People’s Power, Military Repression, and the Uncertainties of Erotic Struggle: A Review of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2

George Katsifiacas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2: People Power in the Philippines, Burma, Tibet, China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia, 1947-2009 (Oakland: PM Press, 2013)

First published with the White Rose Reader (21 July 2013)

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“Standing armies shall in time be totally abolished.”  – Immanuel Kant

“Till the people have risen / There’ll be no decision.”  – The Coup

Ideally, George Katsiaficas’s work in favor of peoples’s autonomy and liberation should need no introduction.  A Fulbright fellow, former student of Herbert Marcuse, and author of The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (1987) and The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (2006), Katsiaficas has over the past decade dedicated much of his energy to researching and writing the first two volumes of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, with the first volume (2012) focusing on recent Korean history—in particular the 1980 Gwanju uprising, which Katsiaficas likens to the 1871 Paris Commune—and his most recent publication, Volume 2, examining People’s Power movements in nine other Asian countries: the Philippines, Tibet, Burma, China, Nepal, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.  I saw Katsiaficas present Volume 2 at the 2013 Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair—incidentally, the event which PM Press successfully sought to have the volume published in time for—and so am gladdened to now review the work.  Volume 2 of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings examines a series of explosive social movements in East and Southeast Asia of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that are largely neglected in Western circles, even among radicals—hence, “unknown” (though presumably not to the millions who participated in them).  One recurring principal theme of the work, as in Katsiaficas’s previous writings, is the concept of the “eros effect,” which he takes in part from his mentor Marcuse: that is, the sudden eruption among participants in revolutionary movements of spontaneous, popular decision-making processes, genuine solidarity and cooperation, and the suspension of previously regnant social hierarchies.

Katsiaficas’s positive affect—seen clearly in his presentation at the Anarchist Bookfair, the bloody repression to which nearly every movement he studies was subjected notwithstanding—is well-reflected in the beginning of the introductory chapter of the text, “A World of Uprisings.”  He there opens by making the obvious yet crucial claim that, in historical terms, the “terrible, beautiful events” known as “uprisings occur with astonishing regularity.”  Their spontaneous nature speaks to the revocability of instituted, oppressive social relations—the number of dictatorships which were toppled in Asia through the 1980s and 1990s (particularly in the period 1986-1992) demonstrates the concrete basis for believing in the prospect of revolutionary processes.  Waxing philosophical à la Marx, Katsiaficas claims revolutionary behavior to be a “form of species-constitutive behavior” for humans, happily noting that we are at present “rapidly becoming self-conscious as a species.”  The various examples he examines in Volume 2 provide important opportunities for contemplating the possibilities of inverting the brutal and grim future promised by capital, using mass-direct action to transform society: Thai students’ heroic occupation of Thammasat University in 1973 to defy military rule reportedly inspired Greek students to rise against the Papadopoulos dictatorship by taking over the Athens Polytechnic, just as Eastern European movements to precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union consciously took after the example provided by Chinese workers and students in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.  Though the hegemonic direction in which many ‘post-dictatorial’ regimes have taken proves a more depressing story—as in post-Soviet Russia, the collapse of many of the “crony capitalist” dictatorial regimes in Asia have given way to neo-liberal domination by the international financial institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO) that many of these dictators’ successors would come to welcome with open arms—Katsiaficas maintains that these various social insurgencies were overwhelmingly of a popular, mass-democratic nature, and so belong within the history of the New Left, a current that famously in contradistinction to Leninism and Stalinism expressed confidence in the “wisdom and intelligence” of ordinary people, and the importance of their spontaneity in terms of advancing social change.

In general terms, the experiences of the East and Southeast Asian democratization movements have served as embodiments of popular self-management.  The millions who in the nine countries Katsiaficas investigates have struggled together radically for justice “can be regarded,” notes the author, “as proof of another dynamic: [that] ordinary people, acting together in the best interests of society, embody a reasonability and intelligence far greater than that of elites which rules nation-states and giant corporations.”  Katsiaficas claims glowingly that the popular revolutionary struggle is ever-increasingly radicalized by its historical course—the people’s wisdom continually expands through each iteration of insurgency, as they “refuse to tolerate previously accepted forms of domination.”

People’s Power in the Philippines

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“People’s Power” on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, Manila (photo credit: Joey D. Vera)

In keeping with this positive affect—and presenting a prime example of the radical power of the subordinated—Katsiaficas opens his series of case studies with consideration of the various explosive manifestations of “People’s Power” movement in the the Philippines, which via mass-popular intervention first helped depose the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986, and would return in two other major waves over the course of the following twenty-five years.  The original People’s Power movement of 1986—also known for the main roadway that was popularly occupied at the movement’s height, effectively blocking the movement of Marcos’s tanks, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA)—was comprised of a multi-class nature, with businesspeople and ordinary citizens alike uniting to remove Marcos from power, following his arrogance in dismissing the results of the snap election he was forced to concede in early 1986, one that he lost to fellow oligarch Corey Aquino.  EDSA 1, which brought millions out to the streets to demonstrate against this final insult of Marcos’s—for an estimated 90 percent of eligible voters participated in the election—was largely organized on the common popularity of Catholicism as the people’s identity, with the Church hierarchy involving itself explicitly in the struggle against Marcos.  Crucially, the victory of EDSA 1 arguably came only because of the considerable extent to which both rank-and-file soldiers and military commanders defected against Marcos’s repressive orders to brutally put down the people, and specifically due to the efforts of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), the nucleus of military rebels who first broke from Marcos, thus catalyzing his downfall.  In this sense, indeed, People’s Power 1 was not entirely a non-violent event: RAM did use force to incapacitate the air-power of units loyal to Marcos, and to take control of the TV station from which Marcos had his new inauguration—i.e., his fall—transmitted.  Katsiaficas hails the February 1986 power transition as a seminal illustration of the power of those from below to remake society, and he notes its importance as an inspiration for similar developments which followed in due course in South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia.  However, he does note a number of limitations to the transition of power:  most centrally, People’s Power I effectively served pro-Western interests in having Marcos replaced with opposition candidate Aquino, who was herself an embodiment of the Filipin@ ruling class, a group whose interests she represented well while in power.  What is more, RAM units were in constant contact with the CIA and U.S. government throughout the tumultuous times which ended in Marcos’s departure: the CIA helped the rebels coordinate their movements, in line with the US’s desire to see the crony capitalism of Marcos give way to transnational liberalization.  Katsifiacas muses that perhaps the events could have taken a different course, had the country’s once-powerful Communist movement not initially denounced the February election as a sham, and had it not previously been crippled by a 1985 thousand-person purge executed by the New People’s Army (NPA).

Unfortunately—and unsurprisingly—Marcos’s ouster proved not to be a social revolution, but rather a shuffling of power within the pro-Western Filipin@ oligarchy; in this sense, the Communists were entirely and presciently correct.  Under Corey Aquino, the country’s “economic and social structures” changed hardly at all: while she was forced to allow land reform over some six million hectares in the country, she exempted an additional two million from redistribution, as these belonged in part to her family, as to those who effectively own the Philippines.  Aquino was also responsible for the Mendiola massacre, in which scores of landless peasants were shot down for protesting her inadequate reforms, in addition to mass-displacement resulting from the military operations she ordered, numerous cases of torture, and outright repression of organized labor, with the overall number of strikes falling after the frenetic activity taken to resist Marcos dropping precipitously.  None of this is to mention her facilitation of the genesis of large-scale free-trade and export-processing zones (FTZ and EPZ) in the country.

More positively, though, these years saw the shuttering of two U.S. military bases on the archipelago, following a popular referendum demanding this of the Aquino government.  “People’s Power” returned in 2001, when crowds reportedly made up of largely professional, bourgeois individuals—polls indicated at least two-thirds of those gathering in Manila to have hailed “from the upper 10 percent of the class structure”—gathered at EDSA to denounce the Senate’s decision to acquit then-president Ramos Estrada of corruption charges, leading ultimately to a military coup in favor of Estrada’s vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  Just days later, a larger agglomeration comprised overwhelmingly of urban squatters—who in total by some estimates then made up a full third of Manila’s population, amounting to some 2.5 million people—organized to protect Estrada from arrest and, following his voluntary surrender to the police, to keep vigil.  This ESDA 3, known as “Poor People Power,” met fierce repression as ordered by Arroyo, and did not enjoy the support of the Church, capitalists, NGOs, or political parties, as in 1986.  For this reason, Poor People Power was smashed, allowing Arroyo to go on to embezzle money on orders of magnitude greater than Estrada had, to employ death squads against various social activists, and obediently to further enrich transnational capital and the established domestic oligarchy, while exacerbating the poverty of the Filipin@ masses.  The average number of strikes during Arroyo’s rule dwindled to 39 per year, down from 308 in the 1986-1991 period, and seven of ten farmers were found during her tenure to be landless.  The estimated percentage of underweight and stunted Filipin@ children remained largely unchanged at the turn of the century, relative to the years following Marcos’s fall.

In essence, despite the three examples of People’s Power seen in the Philippines in the past decades, “the Filipino people have failed to change significantly their social system,” writes Katsiaficas.  Though greatly revered, the 1986 uprising did little more than to essentially transfer “power from one section of the pro-U.S. elite to another.”  Nonetheless, it would be questionable to hold the Filipin@ masses generally responsible for the negating course of events since February 1986; moreover, one cannot deny the very real demonstrative effect the legacy of People’s Power has had in the region and world.

Extensive Military Repression in Tibet and Burma

After investigating the recent history of People’s Power in the Philippines, Katsiaficas turns to consideration of developments in Burma and occupied Tibet (People’s Republic of China).  In both cases, autonomous, popular movements aiming at self-determination and social justice have met with far more violent suppression than has been the case in the Philippines.  According to Katsiaficas’ statistics, Tibet and Burma are the two countries in which the most people have been killed in uprisings, out of the nine he considers in Volume 2.

In keeping with these data, the case of Tibet as recounted by Katsiaficas is a decidedly negating one.  The Tibetan people, who for centuries have practiced Buddhism and lived in conditions denounced by the Chinese State as “feudal,” have suffered immeasurably during the sixty-plus year occupation which began with invasion by Maoist forces after the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) victory over the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1949.  An estimated one-fifth of the overall Tibetan population, or one million people, have died as a result of the ongoing PRC occupation of Tibet, which accounts for one-fourth of China’s landmass and supplies nearly fall of its mineral wealth, in addition to containing uranium deposits as well potentially as untapped oil.  The first major uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet started on 10 March 1959, when after hearing of threats to the life of Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, tens of thousands of Tibetans rallied to protect him in his summer palace, the Norbulingka, near Lhasa.  Besides physically blocking the Chinese from access to the Dalai Lama, the crowds demanded independence from the Maoist invaders, a position which would officially be taken up by the formal leadership in the following days.  During the tense standoff, Tenzin Gyatso famously and surreptitiously escaped from the palace, fleeing to exile in India.

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Thousands of Tibetans, including many females, mobilized to defend the Dalai Lama upon hearing of a planned attempt on his life by Chinese occupation forces, 10 March 1959 (photo credit: Associated Newspapers Ltd.)

Just days after the Dalai Lama’s flight, the Chinese military employed artillery and armed-personnel carriers against the crowd assembled at the Norbulingka, immediately killing between 5,000 and 10,000 people, and imprisoning ten thousand others, a full one-fourth of Lhasa’s populace.  Repression in that year was fierce, with the Chinese military itself estimating it killed 87,000 Tibetans in the highland’s central region between 1959 and 1960.  The occupation forces notoriously and systematically destroyed a great number of the Tibetans’ religious spaces, with PRC data on Tibetan monasteries showing there to have existed 2,700 before 1959, 550 seven years later, and merely 8 by the early 1980s.  With the Sino-Soviet split, moreover, Tibet’s lands were mandated to cultivate grains, leading multitudes to starve as crops failed due in no small part to lack of local familiarity with the foreign crop; what is more, clandestine CIA support for Tibet was ended with the normalization of U.S.-China relations after Nixon’s 1969 meeting with Mao.  The years 1987 to 1989 saw a number of mobilizations led by Tibetan monks which met with fierce repression by Chinese authorities, who as always claimed “reaction” and “imperialism” to motivate such mobilizations, despite the fact that monks imprisoned during these actions themselves famously released a manifesto on the “Precious Democratic Constitution of Tibet” which stipulated that the Tibetan people did not for their future desire a return to “our former condition,” with a “restoration of serfdom or […] the so-called ‘old system’ of rule by a succession of feudal masters or monastic estates.”  Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, it was Hu Jintao who imposed martial law in Tibet in 1989, a move that would “restore order” by means of various massacres, mass-arrests, and razings of temples; in this sense he was prepared well for his 2002 ascension to CCP Chairman.  Hunger strikes among Tibetans would continue through the 1990s, while in 2008 the brutal suppression of Tibetan monks’ observation of National Uprising Day (10 March) demanding release of imprisoned colleagues resulted, as is well-known, in large-scale attacks on Han Chinese properties and persons in the occupied territories, leading in turn to more mass-arrests and beatings of ordinary Tibetans.  As Katsiaficas notes, the region of Tibet today has more Han Chinese (7.5 million) than indigenous Tibetans (6 million); sadly for this reason, writes Katsiaficas, “Tibetans’ claims to special rights over their lands are rapidly becoming similar to those of Native Americans inside the United States.”  While their modern experience with Chinese settler-colonialism has undoubtedly proven highly destructive, the indigenous Tibetans’ egalitarian and non-materialist ethos, in Katsiaficas’ view, could perhaps contribute well to the ongoing struggle “to create a world free of weapons of mass destruction, a world where all forms of life are respected.”  It is not for nothing, claims the author, that the Tiananmen Square movement in China followed so soon after the Tibetans’ mobilizations in the late 1980s.

Similarly brutal in breadth and scope to the occupation of Tibet has been the Burmese military’s prolonged strategy of crushing autonomous social developments in the territory it calls Myanmar.  The country’s early post-independence history, made possible through the armed struggle coordinated by Aung San to defeat Japanese and British colonizers, saw parliamentary rule on the one hand as well as the continuation of armed struggle by the various ethnic minorities of Burma, who comprise a third of the population, on the other.  Formal military rule began in the country in 1962 with Ne Win’s suspension of parliament, a move that met thereafter with various student and worker resistance actions.  Ne Win eventually resigned following an intense wave of popular demonstrations in March 1988, ranging from university occupations to insurrectional destruction of State property and street battles against the police and military.  Most spectacular was the coordinated general strike of 8 August 1988 (8/8/88), a day that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Burmese year 1300 (1938), when nationalist forces revolted against the British: to protest the effective continuation of Ne Win’s administration following his form deposition, the day began at precisely 8:08am, when dockworkers suspended their labor, soon to be joined by millions of others in a carnival-esque atmosphere that overtook Rangoon.

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8/8/8 in Rangoon (photo credit: Tom Lubin)

The celebratory power of the people made evident on that day ended with negation, as the military applied what may be termed the “Tlatelolco solution”[1] in finally opening fire indiscriminately and en masse against the people, killing hundreds and arresting thousands.  A war then broke out between people and State which raged for four days, during which the Army “routinely turned automatic weapons on any public gathering”—even those of assembled nurses, demanding the suspension of shoot-to-kill orders.  Nonetheless, Ne Win’s successor followed his boss’s example by resigning three days into the revolts, and with the suspension of martial law soon thereafter, the people were left in many cases to temporarily manage society for themselves through strike committees, assemblies, and popular security bodies while waiting for the promised multiparty elections to be held.  However, the military stifled the transition to liberal democracy by once again seizing control, this time via the badly named State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which systematically worked to dismember the autonomous processes which had begun to develop in Burmese society: thousands were murdered and thousands more imprisoned in this “Iron Fist” or “Thermidorean” phase of the struggle.  Besides overt brute force, the State reportedly and infamously distributed heroin to shatter the opposition after 1988, much as the authorities had resorted to “liberating” violent criminals from prison in 1988, in order to besiege the acephalous popular resistance.  Mirroring the situation in Mexico with the development of the Fuerzas de Liberacion Nacional (FLN) and similar groups after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, many Burmese student radicals took to the mountains to train for guerrilla warfare against the regime following their experiences with its brutal violence in 1988.

Strict repression followed the SPDC’s consolidation of power in 1988, with the results of the overwhelming electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 1990 elections[2] entirely dismissed by the ruling junta.  The “predatory State” overseen by the SPDC has greatly enriched itself in this period (1988-present), selling off its natural resources and developing lucrative ties with China and Thailand, while maintaining the vast majority of the populace in highly impoverished conditions.  Instead of serving as a “developmental State”—as in South Korea, for example—the SPDC has followed it own desires to maintain and aggrandize power, cutting deals with certain ethnic minorities while subjecting others—like the Karen—to brutal campaigns of subjugation.  One estimate cited by Katsiaficas claims 3000 villages destroyed and a million people displaced during these ethnic-cleansing operations.  The 2008 “Saffron Revolution,” largely led by monks, is framed with some skepticism by Katsiaficas, who mentions the reported ties between the National Endowment for Democracy and these mobilizations.  The author also takes issue with Burmese chauvinism and Suu Kyi’s strict pacifism in particular, which condemn the militant tactics of the Karen and others, who have had to use violence to survive various military onslaughts by the State since formal independence; oddly enough, he does not discuss the Rohingya Muslims, whose recent plight at the hands of the Burmese Buddhist majority Suu Kyi certainly has not prioritized.  With thousands of political prisoners still incarcerated, Katsiaficas suggests that the Burmese movements’ inability to do away with military control may well have to do with their general hesitancy to resort to more forceful methods.

Proletarian and Student Counter-Power in China: Tiananmen Square and After

           “But history’s final accounting has yet to be completed.”

                   – Autonomous workers’ wall poster, 1989

In introducing the world-historical 1989 revolt in China, Katsiaficas emphasizes that the movements which comprised it emanated entirely from outside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): first, proletarians, then students, and finally “nearly the entire population” of Beijing became involved in the rebellion, particularly after 20 May 1989, when the army deployed to suppress the uprising.  The two main constituent forces of the protests, workers and students, were directed by no centralized leadership but instead organized through large autonomous agglomerations—a structure that mirrored the geographical parameters of the 1989 revolt, which beyond Beijing expanded to an estimated 341 of the 434 large cities of China.  Though protestors expressed a diversity of views on the country’s political future, few if any of them held positive views of capitalism.  Indeed, especially from proletarian angles, the 1989 mobilizations embodied a resounding condemnation of Deng Xiaoping’s pro-capitalist reforms, and the brutal social inequality which followed in tandem.  The popular esteem in which the “Hundred Million Heroes” of 1989 are held is well-deserved: Katsiaficas frames the shattering interventions of that year as continuing from the Chinese people’s popular involvement in politics after the 1949 defeat of the KMT (as before): the Maoist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, a “mobilization of civil society against the state bureaucracy,” on Katsiaficas’s account expressed the masses’ dissatisfaction with dominant anti-egalitarian practices, as had peasants’ insurrections previously—the White Lotus rebellion (1796-1801), or the Taiping revolt of the 1860s.  Moreover, among the Han Chinese, says Katsiaficas, there is a general sense that “the Emperor ruled through a mandate of heaven (which could be retracted if power was wielded in unjust ways), that the people have the right to petition for redress of grievances and officials a concomitant responsibility to respond intelligently, and that everyone has the right to rebel against unjust dictates.”

In economic terms, it would seem that the exceedingly high inflation rates seen in China in 1988-1989 contributed to popular dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, as did the passage of a series of laws favoring management over labor in previous years.  The 1989 events themselves began on 15 April 1989, when workers initiated protest in Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, former CCP General Secretary.  Indeed, Katsiaficas notes that while the Tiananmen Square events are generally thought of in the main (or, at least in Western circles) as having been led  students, in fact students comprised a small minority (2 million) of the total population of workers (105 million) who spearheaded many of the mobilizations seen in April to June 1989.  In particular, the Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation (BAWF) was born from public challenges directed by workers against the corruption practiced among the Party elite and the numerous adverse effects of Xiaoping’s liberalization policies.  Alongside the BAWF and other radical workers, the Autonomous Student Union of Beijing Universities (ASU) was founded during this time, requesting permission from the State to publish independent newspapers, and demanding that the CCP open itself to transparency and questioning on charges of corruption.  In this way, the BAWF and ASU explicitly challenged the CCP’s hegemony on dictation of social policy—and gained the hatred of hardline Party insiders.  In response to these autonomous developments, on 26 April the China People’s Daily condemned “anti-state turmoil and chaos” associated with a “conspiracy by a handful of unlawful elements”; that same day, the CCP banned public protests.  Nonetheless, the very next day some 150,000 people defied the ban by occupying Tiananamen Square.

This ongoing show of power led certain groups within the CCP to open negotiations with officially sanctioned sectors of protestors; meanwhile, worker and student activists consulted popularly with each other, and with their predecessors from previous generations, leading “a hundred flowers of ideas” to bloom.  A small subgroup of students decided in mid-May to engage in hunger strike while occupying Tiananmen Square, thus preventing the official visit planned by Mikhail Gorbachev to the Square, during what was to be the first international meeting in decades between representatives of the two members of the ex-Sino-Soviet alliance.  Katsiaficas observes here that the hunger-striking students gained a great deal of public sympathy for their radical tactics, yet he condemns them for anti-democratic arrogance and egotism in their rejection of compromise—a “huge strategic error” that he questionably holds responsible for provoking the violent repression of the State just weeks later.  During the month of May, on the other hand, the BAWF expanded and developed its public presence, calling for a “higher form of socialism” in which the bureaucratic CCP would be abolished, replaced by collective proletarian and popular association.  At the other pole, psychology graduate student and hunger striker Chai Ling declared herself “Commander-in-Chief of the Headquarters for Defending Tiananmen Square,” leading to palpable tensions between students and workers, as the former isolated themselves from the latter, even refusing their participation and collaboration in the Square’s occupation.  It is no surprise, then, that many proletarians came to perceive many of the same “corrupt practices of the elite, such as secrecy, exclusivity, factionalism, struggles for power, and special privileges” as holding sway among many students.  Beyond consideration of effective class struggle within the oppositional movements, the two groups diverged moreover on political philosophy, with students generally calling for reform of the CCP and offering few critiques of the ongoing opening to capitalism as facilitated by the bureaucracy, while workers “wanted revolution.”  Unfortunately, neither movement found much support from the Chinese countryside, where agricultural workers had not yet felt the deleterious impacts of nascent neoliberalism.

Less than a week after the beginning of the hunger strike, in which over three thousand people came to be involved, Deng Xiaoping declared martial law, and the Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who had previously expressed sympathy for the protests, was deposed by internal coup, with Li Peng taking over to impose the martial-law order.  However, the BAWF called for a general strike on 20 May to blockade the mass-entrance of troops into Beijing, and, as in the Philippines, the people’s peaceful occupation of the streets prevented the army’s expeditious dismantling of the Tiananmen Square occupation.  Troops themselves initially refused to use force against the people, as hundreds of cities throughout the PRC erupted in protest.  Numerous autonomous worker, intellectual, and student groups arose in the tempest, encouraged on by the BAWF, which on 26 May openly advocated the “storm[ing of] this twentieth-century Bastille, this last stronghold of Stalinism!”  However, the Tiananmen Square occupation soon began to dissipate with the prolongation of martial law, until the full military invasion of central Beijing during the night of 3 June, which was met with substantial resistance from the people, who erected barricades and threw stones and Molotovs to stave off the incursion.  Following the military takeover of Tiananmen Square in the early morning of 4 June, the people of Beijing revolted radically, surrounding and blockading troop deployments and beating soldiers, recuperating arms for self-defense, and destroying hundreds of police and military vehicles.  Reportedly, a significant proportion of commanders and lower-ranking soldiers refused to implement the CCP’s demands for suppression, instead fighting pro-State units engaged in the repression of the people.  Nonetheless, these military rebels were a minority, and the army overall remained “firmly under the control of the government,” which besides mandating severe repression in the proletarian districts of Beijing, also had thousands of activists imprisoned.  Official reports spoke of 300 soldiers and citizens killed in the repression operation, with 7,000 injured.

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Intense street fighting between citizenry and State followed the PLA invasion of Beijing on 3 June 1989

Similarly to many other observers, Katsiaficas situates the brutal suppression of 1989 within the CCP’s conscious strides towards an increasingly authoritarian-capitalist model for Chinese society, which has greatly enriched Party insiders themselves.  From 1980 to 1996, real economic growth rates in China averaged nearly 10 percent, while from 1997 to 2006 they ranged between 7.8 and 11.1 percent.  Within this process, the CCP has availed itself of the industrial exploitation of the massive “pool of semiskilled rural emigrants” once residing outside the country’s megalopolises—now encouraged en masse to perform effective slave labor in the cities—as well as of the “imperial exploitation of Xinjiang and Tibet’s vast mineral and oil deposits and their people’s labor.”  While unfortunate developments such as the seemingly ceaseless usurpation of territory for capitalist megaprojects and the overwhelming support granted by most Han to repressive policies in Tibet and Xinjiang mar China’s present, still the peoples’ degree of “resistance to unjust authority remains a significant feature of the political landscape,” as well as a promise of alternative, more humane futures: the estimated number of “incidents of social unrest” experienced in China in 2008 reached 100,000, up from 40,000 at the turn of the millennium.

Radical Struggles Within Monarchies: Nepal and Thailand

Besides consideration of the Philippines, PRC (and Tibet), and Burma, Katsiaficas importantly includes examinations of mass-revolutionary struggle within the monarchical regimes of Thailand and Nepal.  Such mobilizations have arguably had greater successes in Nepal, where the monarchy has been abolished and Maoists assert a considerable voice in governance, than in the thoroughly neo-liberal Thailand, which still retains King Bhumibol.

Nepal experienced a parliamentary period beginning with the fall of Rana dynastic rule in 1951 and ending with the imposition of direct royal rule in 1960.  For Katsiaficas, the first most significant popular movement against monarchical absolutism came in the form of the jana andolan (“People’s Uprising” or “Movement”) of 1990, a seven-week struggle between February and April that was initiated by political parties in favor of the restoration of parliament and in turn carried in far more radical directions by the Nepali masses themselves.  In Patan, across the river from Kathmandu, the people in arms expelled the police, declaring the city a “Free State” and “Zone of Democracy.”  As in Korea and China previously, it was the urban poor (lumpenproletariat) and workers who helped sustain the jana andolan amidst repression meted out by the king’s security forces, though the movement in its inception was largely impelled by more middle-class elements.  With nearly a half million participating in an April 6 bandh (general strike) in Kathmandu—amounting to a third of the city’s population—the jana andolan experienced a dramatic intensification in the face of indiscriminate police gunfire, leading two days later to the king conceding a restoration of parliament, and a transition to prajatantra (formal democracy).  This transition was unsurprisingly negotiated in an exclusive manner, with no measures stipulated for the release of the thousands of political prisoners or justice for those shot dead by the royal forces—an estimated thousand individuals, overwhelmingly youth.

Though the beginning of prajatantra in Nepal could not be said to have brought about social transformation, this “new opening” gave succor to the hopes of the considerable numbers of “the less privileged” in the country, claims  Katsiaficas.  He notes with enthusiasm the the resounding activation-effect the popular struggle of 1990 struggle had on the multiplicities of peoples comprising Nepali civil society, from workers to Dalits and females mobilizing in defense of their rights.  He explains that diverse groups of subjugated ethnicities collaborated in efforts to attain a secular society, overturn the caste system, and abolish the Hindu monarchy after the first jana andolan—these goals being formulated either despite or because of the November 1990 Nepali constitution, which upheld monarchical rule and mandated elections that would come to be dominated by the Congress Party, largely comprised of Brahmins, with the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) gaining a plurality.

Katsiaficas examines another famous Nepali resistance movement in the guerrilla tactics of the country’s armed Maoists (CPNM), seeing their growing popularity as coinciding with the overwhelming disappointment experienced by the most oppressed of Nepal following the coming of bourgeois parliamentarism.  The Maoist insurgency began in February 1996; within a decade, it would retake control from the monarchy of a whole half of Nepal’s countryside.  As in India, the site of the original 1967 Naxalbari movement and the ongoing Naxalite resistance to neoliberal terror, the Nepali Maoists have gained great support from many of the rural poor, who welcome the insurgents’ redistribution of occupied lands and suspension of peasant debt and bonded labor.  As in several other geographical examples—for example, Nicaragua, Mexico, Colombia—the Maoists have met with brutality at the hands of the U.S.-supported Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), with thousands murdered, disappeared, and imprisoned.  Indeed, the putative “Maoist threat” was the pretext for King Gyanendra’s 2005 declaration of martial law (following from his 2002 suspension of parliament), a repressive move that itself catalyzed the second jana andolan (April 2006), the loktantra andolan (“true people’s democracy”).  This movement, which brought more than half of the total population of Kathmandu (1 million) and four million others elsewhere in the country (total population 25 million) into the streets on a sustained bandh, coordinated well with the Maoist armed struggle, which blockaded Kathmandu and made considerable gains against the RNA.  The people’s tenacity in desiring the fall of the regime sustained the 19-day struggle, met as it was with indiscriminate police violence until Gyanendra’s capitulation to reinstate parliament, and the parliament’s subsequent formal abolition of monarchical rule and its declaration of Nepal as a secular republic (May 2006).

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Maoist victory rally in Kathmandu, 2 June 2006 (photo credit: Narendra Shrestha)

For Katsiaficas, Nepal’s two jana andolan serve as a strong example of “the incredible heroism of ordinary people”: amidst police and State violence, they united en masse to topple oppressive power. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether the participants of the loktantra andolan as a whole desired the outright abolition of monarchical rule rather than the resignation of Gyanendra, as Katsiaficas suggests that many of the people of Nepal in fact now advocate the restoration of monarchy—just not in Gyanendra’s person.  The author concludes by favorably discussing the progressive social changes instituted by Maoist insurgency in Nepal’s recent history, implicitly questioning to what degree a return to parliamentary rule—even with the Maoist majority represented in 2008—will prove efficacious in overturning inequality and mass impoverishment.

In Thailand, another long-living monarchy has enjoyed widespread popular support even through two bloody uprisings of the late twentieth century (1973 and 1992); Katsiaficas describes the country in this sense as an outlier, with the “king hold[ing] the status of demigod,” and the Thai people’s “allegiance to the royal family [being] one of their most defining cultural characteristics.”  Bhumibol, the grandson of Chulalongkorn who has ruled since 1947, is widely regarded as the world’s wealthiest monarch; his estimated worth of $35 billion clearly outstrips the accumulated fortunes of Saudi King Abdullah and Sheikh Khaifa of the UAE.  In part, the monarchy owes at least some of its vast wealth to its collaboration in the mid-1960s with U.S. forces prosecuting genocide in neighboring Vietnam, through its renting out of airstrips and servicing of bases.  Growing alongside Bhumibol’s hegemony has been the Thai military, which like the monarchy has taken every opportunity to enrich itself, and so perpetuate the gross social inequality seen in Thailand.

On Katsiaficas’ account, the first major challenge to the feudal-military establishment came with students’ mobilizations in October 1973.  Influenced in no small part by contemporary global upsurges and the propagation of New Left critiques of existing society, members of the National Student Center of Thailand (NSCT) coordinated participatory meetings to shutter Bangkok universities and plan the “Day of Joy” (13 October 1973), the largest single protest in Thai history (with the participation of an estimated half-million), which would at once demonstrate the protestors’ allegiance to “Nation, Religion, King, and Constitution” as well as call for the reversal of the military’s 1971 takeover via elections.  Protests continued on early the morning of October 14, when police fired on crowds gathered near the royal palace who had refused to disperse; next came the direct intervention of the military, using tanks to suppress the popular rising.  Protestors then came to split between pacifists and direct actionists, with the latter taking on the task of destroying specific targets such as police stations, the Revenue Department, and the Anti-Corruption Center.  By continuing to mobilize en masse even after the beginning of open repression, the urban dissident movement forced the hand of Bhumibol, who demanded the resignation and exile of the junta’s top leaders.  Just three years later, though, he called them back to the country, inviting the military yet again to take power and crush the developing confidence of the youth and workers once and for all—thus intensifying the violence Bhumibol had unleashed against them through paramilitary groups in the intervening three-year period.  The same day the armed forces brutally attacked Bangkok’s Thammasat University to repress student counter-power (6 October 1976), they officially retook power in a coup.  With the military back in the seat, Thai labor militancy dropped off sharply, and the foreign capitalists who just before the students’ massacre had refused to invest, out of fear losing money due to the prominence of ongoing autonomous social developments in the country, happily suspended their strike.  In parallel terms, the option of Maoist armed struggle in the Thai countryside gained traction among many, particularly students.

bangkok

In 1973, the Thai military forcibly attempted to disperse pro-democracy protestors

The return of military rule in Thailand greatly facilitated the State’s embrace of neoliberalism, with consistently high economic growth rates, an expanding middle class, and super-exploited working classes (the workplace injury rate in Thailand for 1995 was three times greater than that calculated for South Korea).  A major pro-democracy uprising in May 1992 resulted in the fall of General Suchinda, then Prime Minister, despite the scores shot dead and arrested in the suppression of the rural and urban mobilizations as ordered by the general—an act for which he was pardoned by the king.  As in several other case studies he examines, Katsiaficas notes again that the workers and poor comprised the main force sustaining the popular mobilizations and civil defense once the Thai army began overt repression—with the more privileged elements of protestors often quickly making themselves scarce under such conditions.  The 1992 transition brought parliamentary elections, greater foreign direct investment, and a new constitution (1997) which provided limited formal protections for women, while unsurprisingly leaving the overhanging structure of capitalist exploitation untouched.  Out of the democratic opening came visible organizing by queers and the birth of the Assembly of the Poor (AOP), affiliated with La Via Campesina.  Katsiaficas seems to find more promise in the AOP and related groups than in either of the factions which have have dominated the country’s politics through conflict in these past years: the Yellow Shirts, who emphasize Buddhist principles and monarchical supremacy in government, and the Red Shirts, or supporters of the populist-neoliberal billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a coup in 2006 after being popularly elected twice (2001 and 2005).  Despite his wealth, Thaksin seemingly enjoys the sympathies of many Thai proletarians, whose April-May 2010 occupation of central Bangkok, including the city’s financial center—a protest in support of their beleaguered leader—met with great violence at the hands of the military.

Other Authoritarian, Pro-Western Regimes: Taiwan, Indonesia, Bangladesh

Katsiaficas also discusses three more countries shaken by uprisings: Taiwan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.  Due to space considerations, I will here only briefly explore these case studies: in Taiwan, awarded by the Allies to the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) government of China after Japan’s defeat in August 1945, indigenous residents of the island called for independence in 1947, mobilizing armed struggle toward this end and assembling themselves politically in councils, only to meet the fascist repression of the KMT in that year and then especially following its defeat by the CCP in 1949, when the KMT leadership fled to Taiwan, there to found the world’s longest-running regime based on martial law.  Up to 30,000 indigenous Taiwanese were murdered by the KMT in its assertion of dominance.  Formal democratization began in 1987 with the KMT’s suspension of martial law, following from widespread protests from workers, environmentalists, and upper middle-class liberals, and accelerated with the coming of elections in 1991.  Despite parliamentary rule, Taiwan retains strong military ties with the U.S., an alliance that arguably diverts great resources from the peoples of Taiwan to needless waste.

In Indonesia, longstanding “sultanist” President Mohammed Suharto was compelled to resign in 1998 amidst popular mobilization against the conditions stipulated by an IMF bailout aiming at stabilizing the country’s economy following the 1997 financial crisis.  Suharto initially rejected the IMF’s conditions, and subsequently dawdled on implementing them after finally caving, out of fear of public reaction—particularly in terms of the mandated cuts to food subsidies, with the rapid increase in poverty rates coming in the wake of the 1997 crisis.  After Suharto’s resignation, catalyzed as it was by student occupations of parliament, youth and workers continued to mobilize by the thousands to protest the military’s central role in Indonesian politics, with elections coming the following year.  Dialectically, while East Timorese gained independence from the new government through a referendum, Suharto’s authoritarian legacy lived on, even given this break: paramilitary groups supported by the Indonesian army engaged in widespread massacres of Timorese during and after the 1999 declaration of independence.  Unlike East Timor, though, Aceh and West Papua have so far not been allowed either independence or autonomy.

The struggle in Bangladesh against the pro-U.S. dictatorship of General H.M. Ershad (1982-1990) saw intervention by students and government workers on hartal (strike), in addition to sympathetic elements of the military, cooperating to bring about parliamentary rule, which instituted the rule of law, freedom of expression, and legalization of trade unions.  However, and unsurprisingly, the representatives of the new parliament in large part hailed from the business and middle classes, with dozens of owners of garment factories and slave-traffickers winning office.  Mobilizations by women, especially female sex workers, against patriarchal Islamist mores have become important features of the post-dictatorial landscape in Bangladesh, as has the class struggles of garment workers, who have suffered enormously from unsafe working conditions on the one hand—recall the April 2013 Rana Square disaster, or the November 2012 Tazreen fire—and the British-trained anti-unionist Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) paramilitary group on the other.  It is strange that Katsifiacias makes no mention of the devastation wrought on Bangladesh and its peoples by the ever-worsening cyclones and rising sea levels exacerbated by capitalism’s warming of the atmosphere, a development that has led many coastal Bangladeshi communities to effectively lose access to safe drinking water, as the ocean’s salt penetrates the aquifers on which they could once rely.

Concluding Comments

“By their very nature, humans are destined to be free.”  – G.W.F. Hegel

Following the end of his explorations of the history of uprisings in these nine Asian societies, Katsiaficas dedicates the remainder of his volume to reflections on these events.  He enthusiastically welcomes them all as reminders that “human beings remain capable of changing the planetary structures that condemn millions of people to living hell at the periphery of the world system—and involve us all in continual wars and destruction of the planet.”  Though he recognizes that the exercise of People’s Power over the past three decades has more often than not ended up facilitating increased super-exploitation by transnational capital, he declares it as amounting to “a protracted people’s uprising against capitalism and war,” one developed autonomously from overarching centralizing forces.  In this way, the popular spontaneity evinced in the nine countries he studies should definitively disprove the Leninist thesis of the need to insert externally imposed, vanguardist discipline onto the putatively reformist masses.  The “ultimate goal” of People’s Power, says Katsifiacas, has been “the institutionalization of popular forms of decision-making—taking power from elites and reconstituting it into grassroots forms.”  He declares that in the numerous cases in which the “eros effect” has gripped popular mobilizations, “humans’ love for and solidarity with each other suddenly replace previously dominant values and norms,” recalling the “primitive communism” of prehistorical humanity.  As in the examples of the Paris and Gwanju Communes, the historical example of People’s Power “contradict[s] the widely propagated myth that human beings are essentially evil and therefore require strong governments to maintain order and justice.  Rather, the behavior of the citizens during these moments of liberation [have] revealed an innate capacity for self-government and cooperation.”  Turning to consideration of what it is that might be done today, Katsifiacias urges people in general to act to “negate their existing daily routines and break free of ingrained patterns” so as to realize a globalized eros effect, which, if “continually activated,” would finally afford humanity the chance to “determine for [ourselves] the type of society in which [we] wish to live.”

Katsiaficas concludes his massive study with the chapter “The System is the Problem,” wherein he identifies eight negating structural imperatives of the present capitalist-military system: wars and weapons, bubbles and busts, billionaires and beggars, and profits and pollution.  He clearly notes that this system, which he claims to bear a “great deal of continuity” with those of the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, owes its existence to imposition “by the power of the strongest, by the dead weight of the past, and decidedly not [to] the life forces of the present.”  Against the present “abysmal reality,” Katsifiacias invokes “global revolutionary change” as a “prescriptive remedy [which is] needed in large doses to cure the diseases of militarized nation-states, power-hungry politicians, and wealth-grabbing billionares”; in positive terms, he suggests a “fundamental restructuring of the world system to decentralize and bring under self-management the vast social wealth of humanity,” as continuing in the heroic examples examined in Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2.  Optimistically, he promises that “[t]he next generations of protests—drawn from the trajectory of Chiapas, Caracas, Gwanju, Berlin, Seattle, February 15, 2003, and the Arab Spring [sic]—will surpass these other waves in a cascading global resonance.”

There can be no doubt of the imperative nature of Katsiaficas’s argumentation as presented in this book; I can easily say it is one of the most stimulating books I have read in years, or perhaps in life.  I would merely end by interrogating Katsiaficas’s triumphant optimism, which reminds me of that of Ernst Bloch, author of the Principle of Hope (3 volumes).  For example, Katsiaficas at no point in Volume 2 discusses the capitalist system’s clearly established suicidal (omnicidal) proclivities, represented most graphically in the ever-accelerating climate crisis, and hence ignores the utter need for sustained interventions like those examined in the text on these groundswith the difference that the present and future uprisings serve as the midwives of post-capitalist social relations, rather than of liberal capitalism (or capitalist parliamentarism) in opposition to direct military rule.  This is not a point of major disagreement between Katsifiacias and me, for he clearly interprets the present crisis as one of “greatest urgency,” and calls for “[g]lobally synchronized struggles by hundreds of millions”—if not billions—of people to displace capitalism from the stage of history.  The only point I would stress is that the timeline for such mass-radical action is necessarily short, in keeping with current climatological findings, and that the dénouement of the crises of capitalism may not necessarily yield a liberated, humanist future—though it still might, as the promise of People’s Power holds.


[1]    A reference to the 2 October 1968 Tlatelolco massacre committed by the Mexican Army and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) against students and non-students as they held a rally at the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas in Mexico City, just over two weeks before the beginning of the Olympics in the city.  An estimated 300 people lost their lives in the balacero (sustained shooting), though other estimates suggest far more.  Countless student activists were imprisoned at the site of the massacre as well, many of them forcibly disappeared.  See La Noche de Tlatelolco by Elena Poniatowska.

[2]    To clarify: these 1990 elections had been mandated by the Burmese parliament, which met briefly in 1988 following the fall of Sein Lwin, successor to Ne Win.  The SPDC military in fact did observe this parliamentary legal demand, however little attention it paid to the result of the event it called for.

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2 Responses to “People’s Power, Military Repression, and the Uncertainties of Erotic Struggle: A Review of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2”

  1. History Lesson Part 1: Sovereignty in an Archipelago | Essential Landscapes Says:

    […] Photo taken on EDSA road during the People’s Power Revolution in which the people of the Philippines filled the city streets in popular against the political corruption of President Ferdinand Marcos.  Source […]

  2. History Lesson Part 1: Sovereignty in an Archipelago | Essential Landscapes Says:

    […] Photo taken on EDSA road during the People’s Power Revolution in which the people of the Philippines filled the city streets in popular revolt against the political corruption of President/Dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  Source […]

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