Power of the people
The massive crowds of demonstrators that forced Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to shelve indefinitely a controversial bill displayed to the world the awesome force of a people determined to deliver a message to their government, and bend it to their will. Lam’s retreat from pushing legislation that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China showed that the message had been duly received and weighed.
The announced suspension of work on the bill (“until,” Lam said, “our work in communication, explanation and listening to opinions is completed”), along with an apology (“The chief executive apologizes to the citizens and promises to accept criticism with the most sincere and humble attitude”), served to douse mounting tension and to energize democracy advocates worldwide.
But, it must be clear, only for the moment. As a protest organizer, Bonnie Leung, told Al Jazeera, Lam’s apology hardly mattered and did not address certain concerns raised in the mass actions, as well as the violent police dispersal of the demonstrators through the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, which resulted in the injury of 79 persons. “What we need to do is not let up on the momentum, and build the power of the people,” Leung said.
Filipinos are no stranger to that power, nor to the sight of protesting crowds stretching as far as the eye can see. Those of a certain age will remember, for example, Aug. 31, 1983, and the heaving ocean of humanity that bore the bloody remains of the assassinated Ninoy Aquino from Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City to his final resting place at the Manila Memorial Park in Parañaque City.
The strongman Ferdinand Marcos’ forces were silent as an estimated million people took part in the funeral procession that lasted more than 10 hours despite bursts of rain, not counting those who lined the route and stood in their places until the mourners had marched past.
That display of power — the coverage of which the then controlled press laughably limited to a bolt of lightning striking a man who had climbed a tree to get a better view of the funeral procession — gained momentum through the years on the back of a small but enduring resistance movement.
It sparked almost-daily marches (of priests and nuns, of students, of women’s groups) in the metropolis and in the provinces, as well as the memorable confetti blizzards on Ayala Avenue in Makati; it ultimately led to the aftermath of the snap election which saw then Citizen Cory addressing an immense crowd in Intramuros to call a boycott of government-controlled newspapers and crony-led corporations, and thence to the four-day revolt in February 1986 that toppled the Marcos dictatorship and inspired other such movements elsewhere in the world.
Today the people of Hong Kong have come out in the millions to make their government heedful of their sentiments. They are resisting the measure that will allow the arrest and extradition of dissenters and others who refuse to toe Beijing’s line; by their great numbers they are voicing objection and, at the same time, fighting for the civil rights to which they are entitled as residents of the semiautonomous territory. They are struggling against Beijing’s encroachments and are determined to hold it to its promise of “one country, two systems.”
Lam had invoked the 2018 murder of a young pregnant woman by her boyfriend, both Hong Kong residents, to force the extradition bill’s passage. The couple went on a romantic interlude to Taiwan, but the woman never made it back to Hong Kong. The man eventually confessed to the murder and directed police to where he had dumped the corpse.
Lam had insisted that the bill was needed to extradite the murder suspect to Taiwan and bring him to justice, although Taiwanese officials said in May that they would not seek extradition even if the bill made it into law. Lam has since been accused of “political opportunism at its worst.”
And she may have backed down, but the extradition bill has by no means been withdrawn. The activist organizer Leung is correct to say that there should be no letup in the resistance.
The people of Hong Kong are showing the world that it is imperative to push back to save themselves and their freedoms. There’s a glaring lesson to be relearned by the people of the Philippines.
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