The civilian protests convulsing Lebanon, Belarus, Thailand, and the United States are emblematic of the righteous outrage sweeping through the world. They are the only counter-voice to the tyranny of our times.
In the 2019 Academy Award-winning film Joker, violent mass protests spontaneously erupt against Gotham’s elite. The protests are organic, leaderless, and fueled by popular rage. People sport clown masks in the image of the murderous “joker”, brazenly displaying their delight in becoming the people billionaire Thomas Wayne derisively referred to as “clowns”. The anger intensifies towards the end of the film, sparking riots, arson, vandalism, and street killings.
Eerily similar protests are breaking out in different parts of the world today. Protests provoked by widespread indignation. Leaderless yet powerful. Organic and spontaneous. For once, even the omnipotent, omnipresent COVID-19 isn’t holding people back. The protests in Lebanon, Belarus, Thailand, and the United States of America may each have a different raison d’être – corruption of the government, authoritarianism, and racism among others – but they are remarkably alike in terms of spontaneity and temerity. The status quo must change, they all seem to say.
A Crescendo of Anger: Protests Amid The Pandemic In 2020
October Revolution – Lebanon
Long-simmering public disaffection in Lebanon came to a head in October 2019 when the government decided to tax tobacco, gasoline, and WhatsApp calls in an attempt to earn more revenues. The announcement triggered street demonstrations that quickly took the shape of nation-wide protests against sectarian rule, economic woes, widespread unemployment, entrenched corruption of the political elite, and their failure to provide even basic services. The protests eventually led to the resignation of West-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his unity government. Though coronavirus and subsequent restrictions partially curbed the protests – which hadn’t ceased since the appointment of Hassan Diab as prime minister – they exacerbated the country’s economic difficulties and exposed the ill-equipped social welfare system. As public resentment continued to swell over growing economic hardships, Beirut’s deadly explosion on August 4 reignited violent anti-government protests. A week after the blasts, which claimed at least 220 lives and injured thousands, Hassan Diab and his entire cabinet resigned. A crippled political system, enraged impoverished masses, a gargantuan economic crisis, disease and death – the future of Lebanon looks starkly uncertain.
Watch: We fear hunger, not coronavirus: Lebanon Protesters
Free Youth – Thailand
Likewise, Thailand, no stranger to political unrest, witnessed popular demonstrations in February after the top court ordered the disbandment of the fledgling, pro-democracy Future Forward Party (FFP). The March 2019 elections, held for the first time since the military seized power in a coup led by Prayuth Chan-ocha, saw the FFP – led by the charismatic 41-year old leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit – win the third-largest share of seats. But many first-time voters were sorely disappointed when Prayuth was re-installed as prime minister, dashing all hopes of political change including much hoped-for reforms to the monarchy. Government corruption and apathy also fueled popular anger, manifesting in protests overwhelmingly dominated by young activists and students. Though coronavirus put a brief pause on the demonstrations, they resumed with renewed vigor in June after the alleged abduction of pro-democracy dissident Wanchalearm Satsaksit by Thai authorities. The protesters are currently demanding the dissolution of Prayuth’s government, framing of a new constitution, and an end to the persecution of opposition activists.
“This could be a new turning point in Thai politics.”Pavin Chachavalpongpun, exiled academic & critic of the monarchy
Watch: Thai students protest Monarchy
Democracy Movement – Belarus
On August 9, Belarus erupted in spontaneous protests after Alexander Lukashenko, who has been president since 1994, emerged victorious in an election largely believed to be rigged. Shortly afterwards, his main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former teacher and wife of incarcerated opposition figure Sergei Tikhanovsky, fled to Lithuania. She later appeared in a YouTube video (see video below) in which she advised protesters to continue non-violent demonstrations. Street protests began even before the elections amidst widespread frustration over the arrest of government oppositionists, economic slowdown, and Lukashenko’s callous approach to COVID-19, which he claimed could be cured by drinking vodka and taking saunas. But the last few weeks have seen the protests burgeon and develop into a coalescence of diverse groups, including small business owners, workers at state-run enterprises, women, and students. As the demonstrations entered the fourth week with a massive rally in Minsk on August 30, protesters doubled down on demands which include the resignation of Lukashenko, holding of fresh elections, and prosecution of government officials accused of violence and torture. Though Lukashenko appears to be relying on Russian intervention, analysts argue that there is no guarantee such help will be extended at all.
Watch: Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s statement
Black Lives Matter – United States of America
Right from the beginning, it was easy to tell that the debates on contentious questions of colorism and systemic racial bias, triggered by the George Floyd protests, weren’t going to subside soon. What was unexpected however was the authorities’ eagerness to prove that black lives didn’t matter after all, bringing all those months of a largely peaceful Black Lives Matter movement to naught. When police officials grievously injured a young black man Jacob Blake on August 23 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the city quickly descended into street violence. As the fury spread, engulfing New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, the case of white teenaged gunman Kyle Rittenhouse hideously exposed the dual system of policing in the country, vindicating what protesters had been bellowing all along. Unfortunately, the United States has a “law & order” president who seems to want to inflame tensions with his racist dog whistles and incendiary threats of violence to indignant protesters on the one hand, and winking approval of right-wing supporters on the other. The killings and violent confrontations in Kenosha and Portland and Donald Trump’s subsequent reactions illustrate this better than anything else.
Standing their Ground…
Despite the distinct factors shaping each protest, all the protests have shared attributes. Long-smouldering rage lies at the heart of all these protests. Events acted as catalysts, merely causing the anger to explode. All of them are leaderless; organized and led by the citizenry. Demonstrators everywhere rely heavily on social media and encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp. Almost all the protests involve the participation of motley groups with divergent interests. Most of all, neither a deadly virus on the prowl, nor savage government crackdowns seem to deter them.
Almost all the protests involve the participation of motley groups with divergent interests.
In Lebanon, ever since the fury of the masses spilled over into the streets, security forces unleashed brute violence, using batons, pellet guns, and tear gas against demonstrators. There have also been reports of arbitrary arrests and torture of detainees, including electrocution.
In Belarus, thousands of protesters, whom Lukashenko called western puppets, have been beaten and reportedly detained in squalid detention centres. People have also reported frequent internet outages, triggering suspicions that the government is trying to smother dissent. While the state media is busy painting the protests as “riots”, authorities have withdrawn the accreditations of local and foreign media journalists independently covering the protests.
Watch: Belarus protests Media Crackdown
With a COVID-19-induced nation-wide emergency compounding the fact that criticism of the monarchy is a punishable crime, protesters in Thailand have been courting danger ever since they began demonstrating. Their use of quirky, pop culture-derived forms of dissent – organizing Harry Potter-themed protests, putting a spin on the Japanese cartoon Hamtaro song to turn it into an anti-government anthem – is probably their way of skirting censorship laws. All the same, authorities are cracking down hard, arresting prominent activists and harassing demonstrators.
Protesters in the U.S. haven’t been spared batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and arrests either. More than anything else, a president whose speech and actions are designed to sow discord, let wounds fester, and ignite fresh unrest is perhaps the greatest punishment the American people must endure.
A mass protest may not always end favorably. Mali is a case in point. Following months of unrelenting protests demanding the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), the dissolution of his government, and fresh elections, he finally stepped down on August 18 after a military coup. Though the French-backed president was a power-hungry, corrupt and highly unpopular figure, experts point out that his ouster may further destabilize an already conflict-ridden region. Besides, the choice between an autocrat’s regime and rule of the military is hardly any choice.
But that does not mean protests mustn’t go on. Today’s unchecked madness needs a counter-voice. The ongoing civilian movements are the counter-voice. Even as individuals are beaten unconscious, and cities begin to resemble infernos marked by debris, tear gas fumes and concertina wire spools, the collective spirit of fortitude driving these protests makes them worthwhile.
Today’s unchecked madness needs a counter-voice. The ongoing civilian movements are the counter-voice.
As the coronavirus death tolls climb and the grip of the global economic crisis tightens, right-wing demagogues’ dangerous predilection for greater authoritarianism in the name of good governance is bound to surge. So is public outrage. In fact, the more the Trumps, Orbáns, Erdoğans, Modis, Dutertes, Chan-ochas, and Lukashenkos, the more the righteous anger manifesting in ordinary people taking to streets to seek extraordinary changes.
Indeed in these bleak times, these protests – ennobled by their ideals – are the only fires of hope.