Embracing new forms of protest in Asia
The anti-government protests currently sweeping through South and Southeast Asia appear to have gained extraordinary strength and resilience. Among the three ongoing mass protests in this region, the largest and most powerful is the farmers' agitation in India, which has already passed ten weeks. These farmers are demanding the repeal of the government's new farm laws which aim to promote free market policies. In Thailand, anti-government protests that began a year ago resumed after a long pause due to the global pandemic. And the latest protest to attract global attention is in Myanmar where its powerful military, which seized power on February 1, faces a huge popular resistance, the kind of which has not been seen in many decades.
These protests have some distinctive elements. While netizens are using hashtags and memes on the cyberspace, on the street we have witnessed Tractor March, three-finger salute, banging of pots and pans and usage of symbolic colours, etc.
In India, a harsh winter and the government's strong-arm tactics, including snapping of essential supplies of water and electricity, have failed to weaken the farmers' resolve. The protest marks the biggest political challenge faced by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It follows another huge sit-in in Delhi about a year ago against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) allegedly targeting minority Muslims. The Shaheen Bagh sit-in, part of a wider movement against the law, continued for 101 days, perhaps the longest period in modern India. It ended only after the enforcement of a nationwide lockdown to tackle the spread of Covid-19 pandemic in India. The ongoing farmers' protest shares a lot of similarities with that protest. The agitating farmers fear that the new agricultural laws will threaten decades-old concessions—such as assured prices—and weaken their bargaining power, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by private companies.
Both these protests sprang up within a short time after Prime Minister Modi got a second term in office. The BJP's massive electoral success in the 2019 general election surprised many analysts due to the prospect of the rise of majoritarianism in the world's largest democracy. Both the protests have seen the emergence of new non-political activism. Though most of the opposition parties remained silent about the Shaheen Bagh demonstration, they have now weighed in with vocal support for the farmers. Even some of the coalition partners of BJP in various states have sided with the farmers.
The agitating farmers have also drawn support from political leaders, academics and celebrities from across the world. In fact, those interventions have attracted strong reactions from India's Ministry of External Affairs. Both material and moral support has been pouring in for the farmers despite all attempts to cut off their supplies and isolate them. The government's promise for an 18-month pause in implementing the laws and the Supreme Court's intervention by forming a committee for mediation have so far failed to persuade the farmers to stand down.
How this stand-off will end remains an open question. But the protest has already set some interesting precedents for activists all over the world. For one, it remains largely peaceful, except for a brief slip-up on the Republic Day Tractor March at the heart of Delhi, following which the protest organisers swiftly dissociated themselves from the troublemakers and condemned the violence. Patience against all kinds of incitement, including online and offline abuses, and successful resistance to attempted infiltrations by potential troublemakers and politicisation of their cause have already given them a moral victory. Attempts to brand them communists or Khalistan separatists have also failed.
In neighbouring Myanmar, the pro-democracy movement has a broader appeal and participation. The spontaneity in defying the imposition of martial law was something new in Myanmar, coming against the backdrop of the historical dominance of the military in state affairs. People have used numerous tactics to express their disapproval of military rule. Residents hung red shirts on their balconies and windows, banging pots and pans has become an evening ritual, and demonstrations on the streets have taken a wide range of formations. Even a couple in their wedding dresses took to the street holding placards declaring a rejection of dictatorial rule. Young girls in colourful dresses marched on like a catwalk exhibition. Younger protesters were seen holding posters saying, "You f**ked with the wrong generation".
These are still early days following the annulment of the general election and imposition of a martial law. But it seems the pro-democracy movement is shaping up to be a wider civil disobedience campaign. Another significant development in the ongoing protest is the support it has drawn from various ethnic and religious minority groups including the victims of genocide, Rohingyas. Rohingya youths living in Bangladeshi camps and elsewhere in the world have taken to social media to express solidarity with the movement. Regrets over ethnic discrimination and repression against ethnic Rohingyas were also heard from a few sane voices. Pro-democracy activists abroad have already made appeals to the international community that restoration of NLD into power should include a firm commitment and plan for recognition of Rohingyas' citizenship and repatriation.
The military government's intimidating tactics—including nightly raids to nab activists, periodic suspension of internet, banning social media platforms and deployment of armoured cars and tanks—seem to have failed to dissuade protesters from continuing their agitation. Stories coming out from various parts of the country show protesters remain steadfast in their resolve. Intense international pressure on the military ruler may have provided them some encouragement. But memories of the brutal crackdowns of 1988 and 2007 make observers nervous. Protesters are using the three-finger salute that originated in Thailand and it has become a symbol of resistance and solidarity for the ongoing democracy movement. The gesture first surfaced in Thailand just days after a military coup in May 2014.
In Thailand too, the pro-democracy activists have not lost the steam of the protest. On February 13, protesters briefly clashed with police after draping Bangkok's Democracy Monument in red cloth symbolising the blood shed for the cause of democracy. They were demanding changes in law that prevents criticism of the monarch. Protests began in early 2020 following the dissolution of the Future Forward Party by former military ruler and prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Their other demands include a democratic new constitution and dissolution of parliament which is dominated by pro-military politicians. Though the Covid-19 pandemic caused some temporary disruption in their movement, the activists are now back to the street.
Popular protests, whether for democracy or special interests of a large section of the population, always stir political debates which sometimes do not remain confined within a single territory. Therefore, these protests need closer attention. There's a lot to learn from these, especially the creative ways of communication and tactics of sustaining the steam for a prolonged struggle.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist based in London.