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Church Leaders Protest Australia’s Asylum Policies

by Carly Alvarez | July 10, 2014

Justin Whelan is led by police after taking part in a prayer vigil at Scott Morrison's office. Photograph: Kate Ausburn

Justin Whelan is led by police after taking part in a prayer vigil at Scott Morrison’s office. Photograph: Kate Ausburn

The Australian government is under international scrutiny for intercepting a group of 41 asylum seekers attempting to enter the country by boat, and returning them to Sri Lanka. The UN refugee agency, human rights activists, and legal experts accuse Australian officials of breaking international law and violating the refugee convention.

Several of the returned migrants reported abusive treatment during their controversially fast on-board processing, further bringing attention to Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government as Australia temporarily holds an additional 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on an offshore vessel.

PM Abbott defended his notoriously harsh immigration policies and stated that asylum seekers would not face ethnic persecution upon their return, adding that Sri Lanka has been a “peaceful country” since the end of its civil war in 2009.

Under current Australian policy, asylum seekers who safely arrive by boat are sent to detention centers in in Papua New Guinea or Nauru; those who are approved as refugees cannot be resettled in Australia.

Poor living conditions and treatment inside the offshore detention centers have sparked nationwide debate and protests, many citing the recent surge in self-harm incidents from children detainees as evidence of unethical treatment.

Religious leaders Matt Anslow, Jarrod McKenna, and Justin Whelan are among the emerging faces of Australian resistance to the government’s asylum policies. Beginning in March, the group initiated a series of sit-ins and prayer vigils inside offices of high profile politicians to bring attention the country’s treatment of asylum seekers, specifically highlighting the long-term detention of children. As of last week, a total of 47 supporters of their movement had been arrested.

Their first sit-in took place in Sydney at the office of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, where activists were arrested and charged with trespassing. Roughly three weeks later, the group organized a similar protest in Perth at the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s office. Unlike the first demonstration, the majority of those arrested in Perth were church leaders. On May 19, the group staged simultaneous sit-ins in Sydney and Melbourne, resulting in 21 arrests.

The group spoke with AEI’s research team regarding their activism.

As far as we know, the May 19th sit-ins were the largest Christian civil disobedience action ever held in our country, which gives you a sense of how little tradition we have of this compared to the United States.

Members of your group advocated asylum seeker rights through formal channels for over a decade. What caused you to change your approach?

In Australia, unfortunately, the cruel policies are actually bipartisan so our insistence is that getting a different party in power is not the core issue; in order to have a more constructive approach we need to change the way people see asylum seekers and refugees.

Specifically, it was a policy that reestablished what we now call concentration camps on Pacific islands, but it was also the idea that it was acceptable to punish certain asylum seekers in hopes of deterring future ones.

The idea that nonviolent action is a potentially powerful tool to use in contexts where formal channels have failed was something that we were all quite familiar with before we began our protests.

What is the role of religion in your protests?

In Australia, church leaders taking a moral stand has a lot of traction in a way that’s quite paradoxical given how secular we are as a country.

We see the movement diversifying and moving beyond Christian circles. Our last protest involved a prominent Rabbi who has been an extremely positive figure for the movement.

We have been contacted by Jewish, Muslim, and Mormon community leaders who want to stage similar protests.

How do you see the future of the movement?

We recently had an event with several politicians from the West Australian Labor Party and they have publicly supported our movement. Another senator invited us to meet in her office, with the stipulation that we will leave [without being escorted by police].

We’re really excited about the encouragement this has given the refugee rights movement and how very mainstream faith leaders are getting involved.

We plan for the campaign to continue and people are lining up in large numbers to go through our training and engage in similar action.





The Struggle for Universal Suffrage in Hong Kong

by Noah Simon | July 9, 2014

Hong Kong Activists Stage a Sit-in on July 2 (Screenshot from YouTube)

Hong Kong Activists Stage a Sit-in on July 2 (Screenshot from YouTube).

Civic groups and citizens of Hong Kong struggling for universal suffrage have begun to heighten their campaign.

On July 3, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers staged a mass walkout from a parliament session against the Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, accusing him of “willful ignorance of the people’s call for real democracy”. Many lawmakers held banners and demanded Leung’s resignation.

One day earlier, police arrested over 500 protesters who staged a sit-in following the city’s annual pro-democracy rally. Police sprayed fire extinguishers at protesters and forcibly removed them from the ground. Demonstrators were arrested for illegal assembly, and for obstructing police officers.

The rally drew one of the largest crowds in the city’s history. An estimated 510,000 participated in the rally, which marks the year Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred back to China from Great Britain in 1997.

These events follow a recent unofficial referendum held by the group “Occupy Central”, in which roughly 800,000 citizens expressed their support for the public nomination of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.

In earlier statements, Occupy Central’s leaders Dr. Benny Tai, Professor Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming estimated around 10,000 possible participants would occupy Hong Kong’s central business district. Given the massive turnout for the pro-democracy rally and the unofficial referendum, the number of potential sit-in participants could greatly exceed 10,000.

Anticipating the Shut Down of Hong Kong

Many in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China fear economic and security repercussions in the event of a shut down. The Global Times, a Beijing newspaper, claims that Hong Kong could turn into Ukraine or Thailand if Occupy Central supporters flood the business district.

Benny Tai, the founder of the movement, does not believe Occupy Central poses a catastrophic threat to the economy. In terms of economic repercussions, Tai compares a city shut down to a typhoon. Tai says, “The whole city may have to be closed down. There would be maybe one day people would not go to work. That would not be really substantial. We have many typhoons every year”.

With over 500 arrested during the pro-democracy rally on July 1, more arrests could be imminent if Occupy Central decides to shut down Hong Kong’s business hub. Chan Kin-man, another leader of the Occupy movement, has already made it clear that supporters should not resist arrest. Chan says, “We will line up and march to the police station to surrender. We are not going to challenge [the] rule of law. We will accept the punishment”.

Domestic and International Opposition

Several firms have spoken out against a potential city shut down. The world’s largest four accounting firms ran a newspaper ad publicizing their concern about Occupy Central.

Recently, HSBC told investors to sell stock of Hong Kong companies because of the planned protest. In their quarterly report, HSBC analysts wrote Occupy Central “could sour relations with China and may hurt the economy”.

In June, “Silent Majority”, a pro-Beijing group based in Hong Kong, published a video depicting complete chaos in the event of a Hong Kong shut down.

What Comes Next

Occupy Central has said a possible occupation of the city’s central business district would take place in late August when Beijing will release a framework for the 2017 Chief Executive election.

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 3.32.12 PM

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 3.32.21 PM


More information on Occupy Central’s campaign for universal suffrage in Hong Kong can be read here.

The Use of Nonviolent Action in Response to Tragedies

by Noah Simon | May 26, 2014

Nigerian Women March Against Boko Haram Violence

Nigerian Women March Against Boko Haram Violence (Wikimedia Commons)

Following several national disasters and tragedies in recent months, citizens have used nonviolent action to convey an array of grievances towards governments. Many have staged demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, and strikes to denounce government inaction, corruption, and lack of transparency. Often times, the public responses that follow these tragedies serve as platforms for citizens to promote and advance existing struggles against governments.

Turks Gather in the Wake of the Soma Mine Accident

Public demonstrations were organized immediately after a mine explosion in western Turkey that killed 301 people on May 13.

Students planned a march to the Energy Ministry in Ankara to denounce the Soma mine disaster on May 14. However, police fired tear gas and water cannons at a group of 800 students, preventing them from leaving their campus. A sit-in was also held in the garden of the Soma Coal mining company.

In a Taksim metro stop, a group of youth lay on the ground to symbolize the dead.

On May 14, an angry crowd heckled and booed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to Soma. During this visit Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser to Erdogan, kicked a protester who was being held down by two soldiers. The incident was photographed and made headlines around the world.

On May 15, several unions and organizations staged a one-day strike. Many union members believe that the privatization of the mining sector in Turkey led to dangerous working conditions, claiming that mining companies are prioritizing profits over workers’ safety.

A statement from Amnesty International said that accident could have been averted, and that Turkey was “playing with people’s lives” as it failed to adequately investigate past work-related accidents.

On May 21, workers and families staged a sit-in outside of the courthouse in Soma asking for an investigation into security measures at mining sites. For several days, production at some mines owned by Soma Coal Mining Company stopped. Some workers have now returned as they cannot endure further days without collecting paychecks.

Nigerians Reprimand Their Government After Kidnappings

Before the April kidnappings of over 300 of girls at a school in Chibok that drew immense media coverage, citizens in Nigeria were already demonstrating to raise awareness about violence carried out by Boko Haram. On March 6, women held a “mother of all protests” demonstration in Lagos, Abuja, and several other cities following a Boko Haram attack in Yobe.

A group called Women Arise, led by Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, an “activist and social crusader”, organized the demonstration.

Following the April 14 kidnappings, citizens and family members demonstrated daily, calling for greater government effort to return the girls safely.

Many protesters directed their anger at the government inaction after the kidnappings.

On May 4, Patience Jonathan, the First Lady of Nigeria allegedly ordered the arrest of two women who had organized demonstrations in Chibok. The women were released the following day, but the arrests have led to further government criticism and continued demonstrations.

On May 14, demonstrators marched in Lagos to mark the one-month anniversary since the girls were kidnapped.

While the search continues for the missing girls, demonstrations continue. On May 22, the Nigerian Union of Teachers closed schools across the country to allow teachers to participate in nationwide rallies.

South Korean Families Seek Justice After Sewol Ferry Sinking

On May 9, relatives of the passengers aboard a ferry that sank last month organized a sit-in outside of the president’s office in Seoul. Many parents held portraits of the children they lost in the disaster. Police blocked the demonstrators, preventing them from entering the presidential building. Over 200 were arrested for trying to reach the presidential office.

The relatives campaigned for justice to be brought for those responsible, as well as an explanation for what they believed were inexcusable delays during the initial rescue attempts.

President Park Guen-hye addressed some of these issues during an address on May 18. The president vowed to disband the Coast Guard, and instead use a different agency in an effort to carry out rescue operations more swiftly.

President Park also vowed to fight against poor safety standards that result from corrupt government and business regulations. Investigators highlighted this corruption culture as a cause of the disaster, citing that the Korean Shipping Association ruled the ferry to be safe despite the fact it was overloaded with cargo.

Families March to the Malaysian Embassy in Anger During the Search for Flight MH370

In China, families of the Malaysia airlines flight passengers organized demonstrations during the height of the search for the missing aircraft.

On March 25, the relatives of flight MH370 passengers marched in Beijing to the Malaysian embassy. They accused the Malaysian government of withholding information about the flight, and demanded proof that it crashed in the Indian Ocean.

Police stopped a group of buses transporting protesters, but the protesters got out and pushed their way through police lines. Protesters threw water bottles at the embassy and tried to storm the building. Dozens were holding banners demanding truth from the Malaysian government.

The BBC called it “a very rare street protest in Beijing”. The demonstration was particularly noteworthy because street demonstrations are illegal in China. However, the demonstration was carried out with impunity.

On May 20, Inmarsat, a global satellite communications company, published records of the missing flight. The company decided to release the information publicly after persistent pressure from the families of the MH370 passengers.

Labor and Environmental Movements Make Progress in China

by Noah Simon | May 1, 2014

Yue Yuen Workers Strike in Dongguan

Yue Yuen Workers Strike in Dongguan

Recent campaigns in southern China have achieved significant gains following large-scale strikes and demonstrations. In Dongguan, thousands of factory workers for Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings will receive greater benefits after striking for over two weeks.

In Guangdong province, residents have delayed, and potentially reversed government plans to build a crematorium and a chemical plant. While these victories may only be short-term gains, Chinese citizens have shown corporations and local governments that there are significant costs if their demands are to be ignored.

Yue Yuen Shoe Factory Strike

Chinese shoe manufacturer Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings, a supplier of footwear for brands such as Nike and Adidas, has said a recent strike in the southern city of Dongguan has cost the company at least $60 million.

Thousands of workers first began their strike on April 14 to demand overdue payments on social security.

After two weeks of stoppage, Yue Yuen lost $27 million in production costs alone. Following negotiations with labor unions, the company has agreed to provide employees greater benefits, including an additional monthly living allowance of $36 per month, estimated to cost the company over $30 million in 2014. It will also make back payments on social insurance for workers.

More than 80% of workers have now returned to the factory. However, there are allegations that local authorities used intimidation tactics and arrests to coerce workers into returning.

An estimated 30,000 workers refused to work during the height of the strike. Activists claim it is the biggest worker’s strike in China since the late 1970s.

Environmental Demonstrations in Guangdong Province

According to the Global Times, production of a crematorium in Huazhou has been halted after thousands gathered to call for its cancellation. A local resident told the newspaper that, “the government will suspend the program and ask local citizens to keep away from illegal activities and maintain social stability”.

Residents had gathered on April 12 and continued to protest for days. One witness claimed that although there was a large police presence, officers refused to break up the demonstration.

Just a few days earlier, residents gathered in Maoming to demonstrate against government plans to build a chemical plant.

On March 30, a thousand residents displayed their objection to the production of paraxylene (also known as “PX”), a chemical used to make plastic bottles and fabrics.  Local residents do not trust that the government will properly handle the production of PX. They are also worried about the potential environmental and health impacts associated with the chemical.

Photos displayed on Weibo, China’s microblog service, showed a large crowd marching besides burning cars. Many images also showed protesters who were bloodied from clashes with police forces, but these images were quickly taken down.

Despite police violence, greater participants turned out to protest. A witness told Radio Free Asia that there were roughly 20,000 people gathered outside a government building a few days later.

The Maoming city government called the demonstration a “grave violation” that “seriously affects social order”. They claimed protesters were throwing rocks and bottles at police. At least 18 were arrested and are being charged with “disrupting public order”. There are also many allegations that police used disproportionate force, injuring and perhaps killing some protesters.

Nonetheless, it is unclear whether the construction of the chemical plan will go forward. An official said “a decision won’t be made before reaching a consensus with the public”.

Taiwanese Students End Three-Week Occupation of Parliament

by Noah Simon | April 15, 2014

Taiwanese Students Occupying the Parliament Building

Taiwanese Students Occupying the Parliament Building. (Wikimedia Commons)

On April 10, students in Taipei ended their occupation of the parliament building after Taiwan Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng assured them that one of their main demands will be met: a review of the controversial Cross-Straits Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) will be delayed until an oversight law is enacted that would allow greater transparency over future negotiations and agreements with China.

Chen Wei-ting, a prominent student leader during the campaign, emphasized that their campaign is not over, saying “it’s time for us to return this movement to broader Taiwan society, where we will continue the struggle”.

On April 1, legislators from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan staged a sit-in to block the review of the trade pact reached with China. DPP lawmakers are now working to reach an agreement with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) on proposals for the oversight bill. Many of the students who protested support a particular oversight law that would include detailed supervision by the Taiwanese public.

A mass rally on March 30 was held in Taipei after student leaders and activists rejected talks with President Ma Ying-jeou. Student leader Lin Fei-fan explained that the president failed to specify a fixed time or date for the talks, and did not agree to hold the meeting in a public venue.

Police estimated there were roughly 100,000 participants at this rally, but organizers claim there were around 500,000 in attendance. While the number is most likely somewhere in between, it is believed to be the largest demonstration in Taiwanese history.

Protesters carried signs reading “defend democracy, withdraw the trade deal”. Many protesters wore black shirts and yellow headbands to symbolize their struggle, which was dubbed “The Sunflower Movement”.

The movement first began on March 18, when students occupied the parliament building in opposition to the trade pact that would increase economic ties between Beijing and Taiwan. The students say the CSSTA was approved undemocratically because it was forced through a committee in under 30 seconds. Opponents of the pact are also worried that the deal will increase Beijing’s influence over Taiwan, as well as threaten small and medium sized businesses.

It is evident that the occupation of the parliament building required substantial planning. Students used Google drive and Google maps to coordinate where materials were needed, who could supply them, and when they would be delivered. As a result, students were able to gather a large amount of food, water, and medical supplies in addition to laptops, computers, and tablets to maintain their presence online.

Inside the building, protesters piled up large amounts of chairs and tied them together to block entrances, and walls were decorated with pictures of historic democracy activists in Taiwan.

The students went to great lengths to publicize their campaign to international audiences. Live streams of the occupation from within the parliament building were broadcast in English. Some students even answered questions from internet users around the world regarding the purpose of their protest. In addition, students raised money to advertise their campaign in the New York Times, where they informed international audiences about their struggle.

The occupation of the parliament building was unprecedented in Taiwanese history. Albert Lin, a Taiwanese activist, believes that the younger generation realizes this particular case will impact the political future of Taiwan. Lin also believes that the younger generation has a more unified vision, a greater sense of urgency, and that international occupy movements also influenced their recent actions.

While Taiwanese students have achieved one of their main demands, President Ma has insisted that the trade pact will not be cancelled.

Chen Wei-ting, a ‘co-organizer of the movement’, said, “Our next step is to start pressuring local legislators, one at a time, to support our demands”. It is not yet clear what other actions students may take in their campaign to pressure the government to cancel the trade pact with China.


Thailand Protests Continue Despite Concessions From Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra

by Noah Simon

The anti-government opposition in Thailand has called for another mass rally on December 22nd, demanding that the February 2nd election be postponed until there is national reform.

The Royal Thai Armed Forces announced on December 15th that they would help to organize the February 2nd election to ensure that it is “fair and clean”.

Meanwhile protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban is continuing calls for a “people’s council” of unelected officials to install a new government, fearing that Prime Minister Yingluck or a loyal ally will win the early election planned for February. While participation in demonstrations has decreased, protesters have continued to hold marches and rallies in Bangkok.

On December 9th, Prime Minister Yingluck decided to schedule a “snap election” in early February in an effort to diffuse tension with the democratic opposition movement. However, after the announcement hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters resumed their demonstrations around government offices in the capital.

Days after Yingluck announced the February election, anti-government protesters cut off electricity and water supplies from the prime minister’s office. The protesters attempted to force security officials away from the premises to occupy the building.

The anti-government protest movement has repeatedly pressured Yingluck to resign. The prime minister claims she has retreated as far as possible, and has pleaded for an end to protests.

The Democratic Opposition: From Challenging the Amnesty Bill to Removing the “Thaksin Regime”

The protest movement first began in early November to challenge a proposed amnesty law that received bipartisan opposition. The Democratic opposition parties claimed the law would allow Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra to return to Thailand from self-imposed exile and reclaim power.

Roughly 10,000 demonstrators gathered in Bangkok’s financial district on November 4th after the bill passed in the House of Representatives. Protesters blew whistles and stopped traffic to display their discontent.

The amnesty bill was later rejected by the senate on November 11th, but Suthep and the Civil Movement for Democracy immediately called for a three-day national strike, and their demands grew to include the removal of the prime minister, accusing her of being a puppet ruler controlled by her brother.

Avoiding Violent Confrontation

The political crisis in Thailand has been predominantly nonviolent. Both the government and opposition have vocalized their intent on avoiding violent confrontations since protests began.

Yingluck told reporters on December 8th, “the government will use non-violent measures in keeping the security of demonstrations”. Suthep addressed protesters on December 10th and urged them to “express their feelings in a non-violent way”.

The largest incident of violence occurred on November 30th, when a shootout between anti-government protesters and government supporters left several dead and many wounded.

Since that fatal incident, both the government and opposition have taken steps to avoid violence.

On December 3rd the police removed barricades to reduce tension between protesters and police. Protesters entered the police compound and posed for photographs with officers, offering them flowers and hugs. The Bangkok chief of police explained, “it is government policy to avoid confrontation”.

Demonstrations came to a temporary halt on December 5th, when the country celebrated King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 86th birthday. Since then, anti-government protests have continued despite Yingluck’s attempts to appease the democratic opposition.

Throughout the political crisis, the military has remained neutral, fearing a repeat of Thailand’s violent 2010 protests that resulted in nearly 100 deaths.

The police continue to shy away from detaining Suthep Thaugsuban despite a warrant for his arrest on charges of insurrection. The national police chief has repeatedly skipped meetings where Suthep is present. The police chief explains that he would be violating the criminal code for “negligence of duty” if he were to attend a meeting and not arrest the protest leader.

Suthep met with Yingluck in the presence of high-ranking military officials on December 1st, but no action was taken against the protest leader.

Threat of General Strike in Cambodia


by Noah Simon

The leader of the Cambodian opposition party has threatened a one-day general strike if Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling CPP party does not make concessions for opposition lawmakers after the disputed July 28th elections.

Sam Rainsy says the strike would include factory workers, civil servants, and shopkeepers. Rainsy is also calling upon friendly foreign governments and businesses to halt dealings with the “illegitimate government”.  The opposition is calling for an investigation into allegations of widespread electoral fraud and voting irregularities.

After a long campaign by the opposition party to challenge July 28th election results, Hun Sen, long-time Prime Minister of Cambodia has been sworn in for another five-year term in office.

PM Hun Sen opened the National Assembly yesterday without the presence of 55 opposition lawmakers who are boycotting their seats in parliament until the election results are reviewed.

The CNRP organized a ‘thumbprint’ petition submitted to delay the open of Parliament, however the State Opening by the King went ahead as planned.

This afternoon, Amnesty International and several other human rights groups released a public statement condemning the use of unrestrained violence on the Cambodian people.

The latest incident of violence occurred on the night of September 22nd, when police forces and a gang fired marbles with slingshots and used stun guns on journalists and civilians during a candlelight vigil. At least 10 were injured at this event, including an elderly woman who was hospitalized.

On September 15th Police haphazardly fired amongst an angry mix of protesters and commuters, leaving one commuter dead after being shot in the head. The use of police barricades and roadblocks restricted movement in the city, angering protesters and commuters.

Intense fighting broke out that night between protesters and police. A local photographer described seeing “rocks, shattered glass, and the firing of tear gas” upon arriving to the scene.

He added that police were using batons and “beating anyone they could grab”.

Sam Rainsy and the CNRP party immediately condemned the police violence after the September 15th setback.

The participation of monks has also been widespread in these demonstrations. The monks have taken part in several nonviolent actions but have attempted self-immolation as the political deadlock continues.

Since the election, Rainsy had been invited by the King to meet Hun Sen and negotiate a settlement to the election deadlock. The CPP and CNRP agreed to reform the National Election Committee for future elections, however, the results of July’s elections have still not been investigated.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) party received 68 parliamentary seats at the election while the CNRP won 55 seats.

Despite being the largest opposition to PM Hun Sen yet, the CNRP refuses to settle for the results, continuing to push for a voice as the  majority party in Cambodia.