Tag Archives: protests

Silence in China – Tiananmen 25 years on

Today marks 25 years since the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Except in China itself. There, today is the anniversary of nothing much. Counter-revolutionary riots with a few deaths if anything. In fact, the governing Communist Party has done its very best to make sure that no one remembers June 4 at all. So what happened on this day 25 years ago? And what has been the effect of one of the biggest ever attempts at mass censorship?

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What the world knows as the Tiananmen Square Massacre was the sudden and violent end to a month long protest in the square. The protests were led by students, who gathered in mid-April 1989 in response to the death of a reformist politician. Over the course of the next month the protests gradually gathered momentum and support from other social groups and parts of the country. As the Communist Party stepped up propaganda against the students, the protests became more and more antagonistic towards the Party. In early June, the government finally put their crackdown plan into action.

Late at night on the 3rd of June reports began to reach the square of protesters elsewhere in the city being shot down by soldiers. Soon the army arrived at Tiananmen and surrounded it, sending in armoured vehicles that were bombarded with molotov cocktails. But with threats, beatings and eventually volleys of gunfire, the students were finally driven out of the square. Video from the time shows immense chaos in the streets surrounding Tiananmen, with wounded being brought to safety on bicycles that swerved past burning vehicles, and soldiers firing on the crowd from lorries.

Not only the students, but also local residents reacted with disbelief and fury. A small number of soldiers were beaten to death or burnt alive during the crackdown, which provided the Communist Party with the justification of a ‘counter-revolutionary riot’. In the morning of the 4th of June, a large group of protesters – including parents of students believed killed – tried to return to the square, and were faced with rows of infantry. The soldiers opened fire and dozens of people were killed in full view of journalists watching from a hotel. In the end the number of deaths in Beijing totalled anywhere from several hundred to over a thousand. Even after the protests in the capital were crushed by the army, it took a number of days for more protests across China to be brought under control. There is little information about these other protests, and the truth may never be known.

In most other countries such a number of people being shot by their own government would have had a massive impact on politics and society. This is exactly what the Communist Party wanted to avoid. Thousands of people across the country were arrested, with many dissidents jailed for years. But their main strategy was censorship. For 25 years any discussion or commemoration of the deaths has been forbidden. Textbooks don’t mention the events, and neither does the media. The Internet is another battleground for censorship, with foreign websites and search terms like ‘4 June’ and ‘Tiananmen Square’ being blocked. While some in China try to evade this censorship by such means as referring to the 4th of June as the 35th of May, the government’s efforts have been extraordinarily successful. Most young people in China know nothing about what happened. If they do know something, it is that the 4th of June is not a date to be talked about. The Communist Party has to a large decree succeeded in wiping the democracy movement and subsequent massacre out of its own past.

Today Tiananmen Square is surrounded by police and a large number of activists have been detained, just in case. In Taiwan and Hong Kong there are commemerations taking place, but in Tiananmen Square the tourists walk around like it’s an ordinary day. The lack of memory about the massacre shows the immense control the Communist Party still has over China’s politics 25 years on. It’s a system that has been written off numerous times before, but as long as it provides incredible economic growth, it seems to keep on surviving. Despite this progress though, the killings in Tiananmen Square will remain a stain that – no matter how hard they try – the Communist Party cannot quite erase.

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A ‘normal coup’? – Turmoil in Thailand

The military seems to be back in play in Thailand, with the army fanning out through the crowded streets of Bangkok on Tuesday. According to the army it isn’t actually yet a coup, just a taking responsibility for order and security. This is something Thailand is deeply in need of, after months of protests which have left the government neutralised and the country polarised. But the government and its supporters are deeply sceptical, fearing this will turn into yet another coup. So why has the military acted now? Whose side are they on? And why is this such a problem in Thailand?

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Eastern Ukraine – A region of violence and fear

In recent weeks Eastern Ukraine have become steadily more violent and intolerant. Journalists have been kidnapped, politicians murdered, protests broken up and now seven foreign observers are being held hostage. These are not actions carried out by ‘peaceful protesters’, as Russia Today would call them. So what exactly happened in all these incidents? And what does it say about the future of Eastern Ukraine?

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Venezuela – South America’s Maidan moment?

While the eyes of the world have been on Ukraine, Venezuela has been going through the same street fighting, protests and disastrous economic crises. Just like Ukraine Venezuela has a President who labels his opponent as fascists and allegedly uses street thugs to attack protesters. So as the Russian army tightens its grip on Crimea, it’s worth taking a look at another country in a similar situation to Ukraine’s a few months ago.

Photo by: Andrés E. Azpúrua

Since the murder of a former Miss Venezuela two months ago there have been continuous protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro. These started out against protests against crime, and soon spread across the country. Peaceful demonstrations have been faced with riot police and tear gas, and some have turned to the standard weapons of protesters everywhere– the Molotov cocktail, stones and burning tires. In the capital Caracas barricades have been put up in the anti-government eastern districts. Motorcyclists loyal to the government have threatened and even murdered protesters, and contribute daily to violence. So what are the causes of such upheaval?

Just as in Ukraine, one of the biggest problems in Venezuela is the economy. Years of rule by the former President Hugo Chavez turned the country into an economic basket case. All the socialist policies he implemented, as well-meaning as they were, mean that the country deals with crippling shortages of everyday goods such as flour and even toilet paper. Nationalisation of companies has caused industry to collapse, and foreign investors to flee the country.

Another problem is crime. Venezuela has one of the worst murder rates in the world, with 2841 people murdered in the first two months of 2014. That’s comparable to countries in semi-civil war like Iraq. Protesters blame this on corruption in the legal system and a government that fails to govern. And while the government fails to tackle crime; just like Yanukovich in Ukraine it has slowly become more and more undemocratic. The President has taken control of the legal system, and recently the opposition leader Leopoldo López was arrested on ‘terrorism’ charges.

While Chavez was alive the system seemed to hold together. He was charismatic and was truly a man of the people. This, and his strong opposition to the United States, meant that many people strongly supported him. Even in the outside world he was often seen as a good leader, I know I used to think so. But the way he gave the poor of Venezuela a voice came at the cost of destroying the country’s economy. And now that Maduro’s become President the situation can’t hold together. He has little charisma, little education, and seemingly little ability to solve Venezuela’s problems.

Despite all this though Maduro does still have the support of most of the poor in Venezuela, and the protests have been mainly by members of the middle class and students. This has made it easy for Maduro to label them ‘enemies of the revolution’, though calling them fascists and saying they are financed by the US is untrue (see the link in the first paragraph). The protesters are people in despair about the situation they are in, and who don’t see Maduro doing anything to improve their lives. Unfortunately for them they are probably right. Maduro’s party recently won elections, and he has shown no indication that’s he’s willing to try and tackle the country’s problems. Saying that the economic disaster is the result of saboteurs and ‘economic warfare’ is just refusing to face reality.

To make matters worse for the protesters, at the moment there seems to be little chance of change. With a sizable majority of the population still supporting the policies of Maduro, forcing a revolution will be hard. Though as we saw in Ukraine, events such as these are hard to predict. The coming months will tell whether the protesters have the staying power to keep the pressure on Maduro.

Protests in Ukraine – A fight for the future

I lived in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk for 5 years, and the problems of the country are therefore not just something happening in a distant place. I hope that these protests will eventually be able to bring real change to Ukraine, and a government worthy of the great people who live there.

This week the long-running protests in Ukraine turned violent, with riots on the snowy streets of Kyiv, and the first deaths reported on Wednesday. Barricades have gone up around the centre of Kyiv, and for the first time the protests spread to other cities. So what exactly is happening? What do the protesters want? What has the government response been? And what does this say about the future of Ukraine?

The protests started in late November after President Yanukovich backed out of a trade deal in the EU in favour of a deal with Russia. The protests were at first mainly pro-EU and against Russian pressure, but have now become more focused on opposing a government system they see as corrupt and oppressive. Thousands of people have packed Kyiv’s central Maidan Square and set up camp, despite the freezing temperatures and snow. Events flared up again since the 16th of January after the government passed anti-protest laws (through a highly suspicious show-of-hands vote in parliament) that brought in harsh new punishments and restrictions, and were condemned as “anti-democratic”.

After the police tried to disperse the protest under the new laws, riots have begun on Hrushevskogo Street, also in the centre of Kyiv. These protesters are more radical, and less inclined to negotiate with the government. This video shows how violent the riots are, and how heavily the police are cracking down. Also this week the protests spread outside of Kyiv, to cities mainly in the west of the country. In numerous places protesters took control of regional government offices, even forcing the governor to resign in Lyiv.

While this started as a movement in favour of the treaty with the EU, this is now something far greater. Ukraine is a country with a truly dysfunctional political system, which has only gotten worse under the current President Yanukovich. The government works in a heavily authoritarian, top-down manner, without a strong free press to counter it. It is supported by a symbiotic relationship with oligarchs, whose business efforts prosper from close government contacts.  Unfortunately the opposition is divided and ineffective. Even when they got into power after the 2004 Orange Revolution, they quickly succumbed to infighting and the corruption of the system. This last issue is another reason for protests, the incredible corruption in Ukraine. It affects everyone in the country, and spoils everyone in government.

This government’s response to the protests has been simultaneously heavy-handed and ineffective. In the night of the 30th of November police violently cleared the Maidan square, which only caused the protest movement to really get going. After the protest laws were passed this week the police caused rioting by attempting to disperse the protests. Three people have died, including one man who was apparently taken to a forest where he was tortured and left to die, and there are numerous videos online showing police brutality (Warning: link contains graphic content). Part of the problem is the specific forces being used against the protesters. They are the Berkut, special well-paid riot police, who have a reputation for brutality, and are strongly loyal to the government. Unlike the badly paid regular police, the chance of them turning against the government is small.

However, the major problem the protesters have is the East/West divide in Ukraine. As can easily been seen on this map from the BBC, the protests are a very Western phenomenon.

ukraine map

Support for the protests in the East of the country is much more limited. In the city of Donetsk, where I lived, Russian is the only language used, and support for Yanukovich is extremely high, despite the corruption. The area is heavily industrial, and has very close trade ties to Russia. Western Ukraine on the other hand has historically looked towards Europe, and has always been eager to escape the Russian grasp. These events could pull the country further apart, though there is also possibility that the scenes of police violence in Kyiv could widen support for the protesters.

So what happens now? The president has offered opposition leaders concessions, and even the job of Prime Minister. However the leaders have refused, demanding new elections and the signing of the trade deal with the EU that started this all. It is also unclear how much control these leaders have over the protesters, especially the more radical ones. Joining government could alienate these radicals, and mean the opposition leaders become sucked into a system which is seen as corrupt. At the moment it remains a battle of wills, with President Yanukovich clinging on to power, and the opposite holding out to achieve all its goals. Hopefully the result of this fight will be a freer and more democratic Ukraine.

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Thailand protests – Elites on the street

If you’ve been to Thailand, even for a short visit like mine, you’ll notice it’s a country of huge contrasts. The Bangkok area has 20% of the population and is a huge urban mix of cramped streets and shopping malls that outdo anything in the West. It’s the centre of the country, and home to the King, the military and the elites. It is also where the opposition Democrat Party (also known as the yellowshirts) gets its support from (as well as parts of the South). It’s the party of the elites; conservative and pro-market.

The rest of the country is a lot different. The next biggest city after Bangkok has only 262 000 people, showing how rural the country is. Many of the population here are farmers, relying on rice crops for their income. The rural areas of the country are loyal to the ‘redshirt’ party. This party was first led by Thaksin Shinawatra, then by his sister Yingluck after the military removed Thaksin in 2006. The redshirts came to power in 2001, and gained huge support through guaranteeing rice prices and promoting development in the rural North and East.

This basic divide is what’s causing the protests in Bangkok. The yellowshirt Democrat Party knows that it can never win an election about the redshirts, they are too popular in the rural areas. In their opinion the redshirts are undemocratic because they buy votes with popular policies. So they decided to change the rules.

First the army removed the redshirts from government in 2006, then crushed redshirt protests in 2010, killing 90 people. However the newest version of a redshirt party still won the election in 2011. So now they are protesting the redshirt government, saying they are undemocratic and corrupt. However the protestors don’t want elections, because they know they will lose. Instead they’re calling for a “People’s Council” appointed by them, who will govern for a few years before holding elections. They are also actively trying to disrupt plans for new elections on February 2nd.

So these protesters aren’t really the ‘pro-democracy’ fighters they appear to be. In actuality it’s a battle between Bangkok elites and the rural masses for control of the country, where the elites are the ones taking to the streets and the masses are in power. The stage could even be set for a rerun of the 2006 coup, where the military eventually took the side of the yellow shirts, and forced Thaksin Shinawatra from office. January will certainly be a tense month for Prime Minister Yingluck.