The Hong Kong government should hold a dialogue with protesters without preconditions, according to international peacemaking experts who floated suggestions on how to solve the city's unprecedented political crisis.
At a closed-door forum attended by about 400 prominent social and political figures on Saturday, they said goodwill gestures such as satisfying the protesters' five demands - which include an amnesty for arrestees and revoking the classification of protests as riots - would open space for dialogue.
"You should try to avoid preconditions, in my view, as a way to get the parties to the table because that's the way to get the dialogue on your terms as opposed to the other party's terms," said Clem McCartney, an independent consultant on conflict and community issues from Northern Ireland.
Hannes Siebert, a peace process facilitator and senior adviser to the UN who was involved in national dialogues in Lebanon, Yemen and Myanmar, said: "Ripeness (for dialogue) is not something that happens, you create it.
"You need to understand what is behind the precondition so you can address what is under the table rather than on the table."
The two experts, among others, proposed solutions on how to break the deadlock. The protests, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, has morphed into a wider anti-government campaign entering its sixth month. The level of violence has escalated with radicals also targeting public facilities and businesses with links to mainland China.
The event, organised by the Hong Kong Forward Alliance, was funded by donations from individuals, corporations and foundations with support from volunteers. Lawyer Teresa Ma Ka-ming and Christine Loh Kung-wai, an adjunct professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a former undersecretary for the environment are among the leaders of the alliance.
Hong Kong speakers at the full-day forum included Loh and former Executive Council member Anna Wu Hung-yuk, currently chairwoman of the Competition Commission.
Among the attendees were Bar Association chairman Philip Dykes, former non-official Executive Council member Franklin Lam Fan-keung and Jeffrey Andrews, the first registered social worker from the city's ethnic minorities.
Hong Kong's protests have been compared to Northern Ireland's "Troubles", which lasted for 30 years and left 3,000 dead but similarly started with demonstrations demanding basic political rights. The sectarian violence ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
"Not all processes start with the parties having given up violence, they may only come to that during the conversation," McCartney said.
He suggested setting up a framework agreement, which acknowledged the basis for dialogue without forcing parties to give up anything to take part, allowing some issues to be reserved for later and avoiding ethical and moral judgments.
In September, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor held the first community dialogue with randomly selected citizens, but the sessions were discontinued after an anti-mask law was introduced, sparking a fresh wave of protests.
Lam this week said the government would not yield to violence. "If there is still any wishful thinking that by escalating violence the government will yield to pressure to satisfy the so-called political demands … That will not happen," she said.
Siebert suggested there was hidden meaning - and opportunity - to be found in Lam's statement, as well as within the five demands of the protesters.
The demands include full withdrawal of the bill, an independent inquiry into the clashes between protesters and police, retract the "riot" classification of the clashes of June 12, amnesty for all arrested protesters and universal suffrage. Five months in, only one - withdrawal of the bill - has been met.
"Statements like (Lam's) and the five demands are like the beginnings of negotiations. The first demand has been met, and the next three are existential demands," Siebert said.
"If the government could meet any of the following demands, it would act as a 'goodwill gesture' and function like a ceasefire during civil wars, opening the way for a dialogue."
He added that protests could not change constitutional issues. "It is time for people - many of them in this room - to take the baton from the protesters and move the process forward … The protesters have done their part."
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