From left to right: Khin Zaw Win, Brian Hioe, and Aya Abi Haidar.
From left to right: Khin Zaw Win, Brian Hioe, and Aya Abi Haidar. 
Politics

People Who Lived Through Political Unrest Around the World Sound Off on the U.S.

"This should be a wake-up call: the real struggle in your country is not exclusively legislative."
January 8, 2021, 8:18pm

There's a distinct feeling of uncertainty lingering after the insurrection at the Capitol this week. We asked people around the world who have lived through political unrest in their own countries to share their reactions and predictions.

Aya Abi Haidari

Photo courtesy of Aya Abi Haidar

Aya Abi Haidar, Beirut, Lebanon, reporter

It seemed like a bad Hollywood movie. That was my first impression watching the riots and the insurrection on Capitol Hill. Soon enough, there will be sarcastic tweets and memes comparing your riots and the response to them to what happened in Lebanon during the October revolution. But to be fair, what we faced as Lebanese protesters has nothing to do with Washington—we might have the same “delusional” president, but the comparison ends there. 

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I took part in the October protests, and while we were unarmed and peaceful, we were still met with violence from the police: gas bombs, rubber and live bullets. Meanwhile, Trump supporters were able to enter Capitol Hill to take selfies, sabotage offices, write on the desks of elected officials, and damage the entire place. In Lebanon, if we tried to enter the parliament, we’d be shot in the eye. I have to say that I totally believe that would have been the response from police if the rioters had been Black. 

But despite its flaws, American citizens are still able to voice your opinions or even make fun of the president without going to prison. That’s not the case here in Lebanon—you can easily end up in jail for insulting the president with a sarcastic tweet. Simply put, in the U.S. you have freedom of speech. You still have fair elections and laws that hold anyone accountable for their actions. Democracy is still prevailing despite all of Trump’s failed attempts to overturn the results of the election. 

Here in Lebanon, we still have a long way to go. Our elections are filled with fake votes and bribery; the people in power are corrupted and divisive. It’s sad how easily conspiracy theories can spread and how truth is always the first victim. That’s something we know very well in Lebanon. We protesters have been called traitors and spies and all kinds of names, but I still believe that, no matter what, good will prevail in the end.

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Brian Hioe, editor at New Bloom magazine

Photo courtesy of Brian Hioe

Brian Hioe, 29, Taiwan, former Sunflower Movement activist and editor at New Bloom magazine

During the 2014 Sunflower Movement, Taiwanese students occupied the legislature to protest against a trade deal with China.

The irony of the comparison between the Capitol Hill protests and events in Taiwan and Hong Kong is that protesters on Capitol Hill were seeking to overturn a democratically elected vote and oversight procedures intended to prevent a slide toward authoritarianism in government. By contrast, protesters in Taiwan and Hong Kong were calling for democratic freedoms, in terms of the right to have free and fair elections and accountability over government. Yet this will not prevent such comparisons from taking place due to the shared tactic of the occupation of a legislature.

More broadly, times of political uncertainty face young people across the world, and America is no exception to this. Young people in America are not alone in confronting the rise of authoritarian political actors and take strength in the knowledge that this is a generational struggle, internationally.

May Lum, Singapore, retired 84-year-old school teacher who fled her hometown of Malacca in Malaysia for neighboring Singapore in the late 1960s as racial tensions and violence escalated

It was a chaotic, unstable and very unsettling time to be living in. Malaysia and Singapore were still recovering after colonial rule and the Japanese war, and naturally, tensions were high. Everyone was suffering. 

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We were supposed to be building back our lives but Malays wanted to institutionalize racial supremacy and the Chinese wanted to protect their racial interests.

Fake news was a problem even back then and worsened the situation. Peace was an important lesson that should never be taken for granted. We live in a diverse world and can’t afford to lose stability and harmony; we should not let mistakes of the past repeat itself. This responsibility rests on all of us.

Hanan Zaffar, Kashmir journalist

Hanan Zaffar, Delhi, India, journalist who lived in Kashmir—the world’s most militarized zone—for 22 years

It’s a little difficult to associate my experiences of political unrest with what’s happening in the U.S. today because the context is so different. I’ve lived in a region that’s “militarily occupied” and sees everyday violence, and I feel those effects whenever I’m home. But your situation also reminds me of India. The inconsistency in how the state dealt with BLM protestors and how they’re dealing with these rioters now is shocking—they’re even being helped down the Capitol stairs in videos circulating online. We’ve seen this in India as well. And regardless of the locale, these supremacist groups ultimately lead to institutional decay. This week, these people took over the Senate, but eventually they’ll take over every institution. 

I wish I could give you advice. In Kashmir, we just keep hoping. Incidents like getting a beating from the army are so normal; it was only when I came to mainland India that I realized they’re not. There is a semblance of freedom here. To walk on the road, for instance, at our will, at any time. It sounds so basic, but it isn't in my part of the world. And there is perhaps nothing we can do to change it. It will keep on getting worse. You can't cope with it. You just live with it.

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Howie Severino, Philippines, journalist who was arrested during the 1980’s EDSA People Power Revolution, a peaceful mass protest ousting dictator Ferdinand Marcos

It’s hard to compare with the Philippines. The two most analogous events—triumphant protesters occupying Malacanang [the seat of government in the Philippines] in 1986 [as part of a revolution that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos] and EDSA Tres in 2001 [a series of protests that attempted to reinstate ousted populist President Joseph Ejercito Estrada] that tried to charge into Malacanang—occurred after incumbent presidents were forced to leave. 

But all incidents, including what happened in the [U.S.] Capitol this week, are violent reactions to what had been, up to that point, peaceful transfers of power. 

What we’re seeing in America is a wounded democracy, but it appears democratic institutions have shielded the republic from the assault against it. That’s encouraging to outsiders who were worried Trump would find a way to stay in power. 

This is the world we’re in: that even the bastion of democracy—the country that tells other nations how to do it!—has been thus threatened and once elected a president who could defy reality and insist on staying in power. 

Khin Zaw Win, political analyst

Khin Zaw Win at his home in Yangon, Myanmar on Jan. 7, 2021. Photo: Cape Diamond

Khin Zaw Win, Yangon, Myanmar, political analyst and former political prisoner

When the news broke, I found it tragic-comic. We’ve seen this kind of thing happen in many capitals in the developing world. But on looking deeper (and especially for Trump-affected America) it is very dangerous. Trump has wrought untold damage during his tenure and will this be the last?

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Another dimension is the impact upon the rest of the world. The image of the U.S. is reeling from the pummeling of the pandemic. The global contest with the authoritarians could swing against the democracies. For someone who has struggled against dictatorships my whole life, I find this ominous. Democracy will be pushed and placed on the defensive. Democracies will have to rally hard. For all its grand rhetoric and hubris, the U.S. has been shown up for what it is. Democracy must not falter; a new bastion and a new inspiration and fount will have to be constructed.

Dan Cuasay, 69, Quezon City, student at the University of the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship

 [What happened at the U.S. Capitol] was very much like our martial law years in the 70s. It reminded me of Marcos’s 14-year dictatorship… Trump’s arrogance, his disregard for the rule of law are just like martial law. He’s just like a dictator. 

I've been following the story in the U.S. since the election on November 3. I wanted the Democrats to win because I don’t like how Trump has ruled the U.S. for the past four years. He treated your country like his personal property and didn’t have the interest of the people in mind. [With Marcos], it’s like the Philippines became his personal playground. He thought only of his own personal interests, much like Trump has during his four years.

I wasn’t affected much [during martial law], probably because there wasn’t an “activist” in me. I still hated Marcos, but I didn’t let it affect me. In fact, I joined the government in 1978; Marcos left in 1986. Life was very normal for us, but when I saw that there was a chance to end martial law, I joined the rallies. We were there in EDSA. And we were happy that he left the country, that he was overthrown.

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Mihailo Tešić, managing editor of VICE Serbia

Photo courtesy of Mihailo Tešić

Mihailo Tešić, 43, Belgrade, Serbia, managing editor of VICE Serbia

What happened at the Capitol was a long time coming. There are a lot of people in the United States who don’t feel represented and worse, who feel that the government is corrupt and leading the country down a horribly wrong path. The reality is that these people exist, and some are ready to put their bodies in harm’s way for their ideas—and they aren’t going away because their guy lost one election.

This strikes some familiar chords within me. In Serbia in the 1990s, we had a newly-established electoral process that was deeply skewed and ultimately abused by the regime, and as a result, the opposition’s main platform was to constantly question the government’s legitimacy. This in turn created an air of uncertainty and undermined the people’s faith in fledgling institutions, which has lasted to the present day and has only become worse with the rise of social media and an increasingly liquid reality.

Back then, I took part in many marches and protests, many of which escalated into clashes with the police and regime supporters. Finally, in 2000, the opposition candidate won the presidential election, but results were not recognized by then-President Milošević, and the demonstrations reached a critical mass. The protesters broke into the National Assembly, which came to represent the symbolic act by which the regime was toppled, although the truth is obviously far more messy and layered. Some key players of Milošević’s government returned to power a decade later and are still in power today, and the people supporting them are still here and are, in fact, the majority. 

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This should be a wake-up call: the real struggle in your country is not exclusively legislative. The trajectory of the Serbian political system from the 1990s to 2010s is one example of how voting and institutions that represent democracy itself can easily be delegitimized, whether by internal corruption or loss of public faith. Some of the forces you believe have been defeated can easily reemerge in a more resilient, dangerous form.  

Dinu Guțu, Romanian writer and journalist

Photo courtesy of Dinu Guțu

Dinu Guțu, Romania, anthropologist, writer and journalist

Watching Donald Trump supporters invade Capitol Hill felt like watching the Manchester football derby or playing the last Resident Evil game. The revolution will be televised even if you don’t watch it—but I was watching. I thought about all the memes people would make, and they’ve already been made. People who had yet to recover from their New Year’s hangover or turn on the news laughed at the picture of the Shaman: look at the mob of cool carolers the Americans have [at their door]. Others have said that the horned headpiece is Trump’s new hat

Then I thought about all the Netflix and Hollywood screenwriters who probably believed that an alien invasion or nuclear war would be more realistic than Trump supporters breaking into their nation’s Capitol. 

The United States got what it manifested: a former reality-TV president, a man who is simultaneously a cartoon character and B-list actor who is overrun with conspiracies; a mob of furious civilians armed with weapons who lost many an evening playing Counter Strike in their youth; widespread inequality and a society so divided it resembles Game of Thrones. 

A new season in the series of America begins this week. It’s just that when you have pandemic restrictions in place, not even Batman can swoop in and save the day—so you can organize a coup at home.

Reporting contributed by Heather Chen, Therese Reyes, Cape Diamond, Anthony Esguerra, Dhvani Solani, Viola Zhou, Badar Salem, Mihai Tița, and Caleb Quinley