Delegates from the core group of LEN-SEA convened in Manila, Philippines
The Legal Empowerment Network - Southeast Asia (LEN-SEA) convened in the Philippines to discuss legal empowerment strategies and approaches, propose solutions to the shrinking civic space, and identify the network’s activities for the next three to five years.
Entitled, “Building Resilience for Legal Empowerment: Strengthening Grassroots Justice Defenders in SEA,” the four-day regional convening aims to strengthen the community, members’ engagement and internal structure of the regional legal empowerment network.
Attorney Marlon Manuel, Namati’s Senior Advisor, led an activity where the delegates shared the current legal empowerment challenges they are facing. Some of the key issues include language barriers, lack of support from the government, lack of funding and resources, and the shrinking civic space.
“It’s the government who freely allows injustices to happen. Instead of government regulators as primary workers in the development of communities, some become tools for abuse. They choose to turn a blind eye,” attorney Raffy Pajares of Environmental Legal Assistance Center, Inc. (Philippines) said.
The shrinking civic space is a cross-cutting issue faced by Southeast Asian nations. Forum Asia’s Laura Law virtually shared their input on the regional situation of the shrinking civic space. She said it continued to worsen because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There was a limit for gathering. They [governments] implemented many states of emergencies and implemented decrees and orders without considering the already existing laws at the domestic level.” Law said.
In Cambodia, non-government organizations and civil society organizations (CSOs) can be charged with terrorism and their activities are being monitored online by the government. In Myanmar, the CSOs were targets of threats and harassment and pandemic was used to introduce new repressive laws.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, protests are suppressed, and community-based organizations are surveilled. The government supports the arrest and detention of refugees and undocumented people.
In Thailand, the law is being used against the people. The COVID-19 emergency law is being used to arrest activists and charge protesters with SLAPP suits. While defamation lawsuits are used to control CSOs. In Laos, no one dares speak about human rights issues because the government does not implement the treaties it has signed and everyone is heavily surveilled.
In the Philippines, the recently signed Anti-Terrorism Law sends a chilling effect to journalists and the youth. Critical voices experience red-tagging or are charged with trumped up cases. Lastly, disinformation plagues social media – a modern weapon used by the ruling class.
Law recommended building solidarity and movement within each country to fight against the shrinking civic space.
“This kind of solidarity and collaboration cross-border is important in countering the shrinking civic space. We are organizing capacity building for the youth to understand the human rights situation. Providing training to local journalists and lawyers in the tactics on the shrinking civil space will be really good,” Law said.
Despite these challenges in the legal empowerment practice, there are also best practices. Sor.Rattanamanee Polkla of Community Resource Centre (Thailand) said one of the best practices in legal empowerment is to work on advocacy and campaign.
Sor.Rattanamanee Polkla of Community Resource Centre (Thailand): “You can do a very small thing, but it can also affect a big thing.”
Attorney Ray Paolo Santiago of the Ateneo Human Rights Center (Philippines) discussed the roles of the ASEAN bodies and the opportunities for engagement.
“If you are persistent, you can push your agenda little by little. You really have to develop relationships. It's really about how to create those openings [for collaboration and engagement], Santiago said.
As part of the education advocacy of LEN-SEA, the delegates broke down into three groups and went to the grassroots communities of various sectors: labor, women, and LGBTQIA+.
Rainbow Rights Philippines Executive Director Attorney Jazz Tamayo discussed how their organization works with the LGBTQIA+ sector and communities.
During these visits, the participants learned new legal empowerment approaches and paralegal formation strategies. They also shared and compared the situation of these marginalized sectors in their respective countries.
After the community visits, the delegates identified the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges of the network. Here are some:
Capacity-building and empowerment of communities
Regional and global network building
Resource mobilization and building
Weak monitoring and evaluation, research
Institutional memory fragility
Digitalization (cross-border movement building online)
Engaging with ASEAN bodies
Emergence of authoritarian regimes in SEA
Shrinking civic space
Dwindling funds and limited funding for legal empowerment work
The Building Resilience for Legal Empowerment: Strengthening Grassroots Justice Defenders in SEA culminated with the strategic planning of activities of the LEN-SEA for the next three to five years.
The strategic plan focused on learning, collective action, community building, and fundraising activities for the network. This includes improvement of digital communications, strengthening the members through capacity building, and popularizing legal empowerment work, among others.
The regional convening was attended by delegates from Cambodia, Canada, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand.
Alternative Law Groups (ALG) is the regional anchor of LEN-SEA.