March began interestingly for me this year, with two big meetings back-to-back, in Panglao, a tiny island in the Philippines. The first was with Privacy International, the London-based public service organisation. It has worked tirelessly for over two decades to keep public awareness of personal privacy rights.
Surprisingly, for most people who hardly ever need to think twice about such an obvious attribute of free people, this right is fast vanishing around the world, and most dismayingly, in democratic countries.The second meeting followed hard on the heels of the first, and at the same venue, the Amorita Resort just off Alona beach. This was organised by the Association for Progressive Communications, an NGO that has been at the heart of keeping the Internet open and freely available for people around the world.
Although for most people today, networking implies computers and the Internet, APC was put together before the Internet had much meaning or relevance for social activism, when the Cold War still cast its fading shadow across the world. It enthusiastically adopted the networking capabilities of the Internet when it did become possible, and has fought an uphill battle to ensure that its potential is brought to all people in the world, not just those empowered by economic supremacy.
I have had the luck to be at several conferences and workshops put together by APC across South Asia over the past decade or more, in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. PI, which has been part of APC almost since the beginning, was invited to take part in the Networking and Learning Forum, the invitation being extended to everyone at the PI meeting, although most of our organisations are not formally members of APC.
The PI meeting was primarily a review of the ongoing awareness initiative across Asia. It involves eight countries directly, stretching across the region, from Pakistan in the west to Australia and The Philippines on the edge of the Pacific.
One thing that made this meeting special was the fact that PI officially turned 21 while we were together. We celebrated with a quiet evening of fellowship, together with all the people from APC who had arrived by that time, on the 17th of March. Unfortunately, several of the representatives could not stay back, and we missed them.
Another very nice thing about this meeting was that APC too is celebrating its 20th birthday year, having come together in 1989, and formalised during the following year. APC very quickly took to the Internet once it got started, and established itself within formal international fora as a non-governmental interlocutor. Quite an incredible achievement, but that is not its only milestone. It is also strong with women from every continent, who have steadily and purposefully fought for equality and respect in very male-centric professions and conclaves.
I’m in this picture, together with nearly everyone who attended, wearing a tee shirt with a cartoon by the talented Chris Slane. The APC celebration took place on the concluding night of the Forum, on the 20th, which was fortunate for the remaining Indians and several others from PI, who left the next morning.
Not all, as Shahzad Ahmed, from Bytesforall (the South Asian network originally started over a decade ago by Partha Sarker – Bangladesh, Fred Noronha – India and Zunaira Durrani – Pakistan) stayed on for APC’s internal meetings, and to be elected a Council member of APC. Congratulations, Shahzad!
Being present at both these meetings, was both emotionally and intellectually challenging and fascinating, in equal parts. All across Asia, the kind of intrusiveness and careless adoption of ubiquitous surveillance of the citizenry, that was once portrayed as being part of the paraphernalia of totalitarian autocracies, is now seen as routine, as a matter of course, in country after country that proclaims its adherence to democratic values. Such occasions provide a wide experience of the techniques that occasionally have worked to stem the tide, mostly in European countries, where the emergence of the EU has also seen the widespread adoption of actionable guides to democratic and citizen-centric governance. On the other hand, there are forces within Europe too that seek to return the Asian world to the kind of repressive and regressive environments that once characterised colonialism.
How can the positive examples be replicated in Asia? As the well-known saying goes, the impossible just takes a little longer. The learning and the sharing we got, from the experiences of our fellow researchers into Asian levels of privacy awareness, from the fearless people who have led PI for two decades, and from the APC participants for whom the principles of ‘ahimsa’ and peaceful action are a core belief, are a vital step forward on that rocky road.
One of the participatory exercises (among a set of discussion based learning and experiential exchanges) involved creating posters that tied into a handful of themes. Artistic expertise was not so much the objective as delivering the message. Nagarjuna and I tried to convey a holistic spirit towards learning in our poster, one that invited collaboration. The PI team put up a poster too, but for some reason it was taken down before the judging round, and reappeared mysteriously at the end, at which point it got a special award for creativity and pertinence (a bag of excellent Bohol Free Trade coffee, if you’re interested). I don’t have a picture of it, unfortunately, but hopefully PI will upload it somewhere.
Other than networking, learning from each other’s experiences, and sharing some of the trials and triumphs of the human spirit that have brought us this far, some of us had the chance to very briefly sample some of the island’s beautiful land and sea ‘scapes. The main island, Bohol, to which Panglao is appended (by a couple of narrow causeways, the source of much local pride), is rich with history, being credited with the first peaceful agreement between the people of the islands and the Spanish, which took place only a few decades after Magellan’s global crossing came to a violent end on Cebu, across a small sea (almost an inland sea) from Bohol.
The agreement did not bring lasting peace, largely because the Spanish also brought with them a crusading religion and, as is probably an inbuilt habit of colonisers, an overbearing attitude. Boholanos are credited with what must be one of the world’s longest armed resistance movements led by a single person, lasting almost 85 years. Today the island is mostly peaceful, due to the continuing efforts of local activist groups, including many of the people who helped make the two conferences stunningly successful and enjoyable, although it has had its share of violence in the recent past, part of The Philippines’ emergence from colonisation. Most of the last century found the islands ruled by the USA, following a war with Spain.
Originally a mix of Islam (brought by sea-trading – and colonising – Arabs), and tribal faiths, Bohol is today largely Roman Catholic and Islamic, with a charming flavour of the original tribal customs infusing the celebrations of both major faiths. To casual outsiders, it is almost impossible to guess the faith of an islander, not even from the names, which are mixed between Spanish, Islamic and ethnic. Some of us had a chance to do a little touring, and I must say the ancient churches are fairly oppressive in construction, perhaps because they were built from huge blocks carved from calcified coral.
The colour of the sea around Bohol is incredible, a clear jade green near the shore changing to a deep blue a few meters further out. This part of the island chain is largely made from ossified coral, with a handful of volcanic mounts that delineate the Pacific Rim of Fire.
Simple and very effective outrigger boats, made from lightweight woods and bamboo, make boatrides across the sea remarkably comfortable, if very noisy, due to their unsilenced diesel engines. Dolphins and whales abound, and in the coral reefs, an enormous variety of tropical fish and other sea animals in fantastic colours and shapes. Even for the inexperienced (like me) snorkeling is very simple and inexpensive, while scuba diving is very accessible for the adept with more time.
Bohol is also known for its curious coral formations, the Chocolate Hills. These round grassy mounds, well over a thousand, fill one region of the island, and are truly a remarkable sight. The colours of the hills change from green to brown in the summer, and lend them the name.
Other than seafood, Bohol is known for its raffia, honey, coffee and chocolate, and a variety of fauna and birds that once thronged the rich tropical forests, especially mahogany. Islanders today are making huge efforts to revive the mahogany and other biodiversity, ravished by commercial exploitation for centuries. Almost completely vanished is the tarsier, a nocturnal simian barely the size of a small fist.
All this, and more, we learned in a tour conducted by Panglao’s own Doris Obena, an amazingly knowledgeable and sensitive person. A burgeoning Fair Trade movement makes local chocolate, honey and coffee available through shops that ensure better returns for agriculturists and handicraft artisans. It is not an easy task, as we have seen in India with our own struggling cooperatives, to counter the pernicious effects of absentee ownership on trade and cultivation.