What you need to know
A Middle Eastern beacon of direct democracy says there is a path forward for Taiwanese civil society.
Taiwan’s democracy works. It’s an oft-repeated truism binding Taiwanese society since the country shed decades of martial law and held its first democratic elections in 1996. However, Taiwan’s young democracy does not come without frustrations.
After last Saturday’s elections, the young, progressive wing of voters which mobilized against a pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) during the 2014 Sunflower Movement found itself bitterly disappointed as KMT legislators swept to power and referendums against marriage equality and gender equity education were successful at the polls. The failure of progressivism to take popular hold in Taiwan – reflective of similar trends in Europe and the Americas – has led some young voters to gradually lose faith in democracy as the island lies under the cross-Strait shadow of China and is now recognized as an independent nation-state by only 17 countries.
Deep in the arid desert of what appears on the map as northern Syria, however, a representative from the unrecognized, self-governing, secular democratic confederation of Rojava, described by New York Times Magazine in 2015 as a “utopia in hell,” insists there is a clear, if seemingly unorthodox, path forward for Taiwanese civil society.
Rojava, officially named the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), lies just west of the similarly autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. While the two share cultural roots, Rojava, which declared autonomy in January 2014, eschews the better-established, resource-rich Iraqi Kurdistan’s emphasis on traditional liberal democracy and Kurdish nationalism in favor of a governmental philosophy laid out by the leftist revolutionary Abdullah Ocalan. This ethos, known as Democratic Conferedalism, emphasizes direct local democracy and the proactive inclusion of women, religious and ethnic minorities, and outsiders from all backgrounds.
Rojava’s mere existence defies possibility in almost all veins of contemporary political thought. An isolated island in a sea of hostility, the region – which has expanded during the ongoing Syrian conflict, and is now larger than Connecticut and contains about five million residents – self-governs despite being in constant conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) along with Turkey to its north, which has become increasingly aggressive towards internal and neighboring Kurdish populations. Its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), famously recruits foreign fighters to join Kurds, Arabs, and all-female frontline units in the resistance against ISIS.
Taiwan and Rojava’s similarities appear most clearly in the abstract, when peering into the crystal ball of possibility. Unlike Taiwan, Rojava is not recognized by any nation-state. It does not enjoy visits by high-level U.S. officials. Its defense units receive tacit but highly unofficial support from international militaries. Ocalan, its beloved spiritual leader, is the founder of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Turkey, but not by the United Nations. Ocalan was arrested by Turkey with the support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1999 and has been imprisoned on the Turkish island of Imrali ever since.
Since his imprisonment, Ocalan has abandoned the Kurdish demand for statehood, instead adopting the theories of American philosopher Murray Bookchin and advocating for a governmental structure outside the existing nation-state model. The region has blossomed despite a worsening security situation due to Turkish hostilities. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he “will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south.” Turkish forces regularly clash with the YPG, and Erdogan warned earlier this week that the U.S. must stop tacitly supporting Rojava.
Taiwanese often wonder how many citizens would be willing to fight a war with China to defend its democracy. For Rojava, sandwiched between Turkey and ISIS, this question defines its existence.
Over the past few months, I have been in periodic contact with one of the founding members of Rojava Plan, which has recruited foreign volunteers to serve in civil society as, among other things, teachers, writers and hackers. In an extensive conversation via an encrypted messaging app, which has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity, the representative, who asked to remain anonymous due to the high personal risk of identifying publicly in the current regional security climate, told The News Lens how Rojava defines its own democracy, why Taiwan’s referendum process is inherently undemocratic, and the importance of establishing solidarity with the international community.
The News Lens: What did you seek to accomplish by establishing Rojava Plan?
Rojava Plan: Basically Rojava Plan was the first internationalist commune. The goal was to bring experts to Rojava to support the building of the democratic nation, and also to expand the message outwards and create solidarity networks with international movements.
We worked together with the Economic Committee of Jazira Canton [one of the three autonomous regions of the DFNS]. We presented a lot of projects, and they selected 26 of them – related to economy, ecology, education, technology, etc. Not exactly community building, more like technical stuff to solve concrete problems. We also made a media center where we published some articles and videos, some of which are still on our YouTube channel.
Most of all, we selected and trained hundreds of volunteer experts and revolutionaries from around the world.
TNL: Your recruitment of international volunteers has received considerable attention. I understand it’s harder to recruit now because of the security situation. How successful have foreign volunteers been in building and raising awareness of Rojava?
RP: Well it didn’t really work out very well because they closed the border, so most of them couldn’t come. (Ed’s note: Volunteers often entered Rojava via Iraqi Kurdistan.) But they helped us with technical advice and research. We formed a nice virtual community.
TNL: Is the border closed now?
RP: The border is sometimes closed and sometimes open. At times we depended on smugglers who would get the people in illegally. But they weren’t always available.
People from the outside helped in several ways. For example, we did a campaign for making organic fertilizer. We gathered around US$120,000 (NT$3.7 million). Some hackers also helped us steal a bunch of documents from AKP, the fascist party in Turkey. (Ed’s note: The Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is the ruling party of Turkish President Erdogan.)
TNL: Are people still coming from the outside into Rojava despite the security situation? If so, what’s their main motivation?
RP: They are still coming, but it’s more difficult every time. It’s mostly through personal contacts.
There were thousands of people applying. We selected just a few who had a truly revolutionary spirit and a similar ideology, and were willing to learn Kurdish and stay long-term, so their motivation was similar to ours.
TNL: Did they speak about replicating the Rojava model in their home countries and communities?
RP: The thought about replicating in their homeland was always floating there, but it was seen as something idealistic and not really possible. For many of us, it makes more sense to concentrate our strength in one place, in this case the Middle East, and build a strong enough [base] there. Then we can think about expanding it.
There are some exceptions, like Catalonia or Greece, where they are trying to build democratic structures parallel to the state.
TNL: Catalonia is often mentioned, whether correctly or not, as a comparison for Taiwan.
RP: From what I see, Taiwan and China are two states stuck in a power struggle, so that makes both of them weak. This is a good situation to propose a third way based on self-government.
But this process has to be adapted to the local culture. It makes no sense to just copy the Rojava model, which is itself very flexible and constantly adapting itself to a changing reality.
TNL: Aside from the power struggle, much of Taiwan’s future outlook is predicated on the “China question”: whether to unite with China, seek independence, or maintain the status quo. In that sense Taiwan and Rojava have a parallel – like Rojava is with Turkey, Taiwan is close to a hostile, more powerful actor.
In Taiwan’s two-party system, one party (the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP) aligns closer to the U.S.; the other (the KMT) closer to China. How has Rojava managed to bridge the gap between Turkey and the U.S.?
RP: For us, getting support from the U.S. is tricky. Sometimes you need it, but you should also get support from U.S. rivals so they start to fight over you.
In Rojava they are open to discussion with all political actors, and the lines between enemies, friends and allies are blurry. But this is a war situation, and strategies and tactics are different in every case. You must consider your real options, rather than thinking about ideal solutions.
Personally, I would focus on spreading awareness among international civil society, rather than expecting support from any state. But again, there are no closed answers, and every situation is different. It seems logical to try every single possibility.
TNL: Does Rojava try and join international bodies such as the World Health Organization or UN committees?
RP: They are open to the possibility. But those bodies usually only accept nation-states as members, so I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
TNL: People live comfortably in Taiwan, but there is anxiety about the future and many do not identify with a political party. In your case, how did Ocalan convince Kurdish people to follow his ideals?
RP: If Ocalan had told everybody to wear pink shoes they would have done it. It matters more who says it.
TNL: So people bought into creating such a society because Ocalan advocated for it?
RP: The struggle here started as a classical Marxist-Leninist, national movement: the line was “we are Kurds, we demand a Kurdish state.” Only in the late 1990s did they realize that their right to have their own state was a silly thing to want: they would only become oppressed by their own language and by their own brothers… by the nation-state.
So they switched to the new stateless democracy paradigm, and [stressed] the liberation and autonomy of women and minorities. This change was not easy, and it was only possible under the strong leadership of Ocalan.
Only in the late 1990s did they realize that their right to have their own state was a silly thing to want: they would only become oppressed by their own language and by their own brothers… by the nation-state.
TNL: How have you taught the importance of ecology in Rojava, especially as resources are obviously limited?
RP: In Rojava the fertilizer project succeeded because they had an embargo and couldn’t get enough fertilizer for their crops. Otherwise they would have ignored it and continued using chemical fertilizer, which is easier and it’s what they were used to. Most people prefer something bad but known to something unknown.
We did several seminars at the teacher’s academy and people’s houses (social public spaces). [We bought] special garbage cans, a garbage truck, and trained a group of teachers to go to neighborhood assemblies to speak about separation of garbage, hand out brochures, hang posters, etc. so people would start separating their organic waste to use for the fertilizer factory.
We organized monthly “cleaning days” where all the neighbors would get together and clean the streets, then have a communal meal outside with music and so on. It became very popular.
TNL: Where would young supporters of Taiwanese democracy, dissatisfied with the current political stalemate, start if they ever wanted to build their own parallel systems of governance?
RP: You have to identify the society’s real needs, and see what can catch people’s attention. You have to find what’s important to people and start there. Also, make sure you are resilient enough to survive by yourself in case the relationship suddenly breaks.
TNL: How does a civil society begin to build this resilience on a practical level?
RP: There is no universal recipe for social change, every society has its own path. But here are some general guidelines:
Education, education, education. Open free schools, especially for children. Organize talks, seminars and workshops. Start training programs for ideology, history, language, self-defense, philosophy, self-building, digital security, 3D printing, etc.
Economy: Self-sufficiency is the key. Be able to produce what you need with the materials available without depending on the outside. Make cooperatives. Create closed circuits of circular economy. Control the flows of capital. Use your own currency, digital or not. Buy or occupy land. Eventually seize and control the means of production.
Have strong communication channels, open media centers and news agencies. Produce videos and videogames. Control the information and frameworking, make your own infrastructure, make drones, launch satellites. Make yourself known through impressive direct actions. Don’t be afraid to go to prison. Have a good team of volunteer lawyers.
In our case, self-defense… via neighborhood patrols and self-defense teams, physical and tactical training. And know your neighbors. Promote communal life, organize neighborhood activities, clubs, assemblies and communes. And be sure to empower women, and include oppressed minorities in your groups.
TNL: Taiwan’s Han Chinese birthrate is declining, but many people from Southeast Asia are moving to Taiwan. While society is becoming very multicultural, Southeast Asian and indigenous residents often face discrimination. What can be learned from how Rojava has managed its own multiculturalism, which is extremely unique in the Middle East?
RP: Oppressed minorities can be a great ally. Find the people who have real problems, who have little to lose. The accommodated people, on the other hand, are usually struggling to give their life meaning, or to find something “ethical” to do with their free time. They usually have more technical skills and access to resources, so they support the oppressed minority movement without risking too much by making video campaigns or coordinating social media strategies.
TNL: In Taiwan’s latest public referendums, initiatives such as LGBTQ equality failed to pass. There are questions now of whether “direct democracy” truly works.
You have your own idea of direct democracy, I’m sure – what is your take on public referendums?
RP: Yes, this is a matter of definitions. We consider that direct (or any other type of) democracy is incompatible with the existence of a nation-state. (Ed’s note: As a reminder, Rojava does not consider itself a nation-state, nor is it pursuing statehood.)
Referendums seem like a nice tool, but in practice there are two possible results: a) Win [with] 51 percent, that means that 49 percent of the population is unhappy, there is no real consensus. b) Win [with] 90 percent, in that case a referendum is not even necessary. (In Taiwan, a referendum needs 25 percent of the electorate to vote “Yes” while outnumbering “No” voters to pass.)
A referendum is part of the capitalist game. It just gives a false impression of democracy. When the result falls out of the “rules of the game” is it simply ignored by the government.
Do not be fooled: There is no democracy in Taiwan.
TNL: There has been criticism that Taiwan’s referendums were anti-democratic and gave influence to small interest groups. Can referendums be scaled down to a smaller level to get closer to a decision-making model such as that of Rojava, where decisions are made from the bottom up within localities?
RP: Yes, referendums, and voting in general, are useful at a smaller scale, when consensus is not possible, but they should be avoided whenever possible.
TNL: You may say Taiwan does not fit your definition of democracy, but is there merit to the argument that Taiwanese who want to reform the system should do so from within by winning elections and changing policy, as we have seen since the 2014 Sunflower Movement?
RP: 2011-2016 was a strange period in which several social movements, mostly in Europe, have experimented with parliamentary politics. It has proven to be disastrous in all cases.
You can get some small results, and there is a healthier power balance, with three or four parties instead of two. But the cost is that most civil society movements and neighborhood assemblies were deactivated, so popular power actually decreased. We now have better healthcare, less corruption, etc. but also less democracy, and we are further away from revolution than seven years ago. The most prominent examples are Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.
However, this method has proven very effective at the municipal level. So it depends on the scale.
That period between 2011-2016 was the only time I’ve seen a bunch of anarchists going to vote… weird.
TNL: The Sunflower Movement did embolden civil society and inspire people to create institutions apart from government. Four years later, however, they have lost some of their momentum. How do you avoid this in Rojava?
RP: It is due in part to strong societal cooperation, and in part to a very strong and organized political organization, in this case the PKK, with very clear leadership and values.
Revolution might seem out of the question now, but things change when you least expect it. Our job in times of “peace” is to create neighborhood/district democratic institutions, and strengthen the local social fabric, in order to be ready when the moment comes.
There is nothing more revolutionary than knowing, and loving, your neighbors.
Read Next: Unlikely Allies: A Case for Cooperation Between Taiwan and Iraqi Kurdistan
If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more like it in your news feed, please be sure to like our Facebook page below.