Interview with The Nation
The pandemic gives states an excuse to clamp down on the opposition, but it will also allow protesters to build solidarity with their communities.
By Nithin Coca
Last year, students, workers, and activists took to the streets across much of Asia to demand political rights, civil liberties, labor protections, and more. While the fight for democracy in Hong Kong grabbed the most attention, there were mass movements throughout the region. In Indonesia, tens of thousands of people marched against a proposed omnibus bill that would violate labor, environmental, and civil rights; these were the largest public demonstrations since the 1998 uprising that overthrew its military dictatorship. In India, millions protested against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, a law explicitly excluding Muslim migrants from becoming citizens that was rushed through Parliament in December.
Malaysia, too, seemed on the cusp of popular revolt after backdoor political maneuvering in February allowed the former ruling coalition—thrown out in a historic election just two years prior—to regain power against the people’s will. While the 2019 protests across Asia did not topple any governments, it was widely expected that 2020 would follow in 2019’s steps. But then came Covid-19, which has halted social life—and mass demonstrations—almost entirely.
“This pandemic, it sort of put everything on hold,” said Iqra Anugrah, a postdoctoral fellow at the center for Southeast Asian studies at Kyoto University in Japan, who focuses his research on social movements. “The sense of confusion is real, and people don’t know what to do.”
One the one hand, the Covid-19 crisis is giving increasingly authoritarian governments opportunities to cement power. But on the other, it exposes the governments’ failures to protect public safety and health, which could fuel even stronger and better organized movements in the future.
With tens of thousands of people crossing the border from mainland China every day, Hong Kong was one of the early front lines of the pandemic. And when the severity of the outbreak in China began to become clear, the Hong Kong government seemed committed to inaction. “During January and February, despite very high voices from the residents and health care givers demanding the government to shut down the border, the government was very hesitant on responding,” said Klavier Wong, an independent media researcher who got her post-doc from the Education University of Hong Kong.
Many Hong Kong residents have vivid memories of the 2003 SARS outbreak that killed 286 people in the city and was, like the Covid-19 crisis, initially covered up by Chinese authorities. One result is that many consider any hesitation far too risky. Mask wearing, working from home, and social distancing rapidly have become nearly universal, even without any government mandates in place. The massive gatherings that had characterized life in the city since June 5, 2019, have stopped. There were still a few smaller protests, often on behalf of health care workers, which eventually forced the government to close borders and institute mandatory quarantines for incoming residents.
Health experts believe that Hong Kong has seen relatively few cases primarily because of the action of residents and civil society. “Hong Kongers keep telling ourselves, we’ve done reasonably well not because of the government, but because of our own alertness. We knew the government is not to be trusted,” said Claudia Mo, an independent democrat and member of the Hong Kong legislative council.
At the same time as Hong Kong police were beating demonstrators and launching teargas canisters into crowds, protests began in Indonesia. They started because President Joko Widodo, who handily won reelection last April, aims to use use his mandate to rewrite the criminal code. The supposedly pro-business measures include removing requirements for environmental impact assessments around large-scale infrastructure projects, limiting workers’ rights, and making blasphemy against the president a punishable offense. The scale and extent of protests, which took place around the country, surprised many. “It was pretty impressive initially. They gained a lot of momentum, a lot of support,” said Anugrah. “They managed to create some noise in mainstream media and political discourses.”
After a slowdown in late 2019, public rallies began picking up in January when labor unions started organizing to fight the anti-worker reforms. That quickly got scaled down—and then eliminated entirely, once the danger to public health posed by the coronavirus became clear.
One concern activists and observers have across the region is that the lockdowns will allow states to clamp down on the opposition and pass unpopular laws.
Activists are particularly fearful in India, where last August, Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government put all of Kashmir in lockdown for political reasons. The pandemic is also being used to smear Muslims, who are being falsely blamed for spreading the virus. But even in Indonesia and Malaysia, there are worries that restricting freedom of assembly to combat a virus could easily morph into an excuse for governments to repress civil liberties or pass pro-business, anti-labor legislation. “The right to assemble peacefully has been suspended for now,” said Thomas Fann, chairperson of Bersih 2.0, an Malaysian NGO coalition calling for fair, free, and clean elections. “We are concerned that this mode of operation would continue even after the lifting of the movement control order.”