Hopes for change in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy: toto
Protesters of the ”Umbrella Revolution” recently marked its first month of continuous protests. Tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong – not least university students – have occupied the heart of the city since September, calling for democratic rule and universal suffrage. This mass-mobilisation of citizens-turned-activists could be seen as yet another example of the Asian wave of popular protests, which has already made way in countries like Burma and Cambodia before swelling over Hong Kong.
It seems everyone knows about the ”Arabic Spring” in late 2010 and early 2011. When thousands upon thousands of people gathered – in and around Tunis in Tunisia, in Benghazi and Tripoli in Libya, and on the Tahrir Square of Cairo in Egypt – the world turned its eyes to the Middle East and Northern Africa, surprised by the unexpected and flaming resistance of long-oppressed citizens.
However, less has been said about the Asian wave of popular protests. This is, to some extent and presumably, because of the West’s economic interests in the region, and because of media psychology, which creates broad yet separate narratives for whole regions; in other words, framing Asia as a continent boiling of visible and loud popular resistance would not be possible, since the MENA region already occupies that constructed image in the media. Instead, Asia has been described as an emerging ”tiger economy” on the world market, and foreign analysts have forecasted that liberalized and increased trade will push forward democratic development in the region.
The only mistake with that analysis is that it did not count with the people of Asia.
Even though several Asian countries have seen an increased economic growth in the past years, only small elites – mainly tycoons and cronies from within Asian countries, and scrupulous foreign investors with a taste for big money – have benefited from Asia’s emergence on the world market. Widespread poverty, lack of rule of law, human rights violations and democracy deficits have driven ordinary people to take to the streets and to transform into activists, calling for change.
Let the roar be heard: students demanding fundamental rights in Hong Kong
The latest, and largest, mass protests in Asia are currently taking place in Hong Kong. It all started on 31st of August, when the National People’s Congress in Beijing announced that only pre-screened candidates will be eligible to run for the election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive in 2017.
This effectively undermines the Basic Law, which went into effect in 1997, when Hong Kong was handed over from the British government to the government of mainland China. The Basic Law stipulates a principle of ”one country, two systems”, intended to grant Hong Kong independent governance to some extent. Moreover, the Basic Law also recognises fundamental freedoms and human rights for Hong Kong’s citizens, including freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
The recent events in Hong Kong have shown that the Communist leaders in Beijing are not ready yet to leave the fate of Hong Kong in the hands of its citizens: teargas and pepper spray have been used against protesters, and pro-government thugs are reported to have used violence to crack down on people occupying the streets of Hong Kong’s fashionable Admiralty district.
However, what has also been made clear by the recent events in Hong Kong is the magnitude of the will of the people to push forward for change. The number of protesters – counted in tens of thousands – and the number of days – more than one month, and still ticking – of which the protests have continued make this event the largest popular protest on Chinese territory for more than 20 years.
Another significant feature of the protests is that students are at the front lines of this movement for democracy. Groups such as the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism have been pointed out as central forces initiating and driving the calls for universal and democratic suffrage.
It is no coincidence that students are playing a key role in the protests in Hong Kong right now. In fact, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were student-led, and there are many more examples of student-led popular protests across Asia.
In this regard, Burma stands out from its Asian neighbours, having experienced several student uprisings and even tracing its modern nation-building to the nascent student movement of the 1930s and 1940s. General Aung San, popularly known as the ”Father of Burma”, was a student leader before he became famous as an anti-Colonialism freedom fighter and as one of the masterminds behind the Panglong agreement of 1947, which laid down the foundations for the independent, multi-ethnic state of Burma. Since then, students have mobilised in masses in 1988, 1996 and 2007, just to name a few of Burma’s popular uprisings.
Asia: a tiger hungering for democracy
However, protests in no way only belong to Asia’s past. Quite to the contrary, protests are currently the means with which Asia’s people aim to shape their societies.
If we look at Burma again, several popular movements – for ethnic minorities, women, youths, farmers and, of course, students – are increasingly outspoken about human rights violations committed in – to quote Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin – ”the new Myanmar”.
Protests are many, they occur across the country, and they are peaceful. For example, farmers have staged ploughing protests on land they claim was confiscated by the government and influential investors; women have demanded right to justice in rape cases involving the armed forces and other state representatives; and youths have used popular culture, including street art, rap and rock music, to call for democratic changes.
In fact, the student protesters in Hong Kong have been supported by the student movement in Burma, which arranged a solidarity protest in front of the Independence Monument in Rangoon. Methods and experiences from successful movements from other countries – including even the activist network Anonymous, which promotes freedom on the Internet and state accountability – have been adopted by the most progressive elements of Burma’s vibrant civil society.
A similar trend can be observed in Cambodia, which has seen an increase in popular protests since last year’s elections. The Cambodian People’s Party won a majority of the seats in the National Assembly and Hun Sen, CPP:s strongman, was re-elected Prime Minister – this meant that Hun Sen became one of the world’s longest-serving political leaders, having ruled Cambodia with a rod of iron more or less since 1985. The main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, as well as the people of Cambodia opposed the outcome of the elections. Hence, CNRP organised mass rallies, mobilising tens of thousands of people, and peacefully occupied Freedom Park in Phnom Penh for months. Freedom Park also turned into an important scene for striking garment workers, who were calling for a living wage.
The results of these and other protests across Asia have varied. In Burma, some farmers have been given back their land and the national human rights commission, MNHRC, is under strong pressure to investigate several thousands of complaints with regards to land rights violations. The government, under President Thein Sein, signed a declaration to end sexual violence against women in conflicts earlier this year. Youths have also been invited to participate in peace-related events, such as consultations held at the Myanmar Peace Center. In Cambodia, the CNRP has ultimately taken their seats in the National Assembly and several CNRP lawmakers have become ministers. Freedom Park has reopened for protests after a close-down earlier this year, when five people died in connection to protests for living wages for garment workers.
However, Asia still has a long way to go in order to gain real freedom and attain democratic rule. This is why people in Burma and Cambodia have not yet left the streets: they will not give up their struggle before their roars for change are being heard.
With this background taken in mind, it is clear that the protests in Hong Kong are yet another sign that the people of Asia are prepared to fight for their rights, and that there truly is an ongoing wave of resistance across Asia against long-standing political oppression.
Foreign analysts were wrong. Economic growth is not what drives development forward in Asia.
That is because this tiger hungers for something tastier: true democracy.