event we’ve been to; very useful."
  • "It makes me feel nostalgic. It’s something we should have done."
  • "One of the best such meetings I’ve attended…must learn how you motivate your young people."
  • "Quite wonderful, inspiring, and it helped us learn a lot."

Singing the "Internationale"—twice!—at such a conference certainly gave it real meaning, with that attendance and focus. The final photos of the international guests up on stage will be historical treasures.

Origins

The idea for such a conference was first put to the dsp’s January 1997 conference, and enthusiastically endorsed by delegates. In early 1997 the api was established and agreed that one of its initial projects would be to initiate and organise the conference for Easter 1998.

The first drafts of the call for the conference outlined some possible aims:

  1. Analyse and discuss the meaning of "globalisation" and the role of multinational corporations in the region, to highlight the social and environmental impact of their exploitative control and the neo-liberal austerity policies imposed on the region, and to expose the connections and responsibilities of First World governments and their international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organisation).
  2. Discuss ways to challenge this domination and devastation, and exchange experiences of struggles.
  3. Promote collaboration between the people’s organisations in the region that are resisting this domination and fighting for democracy and workers’ rights.
  4. Further the solidarity campaigns within Australia with struggles in the region, exposing and opposing the role of the Australian ruling class and its governments.

Asia Pacific Institute

After the conference, a meeting formalised the composition of the api. The group’s council began with a membership of representatives from the prm, sanlakas and bisig, the prd, the dsp, the New Zealand Alliance and the nssp.

It will now expand to include a representative of the lpp and the Indian Institute of Marxist Studies (which is under the umbrella of the cpi–ml) and Professor Suthy Prasartset, a radical political economist from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand.

The council decided that its first tasks were to further expand the api’s membership, to build the communications infrastructure to allow a better exchange of information between all progressive parties and movements in the region and to prepare for a gathering of party and movement representatives for more in-depth working discussions.

We have successfully established our "activists’ think tank", the api, and it succeeded magnificently with its first project. We now have some clear ongoing projects and perspectives for its next stage:

API perspectives

A regional communications and links program

api and conference web pages have been set up, with reports on the conference, details of those attending, conference photographs, and many of the talks to the plenary sessions and workshops at <www.peg.apc.org/~apiaustralia>. Eventually each country, each party, will have a section on the web site. We’ll assist those parties who haven’t got web pages yet, and link them all together.

Labour solidarity

There are better possibilities for regional labour solidarity after the upheavals from the Asian economic crisis, and developments in Australia—like the mua struggle, the victory in the Victorian branch of the Amalgamated Manufacturing Workers Union of the militant Workers First team, and the ready trade union response to the asiet petition on Democracy in Indonesia.

The Asia Pacific Women’s Solidarity Network

A well-attended initial meeting at the conference established this network. It will help coordinate women’s struggles in the region, and also extend the links between women activists in left parties. It can also assist the struggle for women’s rights in Australia.

Information dissemination and publications

api hopes to establish its own publishing programme and set up mechanisms for distribution of literature from api affiliates. An initial proposal was a book of some of the conference papers. api will seek grants for other publishing projects and will produce a comprehensive api brochure.

Documentary filmmaking

There are a wealth of topics and struggles that need to be put onto film or video. Many comrades have access to the skills and equipment and there’s a growing network for distribution in Australia and the region. Through api we can search for funding for this also.

Future conferences

By the end of the four days there seemed a consensus that further conferences like this should be organised in the region. Large gatherings would further develop solidarity and political confidence, allow continuation of vital discussions, strengthen the new ties between parties, and build the host organisations. Such conferences would also facilitate smaller organising meetings, for the api and Links, as was managed at this conference.

What are the possibilities? The conference needs to be in a country where the host party or parties have a strong enough base, and where the government repression is not too severe.

If more democratic space is won in Indonesia, an international conference there could be an exciting prospect that could help the prd consolidate. The Philippines is another possibility—a conference could help the divided left move closer. The Auckland anti-apec conference and rally for September 1999 will certainly be an important gathering place also.

Outstanding success

The Asia Pacific Solidarity Conference was more successful than any of us could have hoped for. It was the broadest international gathering on the left in Australia for many years, and added to the weight and prestige of its organisers, the dsp.

It was an intensive educational experience for all who attended, for Australian solidarity activists and anyone keen to learn about the real struggles of the people of the region. A good gauge was the wide attendance at the workshops presenting an analysis of capitalism and imperialism. There was an unprecedented exchange of views and information and excellent discussion in the plenary talks, workshops and informally.

It was important for regional solidarity. We should now be able to organise faster responses to acts of repression and more extensively coordinated solidarity actions.

It was important for renewal of the international socialist movement. Just bringing together such a diverse and broad range of activists, movements and parties guaranteed a useful discussion and improved contact and collaboration. We can cooperate to build a stronger left and progressive movement in all countries.

It provided an invaluable exchange of experiences between activists from different countries, establishing or strengthening communication and collaboration between them. The conference represented the first step in building a network of progressive organisations throughout the region.

The conference helped the consolidation and expansion of Links. A Links meeting after the conference extended the editorial board, and discussed future content, directions and possibilities for increasing circulation.

The potential for ideological regroupment loomed a lot larger at the conference than had been anticipated. Solidarity with each other’s struggles was the initial unifying aspect, but many of the international delegations saw the party-to-party relations that developed and were strengthened through the four days as the conference’s most important achievement.

What next?

The forces of exploitation and repression are well-organised, well-financed, and well-armed. We confront the state forces of the dictatorships in the region, plus the vast military and economic might of imperialism equipped with their international organisations—the World Bank, the imf, the World Trade Organisation and apec—and their think tanks and research foundations. They have their weapons of "aid" and control of the mass media.

At the moment the popular forces are pitifully weak. We have no armies or fleets or air forces, and very few economic resources. Potentially we are strong—the workers, the peasants and the poor are a big majority in each country. But our main potential weapon—organisation—we do not use well, neither in our local and national struggles, nor on a regional or global scale. Our opponents are vastly better organised.

But through conferences like this we can start to bridge the gap. It was an important step towards closer cooperation of the popular forces. Better exchange of experiences, ideas and analysis can lead to closer collaboration on projects of resistance and solidarity, and from there to active solidarity for each other’s struggles to win human rights, democracy and real popular power in each country, and the freedom from the stranglehold of imperialist rule.

Without it, the lot of the vast majority of people in the region will be continuing impoverishment and exploitation, ongoing environmental degradation and disaster and continuing repression, when the potential exists, with the existing abundant human and natural resources, to provide a life of comfort, happiness and freedom for all. 

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