Protest & Liberation Movements

In 1975, the small island of East Timor fell out of the clutches of one colonial power and into those of another. As Portugal closed out its empire around the world, including its tiny outposts in Southeast Asia, independence movements fought for control of East Timor, with the revolutionary group Fretelin seizing power in the capital of Dili. Nine days later, Indonesia moved in to claim the island. It squelched any opportunity for the residents to exercise their right of self-determination.

Nearly one-third of the East Timorese population died in the aftermath of the invasion, many from famine.  Fretelin moved into the mountains to continue its fight.  Non-violent resistance continued in the capital.  When Indonesian soldiers fired on a peaceful gathering in Dili in 1991, killing 100, the international media finally began to cover the story of the island’s struggle.  The East Timor Action Network and other international organizations worked tirelessly to focus international media attention on pressuring the United States, Japan, and Australia into withdrawing economic and military support from the Indonesian regime.

But it was a second liberation movement, this time within Indonesia itself, which precipitated a breakthrough for East Timor.  Indonesian students mounted massive demonstrations in 1998, eventually forcing the resignation of their authoritarian president Suharto.  This opened the way for Indonesia to open negotiations with Fretelin and its charismatic leader Xanana Gusmao.  East Timor’s pro-autonomy vote in 1999 was one in a series of successful anti-colonial struggles that swept through the Third World beginning in the 1950s.  In East Timor, sadly, the independence vote triggered a rampage by the Indonesian military that killed 1,500, destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, and only ended with the intervention of more than 10,000 UN troops.  In 2001, East Timorese returned to the polls and elected former guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao as the president of their newly independent state.  Violence subsided, but the newly independent country remained poor.  The last UN peacekeepers left the country in May 2005.

Only in the last fifty years have historians and social scientists begun to look deeply at the role that protest movements play in changing the course of history. Popular movements challenge entrenched economic interests, racist systems of slavery, imperial metropoles, and distant colonial powers.  Consider these examples.  The Diggers resisted the engines of capital in 17th century England. Toussant L’Ouverture led the first successful slave rebellion and liberated Haiti in the late 18th century. Greek patriots led the first modern nationalist revolt against a colonial power and gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1828.  Liberation movements gathered force in the 20th century as Ireland, India, Ghana, Congo, Angola, and other countries one by one established control over their own destinies.

More recently, environmental movements changed the face of European politics, while women’s and civil rights movements transformed the United States.  In the 1980s, “people power” deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, students and workers joined together to bring democracy to South Korea, activists organized to remove Augusto Pinochet through a referendum in Chile.  In 1989, the attenuation of Soviet authority and the surge of popular protest ushered in a new order in Eastern Europe and helped to stimulate change elsewhere in the world such as the end of apartheid in South Africa.  Several movements still raise the anti-colonial banner, such as the Chechens in Russia and the Polisario Front in Western Sahara.  There are also still several popular movements against authoritarian regimes in such places as Belarus and Burma.

Today, protest movements have increasingly gone global, to target international economic institutions, the global arms trade, and environmental threats.  Even local movements, such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, have leveled their critique not just against regional authorities or the nation-state, but against neo-liberalism more generally.  The end of the Cold War, the dispersion of technologies like the Internet, and the intensification of the global market have all encouraged this next logical step in protest and liberation.

Is liberation a concrete goal or an everyday struggle? Is economic self-determination, once a major element of liberation movements, still possible at a national or regional or local level in this era of globalization?  How have recent liberation movements altered the very fabric of national sovereignty?  Is mass mobilization in the streets now overshadowed by mass mobilization in cyberspace?  Has revolutionary content leached out of liberation struggles to be replaced by neo-liberalism and “good governance”? Has the locus of radical activity shifted from the political to the cultural sphere?

On a trip to Provisions, you can read about the bicycle power movement in the book Critical Mass, check out protest and liberation movements from a European perspective in the magazine Red Pepper, log on to read primary materials from the global anti-apartheid movement, see the art work of activist Keith Haring, rock out to the songs of Billy Bragg, and see the classic film The Battle of Algiers.

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