Philippines

Is there a Global Epidemic of Protest?

In an article in The DiplomatRobert Kelly raised an interesting question regarding whether the youth protests that have engulfed Turkey, Brazil, Egypt will spread to Asia. He argued that all of them have a common denominator with other Asian countries, where there are:

[W]ell-educated youth, exposed through modern technologies to the reality of better, cleaner governance elsewhere. And many of the problems these protests are identifying exist in spades in Asia: high-handed, out-of-touch governments; election-proof pseudo-technocracies that act as unaccountable oligarchies; shallow, clique-ish political parties that provide no meaningful transmission belt of citizen preferences; massive government and business corruption; wasteful white-elephant spending to capture global “prestige” while everyday services like health care and education are underfunded; closed political opportunity structures that regularly reward insiders and large corporations with crony connections to the state; wealthy, de-linking elites with 1% lifestyles wildly at variance with the rest of the population… That is not just Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, or the EU/Brussels. That is Asia too; there is more than enough sleaze to go around.

There are three problems with Kelly’s arguments, however. First, Kelly made a mistake of lumping all these “youth demonstrations” together. The youth protests that triggered the Arab Spring were different from the “Occupy movement.” Granted, both have a common element of lamenting the lack of opportunities for the youth, but the structural conditions and the immediate causal factors were vastly different. The Arab Spring happened in authoritarian countries with a clear demand to overthrow the authoritarian rulers, triggered by the self-immolation of a Tunisian youth.

On the other hand, except in democratic countries, the Occupy movement never really took hold, never have a clear agenda aside of “soaking the rich” and “down with evil corporations,” and therefore hasn’t had much of a long-term political impact. Even in the United States, I would argue that Occupy’s importance has been widely exaggerated by its media supporters and its supporters’ massive use of social media. In fact, for countries where protests are common occurrences, such as Indonesia, few really take the Occupy movement seriously. Worldwide media coverage on the Occupy movement was minimal, used mostly to show that even the United States was experiencing protests–basically, to bring the United States down a notch.

Second, I doubt that there’s an epidemic of political demonstrations, where one country could catch and infect other countries with the “mass protest” disease, unless they share a common region or political characteristic, such as in Europe in 1848 or the recent Arab Spring. Even in a so-called “cascade,” as Kelly termed it, there are so many variables in play that countries such as Bahrain might be engulfed in protests but the giant next door, Saudi Arabia, can remain virtually unaffected. In fact, it is very doubtful that the protesters in Egypt looked at Turkey or Brazil as their inspiration.

Most likely, the reason is just very mundane, that it is just a simple coincidence that these three protests occurred at almost the same time. Sure, this explanation may be seen as a cop-out, but then again, there is just no evidence to support the assertion that these three protests were linked with each other.

Third, and most importantly, the problem with Kelly’s “broad structural conditions” that I quoted above above is that that these conditions are actually so widespread that in almost every Asian country– and even in African and South American countries–such political-economic hanky-panky is seen as common or almost a given fact.

I think there are important questions to be asked, such as: where are the demonstrating youths? Why don’t protests happen more often? Why we don’t see more of then on the streets of Seoul, Jakarta, Beijing, Bangkok, and other places?

You want us to protest in this kind of smog?!!

There are several missing variables here that could help to explain the differences between Asia and Turkey, Egypt, and Brazil.

One issue is youth unemployment. The countries where the youths have been protesting have a relatively high youth unemployment rate. Brazil, for instance has almost 20% unemployment rate among its youth. Turkey has a 16.60% unemployment rate. In general, Asia tells a different story, with better employment rates. Basically, for many employed youths in Asian countries, their jobs are more important than going to the street. South Korea, for instance, only has 7.5% youth unemployment rate.

Still, there are some countries with high unemployment rates, such as Indonesia at 19.6% and the Philippines at 16% in 2012. The difference, however, is that in those countries, the numbers are actually improving, and these countries also have burgeoning informal sector economy, which, to some degree, has perversely helped lower their propensity to protest. You can’t protest when you are busy working!

Joko Widodo (Center). The next President of Indonesia?

Moreover, to further tamp down the desire to protest, currently in Indonesia, the Governor of Jakarta Joko Widodo is the most popular politician in Indonesia and a favorite to win next year’s election. He is well regarded as an able reformer with soft heart for the poor. President Benigno Aquino III is widely popular in the Philippines. The positive outlook of these countries actually helped tamp down the desire to go on the street.

Second, there is no trigger issue that could make everyone coming together, kinda… like this:

In Turkey, the trigger was the Gezi Park. In Brazil, it was the increase in transportation fares. And in Egypt, it was the first anniversary of Morsi’s presidency. Of course, it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to confidently declare what kind of trigger will spark massive protests. More likely is the case that these triggers will vary from case to case.

For instance, Indonesia, which shares the same structural conditions as Kelly noted, did not erupt in protests when the government cut subsidies and raise fuel price a while ago. Rather, the atmosphere here in Indonesia was more of resignation, that the fuel price increases were coming anyway, like it or not. True, there were some protests with university students clashing with the police. But the scale and scope of the protests was nowhere as close to what happened in Gezi, let alone Tahrir Square.

Third, in most cases, government overreactions precipitated much bigger protests, even though the protesters themselves, by and large, were peaceful and non-destructive. In Turkey, police overreactions coupled with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s infamous remark of calling the protesters “capulcu” (looters), triggered a much bigger demonstration. In Brazil, the police’s use of rubber bullets on both protesters and journalists indiscriminately caused a much bigger protest a few days later. Meantime, in Egypt, it was more of Morsi’s authoritarian inclinations, his threats of violence, not to mention various missteps, that made theplanned demonstration turnout to be much bigger than expected.

In Indonesia, the anti-fuel price increase protesters behaved violently and causedmassive traffic jams, which in the end alienated the public, whose support they needed.

We are blockading the streets, inconveniencing millions for your sake. Therefore you should support us!

Therefore, back to the main question: Can we predict where or when the next massive demonstration might happen? Here is my answer: check the youth employment and see whether the government overreacts. That is probably a very fuzzy and unsatisfying answer, but that’s the best answer I can give.

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