Acled stands for Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a US-based nonprofit organization that monitors conflict situations throughout the world. (Not coincidentally, I think, if you look at the website and click on “About,” you’d find out its senior leadership is composed of three women.)
Acled’s assessment of what has happened since the pandemic?
Their latest annual report, issued in March, observed that the pandemic should have given opportunities for ceasefires but this has not happened. Instead, political violence has increased, within countries involving civil wars and armed insurrections (as in the Philippines), as well as between countries.
Most alarming is this observation: “Overall, state repression increased around the world.” Acled notes how an increasing number of governments have tried to “stifle opposition and limit any challenge to power.”
Most notable in this global drift toward state repression was the way several populist leaders rose to power in countries with a nominally democratic political system before the pandemic and then capitalized on COVID-19 toward more repression.
The populist surge involved some of the largest countries in the world, for example, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, and, who would have thought it would happen to the United States but it did with Donald Trump.
We shouldn’t forget President Duterte and the Philippines, one of the largest countries in the world even if many Filipinos still think we’re small.
In all these countries, the authoritarianism drift contributed to COVID-19 especially because these populist presidents tended to reject science. Knowing only “law and order” approaches to social problems, they were quick to forget that the virus was the problem and instead set people as their targets.
People fought back, the populist leaders’ own men and women finding courage to talk back, as they did in the United States, and to vote out Trump. Modi’s political party lost in his own home state in recent elections. The terrible COVID-19 surge in India has been blamed largely on his refusal to observe health protocols during massive campaign rallies, somewhat similar to Trump’s mask-less campaigns.
More international attention needs to focus on neighboring Myanmar (Burma), a country that was drifting toward democracy after 54 years of military rule. When democratic forces won in the November 2020 elections, their victory was aborted by the generals in a coup in February. The junta voided the elections, arresting opposition leaders including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and violently cracking down on any form of dissent.
The people of Myanmar have courageously persisted with their calls to return to democracy, pouring out into the streets and risking their lives. Who can forget Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng, an elderly Catholic nun who dared, twice, to position herself between military forces and protesting civilians, begging the uniformed men to put down their arms.
In one confrontation, after the nun kneeled on the ground to appeal, two of the military forces themselves fell to their knees begging her to leave. She refused and had to be taken away. Then the police fired teargas and bullets into the crowd.
As of May 21, three months after their coup, Myanmar’s junta forces have killed 810 civilians, including children.
International reaction has been muted, including from neighboring countries like the Philippines.
The rise of repressive regimes, and the relative silence of the international community has made me re-read Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), a German-American philosopher who is considered one of the greatest thinkers of our time. Arendt, a Jew who left Germany during the Nazi era, devoted much of her writing dissecting authoritarianism, asking why monsters like Adolf Hitler could perpetuate themselves in power.
Watching the 1963 trial of Adolf Eichmann, responsible for the deportation of millions of Jews to concentration camps where they would be gassed to death, she wrote about the ‘banality of evil” brought about by our modern times. She described how men and women have been content to leave our affairs to government bureaucracies, and that this included those serving in government, unable, or unwilling to think. In a word, thoughtlessness. Evil is trivialized, normalized.
Democracy, Arendt wrote, needs public space, and public space needs people of different political (and nonpolitical) persuasions talking, and arguing with each other with a sense of civility and solidarity.
Arendt died when the internet was still in its infancy but her warnings about totalitarianism resonate in our times. Totalitarianism is possible when we choose thoughtlessness, allowing ourselves to be held captive, to be silenced, by misinformation and disinformation.
It is not just about our own country, but about all with whom we share this beleaguered, fragile planet.
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