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People Power in East Asia and Lessons for the Middle East

It is common knowledge that no dictator or authoritarian regime ever gave up power unless compelled to and in most cases political change has occurred because of what is called the people power, broadly meaning a large number of ordinary people thronging the streets demanding political reforms and change. There are, of course, other factors that play a significant role in making movements by people a success or failure. Of the several examples one can take recourse to understand this phenomenon and draw some inferences, the lack of political freedom along with economic hardships are the principal instigators for people to revolt; but invariably, in most cases, religion has had its share to varying degrees in influencing these movements. Unquestionably, however, the role of the military, which normally constitutes the backbone of dictatorships, tends to be the most decisive factor. Interestingly, in most cases, people revolutions have resulted in the creation of democratic governments with some glaring exceptions.

In recent times, in Asia arguably, the first well known revolt by the people that brought about radical political shifts was the 1979 Iranian revolution, which, as we all know, initially was spearheaded by the leftists but eventually was hijacked by religious elements who established a theocratic regime under Ayatollah Khomeini that can hardly be considered democratic. On the other hand, the three prominent examples in East Asia, where people power had been primarily responsible in overthrowing dictatorships, are now thriving democracies: the Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia; but unfortunately in Myanmar the two rounds of revolt failed to dislodge the military from power, nor did the famous 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations have much impact on the Communist Party’s hold over power in China.

Perhaps the first time the so called people power idea became well known was when then dictator of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, was forced to flee in February 1986. A series of incidents set this in motion beginning with the brazen murder of the Opposition leader Ninoy Aquino on the tarmac of Manila airport when he was returning from exile in August 1983. While Marcos tried to deflect the blame to a section of the rogue elements in the military, he could no longer continue with martial law as pressure began to mount. He thought winning a presidential election by hook or crook would give him the much needed political legitimacy, but it backfired as most refused to believe that they were free and fair. Meanwhile, a section of the military under the banner Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) and the influential church in this predominantly Catholic country came out openly against Marcos in support of hundreds of thousands of people who had taken to the streets. These left Marcos (and his mentors in Washington) with little option but to take refuge in the US in February 1986. 

In South Korea, students played a vital role leading the people power in toppling the authoritarian regime in 1987. It began with the famous 1980 Gwangju People’s Uprising which turned out to be one of the bloodiest confrontations resulting in hundreds of deaths at the hands of the security forces. Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, who had usurped power through a coup in 1979, tried to brand it as communist-inspired but he failed to cut ice. This movement, in fact, paved the path for other movements that followed later on, the most important being the June Democracy Movement in 1987 that prompted millions of people, including white collar workers, to join student protesters, which eventually resulted in the establishment of democracy. Although the popular and charismatic leader Kim Dae-jung, who had been subjected to torture and imprisonment for his steadfast anti-authoritarian views, was the rallying point, the church too had a role—though limited—in the support of democracy. The US, thus, received the biggest flak for its unflinching backing of various dictatorial regimes with total disregard to popular sentiments.

In Indonesia Gen. Suharto’s ouster came in the wake of the 1997-98 financial crisis that had a devastating effect on the country’s economy. Usurping power after a military coup in 1965, Suharto had been well known for presiding over probably one of the worst political purges in modern history by removing leftists and other political opponents, resulting in the massacre of about a million people soon after he took over power. His rule was also marked by oligarchy, crony capitalism, nepotism and rampant corruption. Notwithstanding periodic elections to justify his hold over power and brutal suppression of any sign of dissent, fully backed by Washington, students managed to openly stage demonstrations on a few occasions. While the daughter of former President Sukarno, Megawati Sukarnoputri, gradually emerged as the main opposition leader, the turning point was the financial crisis that quickly snowballed into a catastrophic economic and social crisis. It wiped off the savings of most of the middle class overnight as the Indonesian currency, the rupiah, witnessed a free fall. Amid widespread layoffs of urban workers and a runaway price rise, Suharto’s crude attempt to get re-elected for another five-year term as president in March 1998 infuriated the people. The shooting of four student demonstrators, followed by the death of more than a thousand people in even larger demonstrations all across the nation, forced Suharto to quit. It took a while for Indonesia to get its economy in order but there is no doubt that it is now a beacon of democracy in East Asia.

In the Middle East, people power led to the Islamic revolution in Iran and this in turn has contributed to concerns in certain quarters about the possibility of Islamists bandwagoning on people power. Countries in East Asia, however, provide examples whereby people power, especially in countries with deep religious influences like Indonesia and the Philippines, has resulted in the ushering in of vibrant and functioning democracies. The question that arises is what will be the model for the current wave of people power in the Middle East: Iran or East Asia?

G V C Naidu is a Professor in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Email.

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent.The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy