Where is Asia in the world?


The 'Umbrella Revolution' December 2014, Hong Kong. Pasu Au Yeung under a Creative Commons Licence

Iris Gonzales reports on a conference seeking to create a fairer economy for a region notorious for cheap labour and exploitation by the West.

Where is Asia in the world? Is this region still the source of cheap labour, the dumping ground for the capitalist West’s excesses and a favourite place to exploit?

In a forum last month titled ‘Whose New Asia?’, an international conference on People’s Struggles and Alternatives which took place in the Philippines, the non-government policy group Focus on the Global South looked at years of struggle as it sought new ways to achieve an alternative economy.

The group decided to organize the forum because it recognized that Asia is experiencing persisting inequalities, and social, economic and political injustices. There’s also the issue of environmental destruction amidst remarkable economic growth.

‘Leaving Europe behind as a hub of dollar-billionaires, this New Asia is a region of tremendous wealth and has seen the rise of megacities, special economic zones for manufacturing and hi-tech industries, as well as increased investments from transnational corporations. However, deep pockets of poverty and widespread inequality within and between its rural and urban areas have also increased and intensified, with the economic boom largely having built on intense exploitation of its human and natural resources by states and corporations,’ Focus said in a brief on the conference.

‘Our special contribution to this enterprise of exploring alternative ways of organizing the economy and society was the paradigm of de-globalization, which brought together 14 principles around which an alternative economy could be constructed,’ said Walden Bello, founding director of Focus, during his opening remarks.

Citing the great thinker Karl Polanyi, Bello said de-globalization calls for the re-embedding of market relations in society, meaning that social relations must reflect the subordination of market efficiency to the higher values of community, solidarity and equality.

‘The market’s role in exchange and the allocation of resources is important, but this must not only be balanced but subordinated to the maintenance and enhancement of social solidarity. Acting to balance and guide the market must not only be the [responsibility of the] state but also civil society, and in place of the invisible hand as the agent of the common good must come the visible hand of democratic choice,’ he said. ‘In place of the economics of narrow efficiency, we propose what we might call “effective economics”.’

Thus, he said, there is a need to continue fighting against global corporate rule and for a sustainable economic and ecological path.

As Focus enters its third decade, under the leadership of Shalmali Guttal, its over-riding agenda is to understand and act on the trends, developments and crises that have plagued today’s Asia, said Bello, who is Professor Emeritus of Sociology.

‘A key concern is the way that commodification of the commons, privatization and deregulation have combined to create tremendous inequalities throughout the region. These inequalities have created tremendous stresses and conflicts, including the mass migration of workers, but they have also created the basis for possible new alliances across social groups and across borders that can be mobilized by a vision for a New Asia. Focus wants to be part of the process of analysing these processes, coming up with a vision or paradigm for a New Asia, and organizing to realize this vision,’ he said.

The forum, attended by NGO workers from different parts of the world, highlighted the need to protest and organize against abuse of power.

Seema Mustafa, a Delhi-based journalist, said during one of the sessions that burning issues of ‘inequality, human rights, democracy and social movements’ remain. Premrudee Daoroung, director of the regional NGO Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (Terra) said people’s rights to land also remains a problem in the region.

Similarly, Henry Saragih said destruction of forests is heavy in Thailand, Malaysia and in Southeast Asia,

‘The people are protesting dams,’ said Saragih, chair of the Indonesian Peasant Union and the General Co-ordinator of La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement.

Amit Sengupta of the non-governmental People’s Health Movement noted that South Asia continues to experience large-scale displacements of people. ‘Thus, there is a need to unite on all issues such as environment and climate issues,’ Sengupta said. The bottom line, participants said during the forum, is ‘we need to work together to make a better Asia’.

‘We won’t have any time left if we work separately,’ explained Daoroung.

Focus on the Global South hopes that the ideas and content generated in the conference will feed into broader debates and initiatives on people’s struggles and alternatives, especially in Asia.

Participants vow to keep the struggle going. In the meantime, in many parts of the region, abuse of power continues – by giant corporations and by the governments that tolerate them.