From Bangkok to Lagos, from Harare to Hong Kong, from Lima to Santiago, young people are fighting for Democracy and Human Rights.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and the imposition of an emergency decree which prohibits mass gatherings, young Thai activists continue to organize massive protests across the country. This student-led pro-democracy movement marks the first time in modern Thai history when the Thai monarchy has been talked about publicly in a critical way since doing so is a jail offence.
The first wave of protests was sparked in February 2020 by the forced dissolution of an opposition party which outraged young people and inspired them to organize pro-democracy actions. Despite the COVID-19 March lockdown, the ‘youthquake’ continued and saw young Thais use cyberspace to speak out on political issues, build resistance networks, and launch online protests.
The second wave of protests was signalled by the student-led protest on July 18 at Bangkok’s landmark Democracy Monument. More than 2,000 protesters gathered and raised three demands, namely dissolving the parliament, rewriting the military-based constitution and ending the intimidation and arbitrary arrests of critics of the government.
Another significant demand is the call for reforms of the monarchy, a topic which is not only taboo but also a criminal offence since Thailand has a strict Lèse Majesté (anti-Royal insult) law.
Students and youth activists echo these demands in various forms of creative online and offline protests. For example, Thai protesters have adopted as a symbol of their defiance and demand for democracy the three-finger salute inspired by the popular US movie series the “Hunger Games”.
In Africa, Protests against Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) have rocked major cities in the country since October 3 when a video showing two young men being brutalized and one of them shot in the street went viral. The protests against the SARS unit became a trending topic on Twitter in several countries, and by October 9, the hashtag #EndSARS has been tweeted over 2.4 million times.
Young Nigerian netizens connected in these virtual networks started having Twitter conversations around #EndSARS and police brutality as far back as 2017. This led to the emergence of #EndSARS movement that same year.
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a specialized unit of the Nigerian police, was created in 1992 to fight the escalating crime rate in African’s most populous nation.
However, SARS soon went rogue, gaining notoriety for their impunity and flagrant violation of human rights of Nigerian citizens. A 2016 report by Amnesty International described SARS as a “police squad operating outside the law” that has turned torture into “a means of extracting confessions and lucrative bribes.”
The movement to end SARS was born in 2017 from the hashtag #EndSARS, which trended on Twitter and was employed by netizens to track SARS abuses.
In Zimbabwe, unable to protest on the streets, some among the young people are calling themselves “keyboard warriors” as they take to graffiti and social media to pressure a government that promised reform but is now accused of gross human rights abuses.
Activists use the #zimbabweanlivesmatter to encourage global pressure on President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government.
Tensions are rising anew with Inflation over 800%, amid acute shortages of water, electricity, gas and banknotes and a health system collapsing under the weight of drug shortages and strikes by nurses and doctors.
Revelations of alleged corruption related to COVID-19 medical supplies led to the sacking of the health minister and further pressure on Mnangagwa. His government has responded to the rising dissent with arrests and alleged abductions and torture.
“Social media is making waves in Zimbabwe. It is really helping people access information about government scandals faster and cheaper so it makes them want to act,” said one of the young activists.
“Digital activism cannot be ignored and cannot be confronted by traditional authoritarian tactics, as shown by the #zimbabweanlivesmatter campaign,” said Alexander Rusero, a political analyst based in the capital, Harare.
“Keyboard warriors help to amplify the voices of agony from within Zimbabwe, but without robust and sustained campaigns on the ground, the social media campaigns would fizzle out,” a young student in Harare said.
In Hong Kong, young people continue their protests. Demonstrators in their early twenties have made up the bulk of Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters and the more than 9,000 people arrested since the movement first coalesced in June 2019 around opposition to a bill allowing the extradition of suspects to mainland China. Critics feared this could undermine judicial independence and endanger dissidents.
Until 1997, Hong Kong was ruled by Britain as a colony but then returned to China. Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, it has some autonomy, and its people more rights.
The bill was withdrawn in September 2019 but demonstrations continue and now demand full democracy and an inquiry into police actions.
Clashes between police and activists have become increasingly violent, with police firing live bullets and protesters attacking officers and throwing petrol bombs.
Peter, a 19-year-old student, shouts “Hong Kong independence!” at people on a crowded escalator in a shopping mall. The pro-democracy protesters, masquerading as shoppers to avoid police attention, immediately complete the slogan, responding: “The only way out”.
Mark, a tall 18-year-old student and frontline protester since last year, said demonstrators would need to adapt if they were to continue to gain international attention for their cause.
He said that police tactics had already changed since the pro-democracy protests began a year ago. Officers have become quicker to arrest demonstrators before they can mass in large numbers. Last year, up to 2m people took to the streets for individual protests. “The price to pay for street protests is much higher,” said Mark.
Il Peru, beginning on 9 November 2020, a series of demonstrations broke out after the removal of President Martín Vizcarra, by the parliament. The protests have been described as the largest demonstrations in Peru in the past two decades and are organized by grassroots groups of young Peruvians on social media. The disproportional response by authorities has been condemned by various human rights organizations, including United Nations Peru, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and Amnesty International.
In Chile, Civil protests have taken place in response to a rise in the Santiago Metro’s subway fare, the increased cost of living, privatisation and inequality prevalent in the country. The protests were coordinated by secondary school students which led to spontaneous takeovers of the city’s main train stations and open confrontations with the Carabineros de Chile (the national police force).
Photo. CC-BY-SA-4.0/Andrew Mercer