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Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation (part two)

The second part of this ad-hoc assembly engages different experiences of political organising and civil resistance against the ruling regime in Republic of Macedonia.

The call for this assembly is inspired by the mass protests in Macedonia that kicked off May 5, 2015. That day people rallied for justice and against police brutality. Protests persisted on each consecutive day and grew with demands for resignation of the entire government and criminal charges, building on a years of public outcry over the unjust and discriminating policies and actions by the Macedonian government. Citizens-activists and different organisations had already opened fronts of struggle demanding greater control by the people over institutions that politicians use to make decisions on their behalf. For years now, protests had been held against police brutality, urbanisation, pollution, in defense of students rights and for access to quality public education, demanding equality before public institutions, in the name of social justice and workers’ rights, against homophobia and heteronormative laws and for media freedom.

The goal of the second part of this assembly is to engage experiences that critically address questions about the growth of civil resistance, the cohesion and modes of representation (who speaks, on whose behalf and towards what were actions directed). In the first part we presented international experiences, while the second part zeroes in on civil resistance experiences in Macedonia. We ask, what has civil resistance been directed against and how has it build up, as it has been in the making?

The second part of this assembly presents four perspectives:

Assembly editors: Elena B. StavrevskaMila Shopova, and Anastas Vangeli

Photo: Nebojša Gelevski

The urban protest: Waging an ecological war

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation“. Author: Arianit Xhaferi

The winter season is usually the time when people lock up in the comfort of their homes and ‘hibernate’ for some time, while foregoing many outdoor activities. It is also the time when the air is polluted the most due to many different factors and contributors. It was on December 2013 when a group of concerned citizens of different professional backgrounds (now known as Eco Guerilla) decided to do something about the polluted air while calling on a protest which was meant to wake up the ‘hibernating’ citizens of Tetovo and the Pollog region.

The local and national media were informing the viewers on the very high concentration of carcinogenic particles in the air of Skopje and Bitola, but nothing was being said about Tetovo, which indeed was even more polluted compared to the other cities of Macedonia, according to data publicly provided by the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning. Eco Guerilla (then called ‘the Council’) decided it was time to do something in this regard. We met and discussed the forms of pollution and the potential contributors to each form, identified the biggest regional polluters, checked the Constitution and the regulations, and realised that there was a major violation of the national Constitution and many other laws and international agreements our country had signed, and which were related to environmental protection. Once we had enough information, we created a list of demands directed to the responsible authorities (both central and local) where we asked them to do something about the problem. In order to raise people’s awareness, we called a protest in December 2013. (For the exact dates and more details about all the protests, see www.ecoguerilla.mk). It was the very first time that some 200 people turned up at a protest which had nothing to do with national or political agenda. Although we considered this a fiasco, it helped get the attention of the local and at least one national media, thus more people got informed. As we also failed to bring more people to the second protest in a row (January 2014), we decided it was time that we built a new strategy which would raise awareness faster and wider, and which proved to be successful.

At first, it was difficult to get all the people to work together and voluntarily in this series of activities, but eventually we managed to ‘recruit’ many doctors, lawyers, journalists, and hundreds of field activists, to whom we were very honest as we spent lots of energy and time sharing all the information with each one of them. Journalists wrote about the problem as they were informed by doctors on all the health issues that air pollution brings, lawyers prepared different documents and acts as per our Constitution, activists made sure the information was disseminated as much as possible.

Neither ruling nor opposition political parties showed interest in our demands or activities, until we ‘took the war’ to their skin. It was only then that some opposition MPs spoke up and said a few words to the media. In general, Eco Guerilla has found more support and understanding with the opposition political parties that have no representatives in the National Assembly yet.

As mentioned above, Eco Guerilla’s strategy was to align doctors, journalists, lawyers and activists all together, in order to have the word spread the most. People only react out of personal interest or fear. The air is a very abstract concept for many to understand or tell the pollution, thus we focused on telling the citizens what damage the pollution causes to their health. Of course, we used official data when informing them about the 80% jump of carcinogenic diseases in three years, the raise of asthmatic and other respiratory related illnesses, the increasing number of miscarriages and the infertility rate of our fellow citizens, and many other health issues. The reaction was immediate. The protests organised later in 2014 had a much bigger attendance then any protests before, and the numbers rose even more with every other event.

Eco Guerilla has yet to succeed in making the government force the polluters to apply ecological standards and stop contaminating our air, water and soil. Yet, we must be proud and happy to say that we have managed to create a critical mass. The citizens of Tetovo are now much aware of the quality of air they breathe, and they are not happy with it. However, the political turmoil and the security related issues that have recently occurred in our country have thrown the whole ecological war in a secondary position, and the government has totally lost track of environmental issues.

“From May 5, until the end”

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation“. Author: Biljana Ginova

On May 5th, the leader of the opposition publicly presented the 29th set of leaked materials, or the 29th ‘bomb’, in which we heard a confirmation of all that we suspected regarding the murder of Neshkoski and against which we protested for days in 2011. That was the trigger to get out on the streets, but the revolt of the citizens gathered there was much older than Zaev’s ‘bombs’. The anger that we swallowed for years, condensed like a big lump in the throat that will not let you utter a word without your whole body twitching in pain erupted in jumping the barricades and occupying the government yard.

Thousands of people, crossing the fence were crossing their own expected boundaries and by occupying the government yard they were taking the political responsibility back into their own hands. That day, every inch of anger amassed through the oppressive history of independent Macedonia was released: from the Bucharest disappointment and the pain from the blows on the architecture students, through the hunger strike of the workers laid off due to bankruptcy in front of the Parliament and the anger of the murder of Martin Neshkoski, to the oppression with one after another bad laws for protection against discrimination, for abortion, for honoraria, for higher education, for everything to culminate with the meaningless of the human life for the ruling elite.

The protests that started on May 5th united thousands of citizens in the movement which was both individual and universal at the same time – #Protestiram. The people in this movement, each with their own story, came to the fore as politically responsible subjects, dedicated to the changes we want to see in this country. As the movement came into being, the demands were defined at a street plenum and united all the personal struggles and aspirations in the given context. Even though the natural partner in the realisation of those demands was the party opposition, a big part of the citizens were skeptical of their methods and their dedication to a complete revision and democratisation of the society.

Just like for many others, May 5th was also a surprise for the opposition. It turned out that they wanted people on the streets, but people who would give them bargaining power and would follow their plan and pace, not self-organised citizens who will finally demand a substantial change. As a result, even though understandable, instead of joining the self-organised civi resistance, after May 17th the opposition attempted to place the revolt under one umbrella and to direct it towards the partisan resistance in the form of a camp in front of the government building. In addition to that came the ad hominem attacks and labelling by the activists gravitating towards this resistance in an attempt to delegitimise #Protestiram and the activists who criticised the (lack of) influence of the negotiations that started in the meantime.

The negotiations among the four leaders of the biggest political parties took place far from the public eye, without any civic participation and without guarantee that the citizens’ demands will be represented in the talks. Having no insight into the negotiations, the only source of information were the leaders’ statements following the meetings which were often different, and sometimes opposite to each other. The June 2 agreement, on the other hand, which was expected to provide the framework for further negotiations, left many questions unanswered. What was also noticeable in the agreement was the absence of the key citizens’ demands. With the start of the negotiations, the sense of resistance on the streets was lost and the panic among the ruling elite that we witnesses with the very announcement of Zaev’s ‘bombs’ was gone. The negotiations were concluded by all negotiating parties claiming victory. At the negotiations, however, at no moment in time, in no way was there an involvement of the citizens who were not represented by the political parties whose leaders negotiated until the very end.

Despite the challenges and the suffocation of the protest, I consider them successful. They made the street a place for political articulation of the citizens, but they also showed that in the current context of the country, the resistance should separate from the party opposition and should evolve in a different form of political participation. We will see in the coming days what form that will take, but I will certainly like to see a positioning of as many citizens in the country as possible as independent political subjects, offering a personal vision without or regardless of party affiliation.

 

The citizens in the midst of politics – old struggle for new values

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation“. Author: Bojan Marichikj

The few massive student demonstrations and the free student zones at universities across Macedonia towards the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 encouraged multiple disparate groups of citizens (journalists, workers without permanent contracts, etc.) to organise protests occupying the streets as spaces of political activism. In this article I elaborate on the most massive form of civil resistance against the government in Macedonia and Gruevism as a model of governance, which emerged from this wave of activism – the coalition “The citizens for Macedonia”.

Why “The citizens for Macedonia”?

The publication of a series of so-called bombs by the opposition party SDSM confirmed the long-held fears and assumptions of the majority of civil activists and civil organisations. The recordings showed, namely, that the institutions have been hijacked by a small clique of power-holders, that the ruling parties control all branches of power (legislative, executive and judicial), that there is practically no single institution, independent body or a political process in which the citizens can place their trust or upon which they could have any influence.

The expected role of civil society in democratic societies is to be a corrective of government policies on behalf of the public, thereby not participating directly in political power struggles. This is the key distinction between the viewpoint of the civil society and that of the political parties, who realise the public, but also the particular interest of their ideological platform via the political and electoral process to ensure influence in the institutions of the representative democracy. However, in abnormal circumstances whereby civil organisations and activists are constant targets of demonisation, hate speech, institutional repression, and media lynching, it is impossible not to blur the delineation between political and party activism, at least temporarily.

The need for unification of the opposition front against Gruevski and his political clique arises from the impotence of any single political group (regardless of whether they fight for votes or influence on behalf of the public interest) to independently form a wide and successful front that would surpass the limits of their own activism hitherto, in conditions of total control over media, captured institutions, and orchestrated repression by the government. Since the Macedonian society is no longer a democratic one, and the government refuses to change its course, the last remaining option was to form a civil coalition of political parties in opposition led by SDSM and civil organisations and activist groups (as well as individual activists), which was launched in May 2015 under the name “The citizens for Macedonia” and issued a common declaration.

New values created by the struggle

The coalition “The citizens for Macedonia” enabled the unification of the most part of those smaller fronts against Gruevski and Gruevism as a concept into a large front that neither Gruevski nor the international community would be able to ignore anymore. Furthermore, the camp in front of the Government building became a symbol for endurance and resolution of the common struggle against the current regime. The presence of a significant number of citizens in this camp, that do not necessarily come only from the opposition parties, put pressure on Gruevski and his collaborators who now have to face the citizens’ revolt every day. This is not the only pressure point of revolt, but it is the only one that lasts for 24 hours a day on a single visible space.

Furthermore, it is a symbolic space which was held shut for civil protests from May 6th to May 17th, the period during which citizens protested every day following the publication of the recordings in which the government tried to hide details about the tragic murder of Martin Neshkoski in June 2011. With the reclaiming of this space from May 17th onwards, the government was forced to accept that the people will not accept the existence of “forbidden zones” limiting their right to protest and that the citizens’ revolt will be expressed every day just below the window of the man in power.

“The citizens for Macedonia” as a concept encouraged many who see themselves as “neutral”, “apolitical”, “undecided”, and yet at the same time extremely unsatisfied by the current government. In this sense, the concept showed that the confrontation with the clique in power goes beyond an ordinary inter-party struggle for power between VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM. This platform has shown that a fundamental clash is actually taking place – between the majority of citizens demanding democracy, freedom, and social justice on one side and Gruevski and his party and ruling elite on the other, who use anti-democratic methods and abuse power in order to stay in power.

The coalition “The citizens for Macedonia” gave birth to a new civil spirit of community that overcomes the usual ethnic, religious, gender, moral, ideological differences, and goes even beyond special interests politics. The decision to not display party flags at the massive civil protest is more than purely symbolic. It also proves the readiness to sacrifice the domination of political parties within the opposition camp and to open a forum for unified activism without any conditions or blackmailing. The camp also provided space for different people with the same goal to be on the same spot to learn from one another; it enabled communication between citizens from Skopje and other cities, people from different ethnic affiliations, people ready for open discussion and action that would contribute to the democratic process.

“The citizens for Macedonia” is the largest and the most powerful front with over 15 political parties and over 80 civil organisations or activist groups. This front is not, nor does it pretend to be the only one in the fight against Gruevism as a method of governance. The side fronts outside “The citizens for Macedonia” can only help us comprehend the multiplicity of the fight against the ruling regime in Macedonia.

One of the messages of “The citizens for Macedonia” is that the power of any future government has to be decreased and that conditions, support and motivation must be created for active, vocal and critical citizens. This means that every future government must give up use of the available repressive instruments against political opponents as well as its methods for quenching any criticism and civil activism via media, institutional or non-institutional interventions.

Lastly, the duration of this coalition is limited by the fall of Gruevski. The harder part of exterminating Gruevism as a method of ruling remains to be a common goal of all subjects in “The citizens for Macedonia”. However, that struggle will be led independently by each subject – we will act from our position of citizens that are self-organised to fight for the public interest at large without any aspirations to power, whereas the parties will fight in the political arena to realise their political platforms. This coalition will not be an obstacle for the civil organisations to criticise SDSM as a future ruling party, on the contrary. The civil society has an obligation to show that it does not give up on politics nor does it leave it only up to politicians to manage, and it will always be there to criticise and control those who hold power.

David versus Goliath

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation“. Author: Jordan Šišovski

After May 17th, the resistance entered in a deep crisis. The protests deflated and the awaited turnaround did not happen. To be able to even consider the strategic course of action we first have to examine the identity of the resistance and the nature of its crisis.

The rally on May 17th only showed what has been evident for many for a long time: SDSM has neither strategy, nor vision, nor strength to cause a substantial change in the society. The long-awaited ‘bombs’ unfoundedly raised the expectations of a desired change, while at the same time the leadership of the party, of the coalition parties and of the coalition non-governmental organisations, united under the “Umbrella”, completely failed in their assessment of: (1) the strength and the determination of the regime, (2) their own forces and capacity, (3) the interest of the ‘international community’ in the democracy in the country, and (4) the trust of the people. The last and most important assessment error indicated that the people are fully aware of the extent of corruption of the elites and that having been continuous faced with choosing between two evils, they no longer intend to choose evil, even if it was the lesser one! The people chose resignation. The rally was announced as a pompous event with the pathetic “We are coming!” There were many people on the streets on the day of the event, but their expectations of change were deceived. SDSM showed they did not know why they took so many people to the street. In the days that followed, the uninspired project managers of the ‘Freedom camp’ managed to transform the false hope into apathy.

It is in light of this that we ought to consider the nature of the crisis in the resistance that showed great energy on May 5th and soon took the form of the #Protestiram movement. Even in the first days after May 5th, the identity problems within this movement were apparent. It was an ideologically incoherent body. On the one hand there were activists who gravitate towards SDSM and on the other, there were activists who tried to suppress their distrust of SDSM in the name of the struggle against the greater evil – the authoritarian regime. The main disadvantage of the movement was in the fundamental unsustainability of the idea of ​​burying all differences until the fall of the regime. It became evident that the differences were substantial and ideological. While some showed strong liberal and anti-authoritarian tendencies, the pro-SDSM group acted in quite an authoritarian fashion. The constant insistence on a complete and blind support of the SDSM leadership, the ‘you are either with us or against us’ logic, and the demonisation of everyone who did not give their wholehearted support to SDSM with the derogatory “neutrals” only went to show the authoritarian tendencies in the ranks of the pro-SDSM wing of the resistance.

With the pompous “We are coming!” on May 17th, the pro-SDSM wing was completely drawn into a false victorious euphoria resulting from the disastrous assessment of SDSM. The false sense of size and strength stemmed from wrong Hegelian assumption that the quantity by itself turns into quality. The impressive number of citizens on the streets was not a guarantee that they were also motivated for action. This was perfectly estimated by the security forces – while on May 5th, there were thousands of special forces, so called “turtles”, on the streets of Skopje, on May 17th and the period after the government was ‘kept safe’ by a ridiculously small number of policemen. The ‘coming’ actually meant replacing the political with a politically impotent spectacle. The massive rally with its gravity completely pulled much of the (pro-SDSM) activist core into the orbit of SDSM/GM. It got a false aura of triumphalism and before the regime had even fallen, they started with a vulturous tearing apart of the ‘pie’ of the projected power and a calculation of the projected contenders to the ‘throne’. This thwarted its last, desperate battle with the regime.

 

Moral. People have completely lost confidence in the political caste. They are not willing to invest themselves once again in replacing one evil with a lesser evil. ‘The internationals’ are not ready to risk a change of the status quo in Macedonia. The regime shows a high degree of rational self-interest, flexibility and power to remain in place at all costs, while completely lacking morality, responsibility, and interest in the future of the country. SDSM and the ‘Citizens for Macedonia’ coalition show a complete absence of strategy, vision, and power to change both themselves and the society. This is also evident in the Przino agreement of July 15th, which is a mere technical agreement on the division of power between the coalition partners. In it, there is not even a mention of the values ​​such as freedom, democracy, justice! It follows that all progressive and liberal forces in the society should prepare for a long David-against-Goliath battle. SDSM is a futile political apolitical entity that is neither a useful ally, nor a worthy opponent. The struggle against the regime is not a struggle against a person or a group. It is a struggle agains two-decade long authoritarian and reactionary tendencies. This devaluation should be resisted by a force with clear liberal and progressive values. Only by practicing radical liberty, democracy, and transparency of the actions can the rigid authoritarian logic of the political caste be ruffled. It is necessary to open new venues of resistance, to politicise the quiet majority, and encourage grassroots and one’s own resistance.

We will need mad hope and faith in the power of our weakness!

We shall overcome!

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Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation (part one)

This ad-hoc assembly engages different experiences of political organising and civil resistance against ruling regimes.

The call for this assembly is inspired by the mass protests in Macedonia that kicked off May 5, 2015. That day people rallied for justice and against police brutality. Protests persisted on each consecutive day and grew with demands for resignation of the entire government and criminal charges, building on a years of public outcry over the unjust and discriminating policies and actions by the Macedonian government. Citizens-activists and different organisations had already opened fronts of struggle demanding greater control by the people over institutions that politicians use to make decisions on their behalf. For years now, protests had been held against police brutality, urbanisation, pollution, in defense of students rights and for access to quality public education, demanding equality before public institutions, in the name of social justice and workers’ rights, against homophobia and heteronormative laws and for media freedom.

The contributions to this assembly engage experiences from different spaces to address questions about the growth of civil resistance, the cohesion and modes of representation (who speaks, on whose behalf and towards what were actions directed). In this way we hope to bring to light visions about the distribution of political power, frames of knowledge and actions. To do that, we ask for experiences about people’s struggle against ruling regimes across borders, and in Macedonia. We ask, what was civil resistance directed against and how did it build up, as it was in the making?

The first part of this assembly presents four international perspectives:

 

Assembly editors: Mila Shopova, Elena B. Stavrevska, and Anastas Vangeli

Photo: Vancho Dzambaski

Of struggles, protests and plenums in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation”. Authors: Zoran Vučkovac and Emin Eminagić

Blazing images of Bosnia and Herzegovina sent into the world from the February 2014 protests were only the tip of the iceberg that has been paralysing the country ever since the war. Protesters took to the streets and set the government buildings ablaze in a symbolic act that points to the gist of its numerous problems. The country’s institutions largely became a partycratic oligarchy backed by the Dayton Peace Accords, actively maintaining and reproducing ethnic divisions for twenty years now. Arising from the fire, plenums or public assemblies emerged not only from the need for more active citizenship and direct democracy, but also as an outcry to stop with the blatant robbery of public and natural resources through clientelism and criminal privatisations. At one point there were exclamations of fearless speech among the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in an attempt to reclaim a political language they have been denied since the end of the war. For the first time after the war, in the media one could hear expressions like solidarity, social justice, and equality, instead of the usual ethno-nationalist identitarian rhetoric present in the public discourse in Bosnia and Herzegovina.[1]

The demands formulated during the protests and plenums did not arise from nothing; they come from a long line of exercising public dissent and calls for more solidarity. Protests and plenums were preceded by several events in which Bosnians and Herzegovinians transcended ethnic divisions in their struggle for the commons. Those are the Tuzla student plenum in 2009, the protests of Tuzla’s workers for the past 10 years, Banja Luka “Picin Park” protests in 2012 and Sarajevo “Babylution” the year after.

In the case of Picin Park, citizens clearly stated that the struggle for the park is a “metaphor for the communality that opens up spaces for communication and action” against the use of “force and control in everyday life, overbearing politicians, but for a just society.” The protest received support from both sides of entity lines, sidelining ethno-national issues to the unified cause – struggle for public space. Babylution or the JMBG protests came along a year later and again pointed out to the lack of a functional state, and the dehumanisation of citizens through ethno-national matrix. [2]

On the Tuzla protests and representation

Although Bosnia and Herzegovina is full of examples of solidarity in action, it becomes evident that every new protest has their ground zero. Little has been done to preserve the legacies of former struggles, and even less to create a platform for sharing experiences and capacities among the local activists. Protesters and activists are easily isolated and criminalised without proper legal or media support. Bosnia is lacking in physically liberated spaces as both the left and the NGO scene function guerilla-style, with no clear vision of change and reform, or systemic approach to the completely dysfunctional state. Case in point is the new Compact for Growth and Jobs, an EU package of reform measures for Bosnia, initiated by the British-German initiative. Pushing for economic instead of political reforms and allegedly addressing the people’s needs, the Compact literally hijacks Bosnian protests of 2014 in order to push for more austerity and labour market reforms, whilst offering more of the same neoliberal policies that have been at work since the end of the war. At the same time, the Republika Srpska entity is fast-tracking a number of laws about public space, and the right to protest that significantly reduce the window for voicing consent. Even though there are signs of allegiances made across entity borders and actions that surpass identitarian politics Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to preserve its memories of workers, anti-fascist and anti-nationalist struggles as well as urban (all of them very political of course) struggles. On top of this, there is a need for more regionally coordinated action so similar groups will not repeat the same mistakes.

[1] Arsenijevic, Damir (ed.) Unbribable Bosnia and Herzegovina – The Fight for the Commons, Nomos, 2014.

[2] Because of the lack of political consent on personal identity number (JMBG), newborns were unable to apply for passports and travel abroad. Berina Hamidovic, three months old baby died because she was unable to receive proper medical treatment abroad.

(Euro)Maidan is over, the Revolution of Dignity goes on

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation”. Author: Olga Zelinska

In the winter of 2013/2014, Ukraine got into the headlines of international news. (Euro)Maidan was the second, after the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’, all-national contention in the country’s short history. In both cases people were driven to the streets by the sense of growing injustice (disrespect of the authorities, ignorance to people’s needs and flourishing corruption), accompanied by a deepened socio-economic crisis.

Before the actual events, sociologists revealed high and stable levels of dissatisfaction and readiness to protest. These were ignored by Yanukovych. Earlier attempts of protests (against taxes, language policy, police cover-ups and judicial corruption) had no chances of expanding under his repressive regime. In the spring of 2013, the opposition failed in getting sufficient support for the ‘Raise Ukraine’ campaign. So, when people actually took to the streets of Kyiv, it came as a surprise to the government, the opposition, and the analysts.

The postponement of a EU-Ukraine deal was the trigger for the first ‘civic’ Maidan on the Independence Square, which brought together civic activists, students, and ordinary Kyivites. The reaction of the opposition was quick – it could not ignore such a promising element of a pre-electoral PR. Few days later, a ‘political’ Maidan emerged just 300 meters down the street, on European Square. For a week, the leaders of both Maidans discussed plans for joining the efforts. In the end, it was the brutal beating of the students which brought them together, as well as thousands of others, arriving from numerous protesting cities of both the East and the West.

As the regime hardened its grip with police attacks and legal repressions, protesters persistently arrived to Kyiv, took shifts, build barricades and learned self-defence. Surveys show that 70% of Kyiv Maidan participants came there on their own, 12% through NGOs, and only 12 to 13% (in different periods) through a political party. They were, thus, not inclined to obey any institution and, at the same time, bore the responsibility for own actions.

The opposition had to ask Maidan for a ‘mandate’ to negotiate with the authorities. This was no easy job. 83% of the protesters were determined to stay on Maidan until all the demands were met. The claims were quite extensive, especially after the police opened fire on the demonstrators, and included the resignation of the President, the Parliament, the Government and a major ‘power reload’ through snap elections. Considering the authorities were ready for minor concessions only, the negotiators faced a ‘mission impossible’. So it happened.

After the opposition-presented ‘round table’ results were booed by the crowd, the leader of one of the Maidan units got on stage and announced an ultimatum to the President – ‘resign by tomorrow, 10 a.m’. Yanukovych did not need to be asked twice – he fled the country the same night.

It was no ‘happy end’, however. The Maidan is over, but the Revolution of Dignity goes on. The country went through presidential and parliamentary elections, and there have been struggles with the Crimea annexation and a sore conflict with Russia in the East. Reforms are going slowly, expectations border disillusionment. If the underlying reasons of protest keep being ignored, Maidan-3, the experts say, is possible.

Modes of resistance and Tahrir Square

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation”. Author: Dina Fergani

Tahrir Square has a special place in contemporary political psyche. It became a dream icon for urban resistance throughout the world, and was also a place to examine the possible modes of resistance for the Egyptian people.

At the early phases of the Egyptian revolution, Tahrir square functioned as a unifying tool, making it a utopic blueprint where all political plans were charted. During that period it was relatively easy to organise various political factions and individuals, on one common cause, that of ousting Mubarak and the representations of his police state. Around such demands converged Islamists, Marxists, Nationalists, Liberals and everything in between, in addition to thinkers, workers, students, clerics and others. Tahrir Square, thus, converged a myriad of people and relations that were actively kept separate outside of it by the hegemonic forces of both capitalism and the state. However, as the revolution progressed the space became layered with certain contradictions.

As the events of the Egyptian revolution unfolded, the one-time square friends became foes, in a classical dialectic of power struggle. The temporal alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and several revolutionary forces crumbled down as the brotherhood ascended to power and excluded those very factions that supported them in the elections. In return revolutionary forces had a strong presence in the June 30 protests that led to Sisi’s ascension to power. Also, several reports were revealed of violence directed towards females at the midst of revolutionary liberation and celebrations. These incidents do not in any way distill the potency of the square as a tool of resistance, but rather shed light on the complexity of urban resistance.

Tahrir square operated as an alternative city and was divided into three main areas: a battlefield, a buffer space and areas of social services (field hospitals, art corners, communal schools for street kids). People did not converge in these spaces in an egalitarian manner. Factors of class and gender were decisive in the distribution of people and power. The battlefield was at the outskirts of the square, where protestors clashed with either the police or army over controlling territory. This area was the backbone of Tahrir, since no sit-in would have been possible without actively fighting for the right of space. This space was the most violent and predominantly (but not exclusively) occupied by young working and middle class men. A gender divide was also visible around this area, as women were continuously discouraged from approaching the front lines. Women, however, congregated in large numbers on the outskirts applying medications, to mitigate the effect of tear gas, or bandages, on rubber bullet injuries. The second area of the square was the buffer space between the areas of clashing and the rest of the city. This area was the entrance point to the square, and was saturated by various citizen-run checkpoints. This zone acted as the visible representation of the political will of the people present, and was the most socially diverse. The last area was that of the field hospitals run by volunteer doctors and pharmacists. The health practitioners occupied street corners, but more often than not they occupied nearby mosques and churches since their enclosed architecture deemed them safer. It is interesting that these religious institutions also provided these services in the outer city, especially with the decay of state-run services. The square was thus a citizen-run city, with a rigid structure corresponding to familiar forms of organising space found in several urban spaces. Citizens became the providers of services, not in the individualistic neoliberal sense where access is only granted to consumers who can accumulate capital, but rather as a collective.

Thinking about the potency of the collective organising, it is useful to mention Gramsci, the Italian political theorist, who theorised the concept of hegemony and saw the constraints for political action in capitalist rule: an act of resistance within it will always recreate its power relations rather than change them. Gramsci alludes to two contradictory consciousnesses. One is formed by the collective in organising and transforming the world. The other is based upon uncritical absorption of old social relations. The dialectic between the two, creates political action leading to change. It can be said that Tahrir square provided the medium for this dialectic as the protestors experienced both consciousnesses. This dialectic made the square a blueprint for social progression. The square became a place of alteration of consciousness, and a place of examining the possible modes of resistance, which was the first step in a prolonged series of resistances.

 

Works cited:

  • Gramsci, Antonio, Quintin Hoare, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Selections from The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

 

Resistance in Thailand a year after the 2014 coup

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation”. Author: Rangsiman Rome

Any writing about the state and forms of political organising and civil resistance in Thailand today is indelible from the conditions lived since the military coup from 22 May 2014. Yet, to understand Thailand’s latest coup detat, I share a few words about the present-day context, specifically some of the consequence of the former coup on 19 September 2006.

The 2006 coup was to eliminate then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra of the Thai Rak Thai Party. His policies, e.g. the “30 baht health care program” and “village fund,” made him highly popular among people from the impoverished North and Northeast region. Yet he was not favored by the upper middle class, mostly from the capital, as well as Thai elites, who are related to a higher political institution (which I cannot mention). These people strongly believe that Thaksin is anti-monarchy, a single claim, sufficient however, for many Thai people to hate someone. Democrat Party’s supporters also buy into this claim about Thaksin. They have used time and again the same accusation against opponents. Following the 2006 coup, the Red Shirts emerged — an anti-coup, pro-democracy civil movement supporting, and supported by, Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party.

Even after a major election victory of Pheu Thai Party in 2007 (then People’s Power party, the revival of the dissolved Thai Rak Thai), the conflict and political division between Royalists and pro-democracy remained. Over the years the Red Shirts held protests, as did the opposition civil movements, the Yellow shirt (supporting and also supported by elites and the higher political institution). Discord grew deeper as Democrat Party took over the Premier’s seat without elections. In 2010, over 70 civilians were killed in a violent army crackdown on a months-long Red Shirt sit-in in Bangkok’s financial and shopping district. No government official has yet been held accountable for the deaths, although Pheu Thai Party won an election victory in 2011.

The coup d’etat on 22 May 2014, with support from Thai elites, was one more attempt to wipe out the Red Shirts, Shinawatra’s supporters, and other pro-democracy citizen groups which are not affiliated with political parties. Yet, after the 2014 coup there was no sign of opposition neither from the Red Shirts nor from Shinawatra’s party. Both seemed to submit to the overthrown power. The anti-coup movement that has appeared since, is primarily organised by student activists and other citizens’s groups. For example, League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy (LLTD) is a student activist group that questions the current political structure and fights against abuse of office by the government, opposes the coup detat and unjust laws. This and other movements are smaller in capacity when compared to the massive Red Shirts, but they are truly independent from political parties. Any affiliation of a movement to an existing political party can serve as grounds for attack regardless of the intention of the movement. Political parties may also refuse to stand for their supporters. For example, many Red Shirt members were blamed and charged with severe accusation just because they defended Pheu Thai Party in this period, yet the party did nothing to protect them.

Protest against the 2014 coup started the day after. Already on 23 May, students from many universities and citizen activists came to the streets to join the resistance. For around three weeks, the anti-coup movement was intense and widely supported by the people. The number of protesters had reached thousands at its peak.

Social media has been the major factor in the current anti-coup movement. In the first two weeks after the coup, this proved to be a successful method. Students and activists could reach out to many to join the resistance. Publicising, however, through social media inadvertently led the Junta to the appointed destination, cracking down on protesters, sometimes even by force. Leaders of the anti-coup groups were summoned to report to the Junta, arrested, or threatened, and resistance has since been much harder to organise. Some members from different groups continue to be regularly visited in their homes by military personal for disciplining conversations. Others are prosecuted for defying the junta orders, an act often interpreted by the ad-hoc junta-led tribunals as violation of lèse majestè, an offence that can lead to a lifetime imprisonment. As a result, many from resistance groups have fled the country.

Today, resistance is difficult to voice. Any political public gathering of more than a few people is considered violation of the junta orders. Any event that opposes the coup is interrupted or forced to cancel. For example, in May 2015 at the one-year anniversary of the last coup, students and citizens intending to join a peaceful, symbolic event, were injured and arrested by police officers. Most recently, the junta forced the cancellation of a talk on human rights at a journalists’ club in Bangkok. Overall, resistance now appears subtly, in events that are not straightforwardly against the coup. Events like eating sandwich or watching the Hunger Games were to show those who think the Coup has no effect on their lives that even normal activity can be disrupted under the dictatorship. The most blatant act might be the Thammasat University’s annual political parade. Thammasat has a leading role in Thai political history, so there was an expectation of students to speak up against the government. Yet, organising is becoming more and more difficult due to surveillance and direct threats to activists. For example, although the junta stated that no charges will be made against the students after the crackdown on the May 2015 gathering bemoaning the coup, few students are now summoned and likely to have charges raised against them. Moreover, people are afraid and discouraged to join or support the resistance as the movement is slandered through mass media and social network. Wrong accusations are that the anti-coup movement is backed by Thaksin Shinawatra, or the movement is another form of the Red Shirts, a movement rejected by the middle and upper class in the country capital Bangkok. A smear campaign has been launched to discredit students and citizens activists, mostly on the Internet as a kind of a witch hunt.

Student activist with a pro democracy academic, who is known to be homosexual, is used with a homophobic slur in Thai that read “faggot gang”, 2014
Student activist with a pro democracy academic, who is known to be homosexual, is used with a homophobic slur in Thai that read “faggot gang”, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shortly after the 22 May incident, a photo of student activist and police fighting went on the front covers. A Facebook page uses it in comparison with a photo of somebody else, trying to mislead people that students activist is a person who beats a Buddhist monk. May 2015
Shortly after the 22 May incident, a photo of student activist and police fighting went on the front covers. A Facebook page uses it in comparison with a photo of somebody else, trying to mislead people that students activist is a person who beats a Buddhist monk. May 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students and citizens are working hard to defend and counter the smear campaign, yet it seems insufficient. Lies, smearing, and defamation are our major obstacle to grow the resistance among the people. Thai society will tune out what we are trying to say if they are led to believe that political parties and our cause is not purely people’s. That is why, our movement, in my view, must remain faithful to its cause and persist. We want to speak to our sympathizers, but also to those who oppose us.

People in Thailand continue to face absurdities from the Junta daily.

We will continue fighting!