Oslo Freedom Forum: Activists gather to share secrets of successful protest

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Pro-democracy protesters in Hon KongImage source, AP
Image caption,
The forum is taking place while protests continue in Hong Kong

Where might you find a North Korean defector, a self-confessed Serbian troublemaker, a Tiananmen Square protester and members of punk group Pussy Riot in the same room?

While Hong Kong's students continue their protests and stumbling negotiations with the territory's authorities, democracy activists from around the world, some of whom have helped their struggle, gather together.

The Oslo Freedom Forum is one of the biggest meetings of human rights activists in the world, and this year its rather surreal proceedings have a different tension, as activists trying to take on Beijing's actions in Hong Kong seek to hold their ground.

Activists are furious at what they see as Beijing's proposals to fix the election of Hong Kong's next chief executive.

'Trained demonstrators'

However, far from being impromptu demonstrations, it is an open secret at this meeting in Norway that plans were hatched in Hong Kong for the demonstrations nearly two years ago.

The ideas was to use non-violent action as a "weapon of mass destruction" to challenge the Chinese government.

Organisers prepared a plan to persuade 10,000 people on to the streets, to occupy roads in central Hong Kong, back in January 2013.

They believed that China's moves to control the Hong Kong election would provide a flashpoint where civil disobedience could be effective, and planned accordingly.

Their strategies were not just to plan the timing and nature of the demonstrations, but also how they would be run.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Veterans of previous protests in China have praised the organisation of activists in Hong Kong

BBC Newsnight has been told that some leading protestors received advice and materials from Western activists to help them train as many as 1,000 of those who would later be involved in the demonstrations

'New world race'

Yang Jianli, a Chinese academic, was part of the protests in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago.

He has been talking to the Hong Kong students on a daily basis.

He says that the students are better organised than the Tiananmen protesters ever were, with clearer, more effective structures for their action and clearer goals about what they are trying to achieve.

But he adds that responsibility for what happens next is not just down to the protesters themselves, not just down to other democracy activists like those gathered here in Oslo, but to the rest of the world.

Jamila Raqib, the executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution based near Boston, which analyses and distributes studies on non-violent struggle, says it is clear that protesters have been trained how to behave during a protest.

"How to keep ranks, how to speak to police, how to manage their own movement, how to use marshals in their movement, people who are specially trained.

"It was also how to behave when arrested - practical things like the need for food and water, movement can last longer when people are taken care of, and also how to manage a water cannon being used against you, and other types of police violence."

In a statement Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) said none of its members had attended the Oslo Freedom Forum or received "any specific training" from the organisations mentioned in this report.

OCLP said it had openly held "non-violent protest" workshops in Hong Kong but these were "wholly organized by OCLP, without any support or intervention from foreign organisations."

It also said the "inititiators" of OCLP had never been in contact with Yang Jianli, nor had OCLP been in contact with Jamila Raqib.

Protests don't always work.

Srdja Popovic, one of the student leaders involved in overthrowing Slobodan Milosevic, was another of the protest veterans in Oslo.

Image caption,
Srdja Popovic says you have to understand the "rules of the non-military battlefield"

He has since trained activists in 40 countries, but he says the techniques of non-violent action that he advocates have led to successful and lasting change in only six or seven countries.

He argues that there is more need than ever for the methods of organisation and leadership to be shared.

He says that after the 20th Century military race, "what we are seeing now is a new world race - now it is 'can the good guys learn as well as the bad guys?'."

'Schmoozing for democracy'

Mr Popovic has not had any involvement with the Hong Kong protests, but says whether in Georgia, Ukraine, Egypt or Hong Kong "you can look at these movements - and see the set of rules".

"You have to understand the rules of the non-military battlefield."

His work in Oslo, along with the writings of the American human rights activist, Gene Sharp, is in high demand.

There is something incongruous about the Oslo meeting - seeing Chinese dissidents, American computer hackers, activists from Africa, the Middle East and Russia trade information over champagne and canapés.

Media caption,

Members of Pussy Riot are attending the Oslo Freedom Forum. Watch Laura's report

Like any conference, a good deal of the work is done after hours, even if it is schmoozing for democracy.

Two members of Russian opposition female punk group Pussy Riot, members of which were put in jail by President Putin, are here too.

They say they want to "make personal contacts" and meet others doing similar human rights work.

What this event shows is that struggles for democracy or human rights in the 21st Century rarely happen in isolation.

Activists, whether those on the streets of Hong Kong right now, or from other parts of the world, are sharing information and insights faster than ever before.

30 October: Correction

This article has been amended after an earlier version may have given the impression that the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests were planned by foreign activists. The amended version makes clear that the planning for the Hong Kong demonstrations was carried out in Hong Kong, with support from abroad. It includes a statement from Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), saying that none of its members had attended the Oslo Freedom Forum or received "any specific training" from the organisations mentioned in this report. The amended article also makes clear that Mr Popovic has not had any involvement with the Hong Kong protests.