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Public agitations that bring political change

  • Published at 12:03 am November 30th, 2019
people mob protest
Rectification lies in identifying root causes REUTERS

Agitations are the symptoms of something more insidious, and governments would do well to take note

There are currently about 10 spontaneous people’s movements over the globe, seven of which are in South America, and one each in Hong Kong, Beirut, and Baghdad. There may be a few more but none with the seriousness and continuity of the ones going on in South America, Hong Kong, and Beirut. Baghdad is one of many that have confronted the city since the war began there. What are these movements or agitations for?

First, let’s take the agitations going on in South America. They are not all similar, and range from political movements to oust governments in power, to protests against election results, rising taxes, and increases in costs of living. In Venezuela, the opposition has been fighting for nearly two years to oust the socialist government led by President Maduro, who the opposition claims has clung to power through fraudulence and manipulation of elections. 

In Bolivia, a populist president has been forced to resign and flee the country on charges of vote fraud, even though his party had won by wide margins in three elections. This happened because the army and police turned against him under the influence of extra-territorial powers. 

In Chile, the most developed country in the region, people have taken to the streets protesting rises in public transportation fares, utility costs, and education. In other words, there is no common reason among these countries that is fuelling the public agitation. What is common is that they have taken to the streets to vent their grievances, and the governments in all of these countries are in a state of flux trying to contain these agitations. 

The Hong Kong agitation is completely different from the South American happenings. In Hong Kong, the fight is over rights to greater freedom and liberties that the island city wants from its overlords, the Chinese government. Even though the agitation began from protests against the bill that would allow extradition of suspected criminals to the mainland, it morphed into a venting of the residents’ frustration and fear of greater and tighter Chinese control over the island.

The situation may have calmed down a little for now after the recent elections, where the progressive groups won the local elections, but this may be temporary since China’s long-term intention is to suppress any move to a fully democratic government there.

In Lebanon and Iraq, even though the agitations are driven by economic reasons, the spontaneous and continuing protests that gained strength can cause the governments more peril in coming days. The governments may have to make concessions either by resigning or making other political compromises. In one word, all of these agitations are likely to bring more economic and political instability in days to come.

It is too early to say that these public agitations will lead to the ouster of the governments (although in Bolivia, it did), but it is a fair assumption that most of these have arisen from the governments’ neglect of public grievances over time. People do not take to the streets easily unless they are desperate. Unless they feel their voices are not heard, or they have not been represented well enough. 

When prices rise, people will protest. When the taxes rise, they will protest. When they are deprived of their jobs, they will take to the streets. They will rise and unite against an authority that they think totally neglects them and their rights to protest. Heads fall when movements of this magnitude occur, as it did in what is now known as the Arab Spring. It is true that the Arab Spring has now turned into an Arab Winter, but there are enough history lessons from the happenings that brought down many dictators in that region.

None of the current political happenings in South America, Hong Kong, and the Middle East are comparable to those in the Arab Spring. But these are signals to other countries, including our own, that public agitations can be sparked by the smallest of missteps or the mishandling of a situation that can come from a breakdown of law and order, wrongdoings in campuses, bribery and extortion in public view, and reckless conduct of public officials, including law enforcement agencies.

A look at all previous public agitations in our country will reveal that most started in innocuous ways, emanating from a street accident, a protest of a single individual against bribery and extortion, a protest against the conduct of a policeman in a campus, or simply a protest against rising prices of commodities. One incident works as a magnet, attracting other protesters, and soon rising to the level of a thousand people, leading to a reaction from law enforcers that finally spiral out of control.

Take two incidents from the last two years. In one incident, a road accident that led to the deaths of two students by a reckless bus driver brought the city to a virtual halt. They took over the streets, demanding not only punishment of the truant driver, but also safer roads and better regulations of road transportation. The city was virtually taken over by teenage students, while police failed to prevent the massive strikes that received silent support from people in the city.

In a second incident, more than a year later, students again broke out in massive protests over a student’s murder in the city’s prestigious engineering university by a group of students allegedly affiliated with the ruling party’s student wing. The strike spread all over the campus, forcing the university to shut down. 

It took an intervention by the prime minister to bring order to the campuses. Even outside the capital, people have taken to the streets in small towns, over the perceived failure of law enforcement agencies to prevent murders in open view. 

Analysts view these instances not simply as spontaneous reactions to the seeming failure of law enforcement agencies, or the government at large, to prevent crimes or other instances of law breaking, but as symptoms of people’s loss of faith in government agencies. This venting of public grievances is not just against the incidents that happened, but protests of the lack of accountability of public officials, perceived neglect of public welfare, and the absence of the rule of law in the country.

When public grievances accumulate over time, they take the shape of protests initially, and then agitations, which morph into movements. The agitations are only symptoms of something more insidious. Governments that can read these symptoms well go to the roots and take measures to rectify them. Our rectifications lie in changes in our public institutions and agencies, and in making these more accountable and responsible to people. 

The rectifications lie not in denying the wrongdoing by public agencies and officials, or simply punishing a recalcitrant few, but in identifying the root causes and eradicating them. The rectifications lie in establishing real rule of law and transparency in governance. Otherwise, we may see the likes of agitations and movements now prevailing in the Middle East or South America. 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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