A Year of Protest

Recent Features


A Year of Protest

The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street protests may have captured the headlines. But don’t forget about Asia.

The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are localized protests that still made a tremendous impact in the world this year. They were organized in response to place-specific issues, but their appeal and influence were immediately global. Through their marching calls of democratic reforms and economic equality, the protests inspired multitudes of activists in many countries to ignite their own brand of revolution. In Southeast Asia, there were several protest movements this year that echoed the radical politics of Arab Spring and Occupy.

Malaysia’s Bersih (Clean) was the most outstanding protest event of 2011 in the region. The event, which was initially organized to ask for very sensible and doable electoral reforms (e.g. cleaning up of the electoral roll and the use of indelible ink), in the end became a pro-democracy action because of the massive participation of the civilian population in the streets – and the violent reaction of the state.

And like the tech-savvy Arab protesters, the Bersih marchers maximized social media to broaden the movement’s appeal among the apolitical segments of the local internet community. More importantly, it gave ordinary Malaysians the opportunity to imagine the formation of a united and patriotic community of individuals committed to the defense of democracy.

Bersih isn’t just the name of Malaysia’s new revolution; it should also be recognized as Southeast Asia’s Tahrir Square.  

Next to Bersih were the various Occupy protests in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. They didn’t succeed in sustaining big crowds, but through their militant and creative actions, they were able to highlight the worsening poverty in their societies while the tiny elite of privileged families and corporations are accumulating obscene wealth. 

The Occupy protests in the Philippines were joined by students and other young people who used planking as a unique and funny way of expressing their anger over the state budget cuts on education and other social services. Early this month, the Occupy-like campout protests of students near the presidential palace were violently dispersed by the police.

Perhaps the most underrated protest of the year was the rally of Cambodian villagers who dressed up like the Na'vi tribe from the 2009 science fiction film Avatar in opposition to the government’s plan to convert the Prey Lang forest into plantations and mines. Prey Lang is the largest remaining primary lowland dry evergreen forest in the region.

We should expect more Avatar-inspired actions because the story of Prey Lang is similar to other rural communities in the region affected by large-scale development projects like dams, mining, and commercial rezoning. Environmental protests actually intensified this year, and one of them succeeded in forcing Burma’s government to cancel its hydroelectric dam project on the Irrawaddy River.

Not all those who fight for land rights, even through non-violent means, are able to freely express and organize their campaigns – a fact underscored by the experience of seven activists in Vietnam who were arrested, charged, and found guilty of overthrowing the government.

Finally, the protesters whose actions perhaps most symbolized the deep hatred and frustration of the poor against an oppressive system were Pham Thanh Son of Vietnam and Sondang Hutagalung of Indonesia. Son burned himself early this year in front of Da Nang’s municipal office to protest the confiscation of his family’s property by local authorities, while Sondang set his body on fire just a few weeks ago in front of the presidential palace to condemn the anti-poor policies of the government.

There were no London-like urban riots in Southeast Asia this year, but the great floods that destroyed rice fields and food crops in almost all countries of the region could lead to food and rice protests next year.

The challenge for politicians is not to view dissent as the cause of disorder in society, since this will only lead to violent solutions. Instead, they should treat it as a symptom of greater issues that governments must address like rising inequality, corruption, and bad governance.