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:
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.
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.
Gramsci, Antonio, Quintin Hoare, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Selections from The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers, 1971.
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 d’etat, 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 d’etat 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.
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.
On the eve of the first local referendum in Macedonia to preserve the original look of GTC (City Trade Centre), we address the significance of the present moment in which the citizens will be directly shaping their city. Over 43.000 citizens residing in the Centar municipality will be voting in favour of or against the preservation of the original modernist look of GTC. A referendum campaign held in April and a recent publication familiarised the citizens with the significance of preserving the building’s original architectural style.
Arguments in favour or against the referendum question revolve around the function and the significance of GTC. On one hand, supporters of the planned makeover suggest that GTC, fenced off with walls and secured from bad weather conditions, will become a more pleasant space for shoppers. In contrast, various citizen initiatives and the Association of Architects argue that the proposed changes will transform GTC from a space open to diverse – not consumer-only – experiences to a big-box mall.
We here build on existing arguments around the planned makeover, expanding the debate towards the wider concepts of urbanisation, and the possibility and/or necessity for citizens to directly shape their cities. The local referendum is an alternative to public consultations, a mode of participation that is common for urban planning in Macedonia, and is for most part either symbolic or it disenfranchises citizens. Deciding directly about the processes of urbanisation, citizens claim their right to the city— the right to remake collectively the environment that they inhabit. What possibilities, spaces and relations, then, emerge when citizens make direct decisions about the processes of urbanisation? How is this achieved through urban planning and architecture? Can architects, urban planners and institutions in Macedonia support the planning of a city of all and for all its citizens?
Urban planning gains popularity in the public debates whenever there are new announcements of the “Skopje 2014” project, or when students are beaten up on the square, or when the corrupted urban plans are the topic of the opposition’s ‘bombs’ or, these days, when the first citizen referendum for GTC (City Trade Centre) is being held. But the systemic consequences of the commercial and political intrusion into spatial planning are much wider than the already destroyed central area of Skopje.
A vast part of the changes in the planning legislation in the past eight years have been either motivated by personal real estate gain of the politicians in power, or passed with the purpose to create conditions for smooth and legally unobstructed realisation of the “Skopje 2014” project. However, the laws apply equally throughout the republic and these overly frequent partial changes of the planning legislation – from 2006, the Law on Spatial and Urban Planning has been changed twelve, and the Law on Building seventeen times – leave catastrophic consequences in all cities, villages, and natural areas. For instance, the law changes passed in order to enable the transformation of the green hills of Vodno into building parcels, at the same time legalised the destruction of green and forested areas throughout the entire country.
But maybe one of the harshest consequences of the hasty law changes has been the gradual abolishment of the civil right to participate in the decision-making processes regarding our own environment. While the planning practice on a global scale is transforming into a localised, inclusive discipline that actively engages citizens, in Macedonia the reverse trend has been developing: centralisation of the decision-making in urban planning and marginalisation of the citizens. The basic tool for participation in local planning, since the beginnings of independent Macedonia, has been the public survey. In the public survey, after a short presentation, the detailed urban plans are exposed, and the citizens have the opportunity to leave written remarks that are then reviewed by a professional commission and eventually, accepted into the final plan. It has been common practice that the plans presented on the public surveys are graphically complex and chaotic, difficult to read even for professional planners, and nearly undecipherable for common citizens. Experience has shown that the turnout on these public surveys is very low, and the percentage of accepted complaints even lower.
Instead of offering the necessary upgrade of the public survey and the introduction of contemporary methods of citizen participation, such as workshops, interactive discussions or debates, the law changes have been vigorously taking away the decision-making power from the citizens and professionals, and handing it over to the city and municipality mayors, or to the Minister. Accordingly, with the changes in the Law on Spatial and Urban Planning, the public survey was shortened from 15 to 10 days for the cities and 5 days for the villages and uninhabited areas. After a successful Constitutional Court initiative in 2010, asking for the annulment of the non-legitimate Detailed urban plan for the central area of Skopje, where the “Skopje 2014” is focused, mechanisms for quick plan-making procedures have been implemented, shortening the dedicated time for professional and general public debate. Furthermore, new unconstitutional forms of urban planning documentations have been introduced, enabling the Government, the Minister or the mayors to make unlimited changes in the urban plans, skipping the common procedures and regulatory frameworks. Responding to the protests of the citizens of central Skopje that would not allow for the ‘baroquisation”’of their buildings’ facades, with the Law on Building, the city and municipality councils were given the power to make detailed decisions regarding the facades of buildings, regardless of the citizens’ feedback, if deemed ‘of importance for the municipality’. In order to encourage the Skopje 2014 ‘baroque’ style for new buildings, on the other hand, investors that build in the architectural style chosen by the municipalities are relieved of 50% of the communal taxes!
All these decisions and law changes progressively centralise the decision-making power regarding the spatial planning and development of our environment, and are gradually completely shutting off the citizens as a decision-making factor. On the day of the first authentic infiltration into the discriminatory urban politics – the local referendum for GTC, we must not forget that the thorough restructuring of the planning legislation must be an inevitable part of the process for re-democratisation of the country and the building of an inclusive society where the citizen participation in the creation of spatial politics will be not only enabled, but actively, legally encouraged.