Category Archives: Asia

China, the Tiananmen tragedy and the ‘Tank Man’ – 25 years on

tank man

The anonymous ‘Tank Man’ bringing an armed column to a halt on 5 June 1989

On 5 June 25 years ago, a lone man stood on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue and brought a column of tanks to a halt. It has become an enduring symbol of individual bravery to the world and possibly the most censored image in the People’s Republic of China.

This famous stand, which can be viewed here, came after the bloody crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 3 and 4 June, in which hundreds, if not thousands, of demonstrators died after the military used lethal force to disperse the crowds. The “Tank Man” is believed to have not been a student protester or intellectual activist but merely a working citizen of Beijing horrified by the massacre (which had occurred throughout the city) and betrayed that the ‘People’s Army’ could have committed such atrocities against its own countrymen.

The Chinese Spring

The Tiananmen Square Massacre and the protests preceding it shook the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) to its core and redefined China for over a quarter century. The resulting existential fear has continued to permeate the CPC, which remains terrified of dissent and, despite claims to the contrary, still opts for a policy of suppression. Unfortunately this fear has blinded party officials to addressing the issues which underpinned the protests in 1989 and which continue to plague the middle kingdom to this day.

The ’89 protests began following the death of Hu Yaobang on 15 April, a former CPC General Secretary who was ousted by party hardliners. Protests initially began as commemorative demonstrations by students among which Hu was a deeply popular figure associated with political and economic reform. These demonstrations quickly began to change into protests over corruption within China’s ruling elite and subsequently became a pro-democracy campaign calling for reform. Although the protests rapidly spread to over 400 cities around China, the heart and centre of those heady days was to be found in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, where at the peak of the protests over 1 million demonstrators were gathered, thousands of which occupied the square on a permanent basis. The square lies in the centre of the capital, flanked by both the former imperial headquarters, the Forbidden City and the Hall of the People, headquarters of the CPC, making the square the geographical centre of China’s soul and a powerful symbol in its own right.


Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests

As the protests grew and attracted support from liberal academics, workers and eventually party members, the CPC central committee grew impatient and jittery. In May of that year, USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev travelled to Beijing for an official state visit; however, the mass occupation of Tiananmen Square forced China’s leadership to relocate the official reception at the last minute from the Hall of the People to the airport. This greatly embarrassed CPC leadership, causing a loss of face in front of a world power during an important time in geopolitics, namely the détente between the USA and the USSR in the final days of the Cold War.

Massacre of ‘89

By June of 1989, China’s ruler, Deng Xiaoping, and the rest of the CPC leadership decided that the protests needed to end and ordered the army to clear the square. However, when army leaders were summoned before China’s leadership and given their order, one refused. Maj. General Xu Qinxian, leader of the powerful 38th Group Army based in the Beijing Military Region, refused, claiming that the demonstrations were a political problem and not the military’s responsibility. This instilled a new fear in the CPC: that the military might not support the party and could even revolt if the protests grew in strength. Gen. Xu was soon arrested and the order to end the protests by any means necessary was enforced.

On the evening of 3 June, tanks rolled into Beijing. At approximately 22:00, soldiers began firing on protesters as the army marched towards Tiananmen Square. By the time the sun rose on Beijing on 4 June, thousands were left dead (although the government claims the figure is in the low hundreds) and hundreds imprisoned. Tiananmen Square had been cleared.

25 years on – Everything’s changed, nothing is different

Fast forward 25 years and the scars of the Tiananmen Massacre remain. The CPC has attempted to scrub the 1989 protests from China’s history; they are not taught in schools and are censored from all media, including internet searches. Yet shades of the massacre still permeate modern-day China. Tiananmen Square is now one of the most heavily protected, if not the most strictly guarded place in the world, with a 24/7 armed police presence and the highest concentration of security cameras on the planet. In the first week of June every year, China embarks on an unrivalled censorship campaign; this year, the majority of online Google services were rendered inaccessible from the mainland.  The square has become a symbol of dissidence in the People’s Republic, which to the ruling caste remains unconscionable.

The ’89 protests were the closest that the CPC has come to losing power in China, and the memory of that time still haunts the leadership. While China has had a spectacular economic rise since then, dissent is not tolerated. The vast majority of China’s defense budget is spent on internal security apparatus; the country employs over 2 million internet censors and the People’s Armed Police (a separate paramilitary branch of the armed forces, not to be confused with the conventional police service) is believed to number almost 1.5 million

Yet despite this expenditure, China still experiences well over 100,000 protests every year, focusing on everything from environmental issues to labour disputes, and most notably the continued corruption within the political elite. There has also been a marked increase in separatist activities stemming from the country’s restive Xinjiang and Tibetan provinces.

Furthermore, in the special administrative region of Hong Kong, 3 /4 June 2014 saw the largest Tiananmen Massacre memorial demonstration thus far, with over 180,000 people attending the candle-lit vigil.


Annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong remembering those killed in the Tiananmen Massacre

Tiananmen of Tomorrow

With the rise of the internet and China’s increased economic clout resulting in Chinese nationals travelling, studying and working abroad, the CPC is facing ever-increasing challenges in maintaining the status quo, as increasing numbers citizens are able to circumvent the party’s control of the flow of information. While it is currently believed that fewer citizens of China are aware of the 1989 massacre than ever before, the government is under increasing pressure to reform, root out corruption, adapt to the contemporary age and provide China’s rising middle class with the trappings of the West. Furthermore, as the nation’s economy slows, the excessive expenditure on internal security apparatus becomes increasingly difficult to justify. With these issues, which mirror the grievances of ‘89, creating cracks in the CPC’s facade of social harmony, whether the People’s Republic will be able to maintain the status quo without being doomed to repeat the mistakes of history remains to be seen.

Analysis by Brendan von Essen, follow him @AsiaPacRisk

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The politicisation of aid distribution: Security challenges for aid workers in Myanmar


Impact of anti-NGO sentiment on international aid in Rakhine state

Recent attacks targeting the offices and personnel of international aid organisations highlight an increasingly difficult working environment for humanitarian staff in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Following two days of targeted attacks against foreign NGO offices by Buddhist mobs in late March, organisations in the state capital of Sittwe, including OXFAM, Save the Children, World Food Programme (WFP) and others, were forced to suspend operations and withdraw up to 700 non-essential foreign and local staff. This is the biggest disruption to aid in two years; to these organisations, the impact is critical for people currently living in relief camps, which rely solely on aid distribution.

Who are the Rohingya?

Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist nation of approximately 60 million people, and has only recently emerged from several decades of military rule. While burgeoning democratic reforms have fostered an environment receptive to foreign investment, an inveterate strain of religious extremism is threatening this progress. Myanmar has experienced periodic bouts of religious and communal violence between its minority Muslim and majority Buddhist communities since June 2012. The violence (the vast majority of which has taken place in Rakhine) has resulted in over 240 casualties and displaced over 150,000 Muslims, many of whom remain displaced. The most persecuted group during these attacks has been the minority Rohingya Muslims, who now live in overcrowded camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) on the outskirts of Sittwe.

Rakhine is the second-poorest state in the country and is also home to approximately 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims. The origin of the Rohingya people has long been disputed in Myanmar, as they are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Several government policies reflect this prejudice, as the Rohingya have effectively been denied citizenship and their freedom of movement has been severely restricted. In addition, although this group has been disproportionally discriminated against during episodes of violent communal unrest, Buddhist groups have repeatedly accused aid organisations of unfairly favouring the Rohingya community at the expense of Rakhine Buddhists. As a result, humanitarian agencies are increasingly caught in the crossfire of these tensions and subjected to the growing politicisation of aid distribution.

Rising tide of anti-NGO sentiment

In the period since foreign staff departed Rakhine state, there has been a significant increase in the intensity of threats and acts of intimidation made against local staff still operating in the region. In addition, the day-to-day coordination of aid distribution is now being conducted under heavy guard. Should foreign staff resume aid operations in Rakhine, there is a credible threat that they will be exposed to targeted attacks.

Anti-NGO sentiment has embittered the region for some time. In February, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)-Holland was forced to suspend all activities in the state. More recently, tensions have been elevated due to a UN-assisted national census that began on 30 March. The UN and other international organisations have been accused of not consulting with the local populations over the nature of the census. In addition, their insistence on including Rohingya as an ethnic category has been criticised, in essence, as an affront to Buddhist culture. To this extent, the growing hostility towards foreign aid workers could be considered the unintentional consequence of the erosion of the perception of neutrality and independence of humanitarian operations. Furthermore, the impact of these tensions is likely to further strain the capacity for aid organisations to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable communities.

The recent media spotlight on the issue has not only raised awareness over the decades-long and systematic discrimination of the Rohingya, but it has also opened the country to international criticism over the emergent Buddhist nationalism-cum-extremism. Moving forward, international aid agencies need to determine the extent of Myanmar’s political willingness to assist and protect their aid operations in Rakhine. Where this willingness is absent, they will be wholly responsible for their own security. It is from this departure point that humanitarian organisations will be able to manage their risk-mitigation strategies for future operations in Rakhine.

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Article by Samantha McTigue, follow her @SEA_Analyst

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Afghanistan: Elections and the ongoing security challenges

Operation Mountain Fire

On 5 April, presidential and provincial council elections will be held across Afghanistan.  Chief Asia Analyst, Jonathan Vincent, analyses the ongoing security challenges in the country and forecasts how these could impact the elections.

For the full free analysis, click here

Analysis by Jonathan Vincent, follow him @South_Asia_Risk

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Protest Politics and Power

Will the 2 February elections fix Thailand?


Thailand is scheduled to hold a snap election on 2 February; this comes amid a formidable anti-government campaign against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her ruling Pheu Thai Party (PTP), which has been ongoing since 31 October 2013. The elections will take place in spite of the recommendation of the Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court to postpone the poll on account of political instability.

Bangkok has witnessed recurring episodes of protracted, large-scale political demonstrations and security crackdowns since 2006. In that year, a political crisis resulted in a military coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, older brother of Yingluck. Since then, the political environment has remained deeply polarised.

 The impasse

The current episode of political instability has primarily been instigated by newly formed civic organisation, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). The PDRC is strongly pro-Democratic Party (DP) and anti-PTP. In response to the persistent protest action, Yingluck dissolved the country’s Parliament in early December 2013 and called for fresh elections. The PDRC and DP outright rejected this decision. Rather, they have called for Yingluck to step down as head of the caretaker government and for power to be transferred to an unelected people’s council. The opposition groups allege that snap elections will not be effective until electoral reforms are implemented. While Yingluck has thus far refused such demands, the DP’s decision to boycott the elections and the sustained anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok continue to fuel the PDRC-led anti-government campaign.

 The Bangkok Shutdown

On 13 January, the PDRC led a mass occupation of several major city intersections in Bangkok, which have been ongoing since. The ‘Bangkok Shutdown’, as it is commonly referred to, has led to widespread transport and business disruptions in the central, commercial areas of the city. Moreover, the shutdown resulted in a marked increase in tensions and violent incidents. Targeted shootings, altercations between protesters and security forces, clashes between rival protesters and low-level bombings in primary protest areas have frequently been reported in the city since early January. At least ten people have been killed and more than 450 injured in this violence.

In response, government implemented a 60-day state of emergency across Bangkok and neighbouring provinces on 22 January. The emergency decree grants security forces the power to impose curfews, detain suspects without charge, censor media and ban political gatherings. The decree has not eased tensions in the capital. Sporadic protests continue to be reported outside of government buildings and several low-level incidents of targeted violence have since been reported.

 The role of the military

During previous episodes of political turmoil, namely in 2006 and 2010, the Thai security forces acted as primary powerbrokers. However, they have thus far been reluctant to intervene in the political impasse. While the emergency decree grants wide-ranging powers to the police and the army, both agencies have avoided significant confrontation with protesters. The military has on numerous occasions expressed its neutral position in the matter, expressly denying the possibility of a military-led coup. On their part, this more circumspect approach is purposeful. Should the military take the PDRC’s bait and intervene, the possibility that the situation will rapidly degenerate into violence remains significant. Given their already tarnished reputation for bringing about an extrajudicial resolution to prior episodes of political turmoil, it is likely that they will remain unreceptive to provocation.

 Looking beyond the election

Initial forecasts indicate that it is probable that the PTP will win the 2 February elections. However, in consideration of Thailand’s long-standing and deeply polarised political environment, the possibility that they will bring about an immediate and sustained improvement to the situation remains unlikely. Although pre-election violence has thus far been relatively small-scale and targeted in nature, posing only an incidental risk to foreign nationals, further incidents of violence are anticipated, both in the run up to and immediately following the polls. In addition, the result of the election itself could well provoke wider unrest or instability that could pose a more overt threat to tourists, business visitors and expatriates.

Read more: red24 free Thailand Security Briefing

Article by Samantha McTigue – Follow her @SEA_Analyst

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