Last year, students, workers, and activists took to the streets across much of Asia to demand political rights, civil liberties, labor protections, and more. While the fight for democracy in Hong Kong grabbed the most attention, there were mass movements throughout the region. In Indonesia, tens of thousands of people marched against a proposed omnibus bill that would violate labor, environmental, and civil rights; these were the largest public demonstrations since the 1998 uprising that overthrew its military dictatorship. In India, millions protested against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, a law explicitly excluding Muslim migrants from becoming citizens that was rushed through Parliament in December.
Malaysia, too, seemed on the cusp of popular revolt after backdoor political maneuvering in February allowed the former ruling coalition—thrown out in a historic election just two years prior—to regain power against the people’s will. While the 2019 protests across Asia did not topple any governments, it was widely expected that 2020 would follow in 2019’s steps. But then came Covid-19, which has halted social life—and mass demonstrations—almost entirely.
“This pandemic, it sort of put everything on hold,” said Iqra Anugrah, a postdoctoral fellow at the center for Southeast Asian studies at Kyoto University in Japan, who focuses his research on social movements. “The sense of confusion is real, and people don’t know what to do.”
One the one hand, the Covid-19 crisis is giving increasingly authoritarian governments opportunities to cement power. But on the other, it exposes the governments’ failures to protect public safety and health, which could fuel even stronger and better organized movements in the future.
With tens of thousands of people crossing the border from mainland China every day, Hong Kong was one of the early front lines of the pandemic. And when the severity of the outbreak in China began to become clear, the Hong Kong government seemed committed to inaction. “During January and February, despite very high voices from the residents and health care givers demanding the government to shut down the border, the government was very hesitant on responding,” said Klavier Wong, an independent media researcher who got her post-doc from the Education University of Hong Kong.
Many Hong Kong residents have vivid memories of the 2003 SARS outbreak that killed 286 people in the city and was, like the Covid-19 crisis, initially covered up by Chinese authorities. One result is that many consider any hesitation far too risky. Mask wearing, working from home, and social distancing rapidly have become nearly universal, even without any government mandates in place. The massive gatherings that had characterized life in the city since June 5, 2019, have stopped. There were still a few smaller protests, often on behalf of health care workers, which eventually forced the government to close borders and institute mandatory quarantines for incoming residents.
Health experts believe that Hong Kong has seen relatively few cases primarily because of the action of residents and civil society. “Hong Kongers keep telling ourselves, we’ve done reasonably well not because of the government, but because of our own alertness. We knew the government is not to be trusted,” said Claudia Mo, an independent democrat and member of the Hong Kong legislative council.
At the same time as Hong Kong police were beating demonstrators and launching teargas canisters into crowds, protests began in Indonesia. They started because President Joko Widodo, who handily won reelection last April, aims to use use his mandate to rewrite the criminal code. The supposedly pro-business measures include removing requirements for environmental impact assessments around large-scale infrastructure projects, limiting workers’ rights, and making blasphemy against the president a punishable offense. The scale and extent of protests, which took place around the country, surprised many. “It was pretty impressive initially. They gained a lot of momentum, a lot of support,” said Anugrah. “They managed to create some noise in mainstream media and political discourses.”
After a slowdown in late 2019, public rallies began picking up in January when labor unions started organizing to fight the anti-worker reforms. That quickly got scaled down—and then eliminated entirely, once the danger to public health posed by the coronavirus became clear.
One concern activists and observers have across the region is that the lockdowns will allow states to clamp down on the opposition and pass unpopular laws.
Activists are particularly fearful in India, where last August, Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government put all of Kashmir in lockdown for political reasons. The pandemic is also being used to smear Muslims, who are being falsely blamed for spreading the virus. But even in Indonesia and Malaysia, there are worries that restricting freedom of assembly to combat a virus could easily morph into an excuse for governments to repress civil liberties or pass pro-business, anti-labor legislation. “The right to assemble peacefully has been suspended for now,” said Thomas Fann, chairperson of Bersih 2.0, an Malaysian NGO coalition calling for fair, free, and clean elections. “We are concerned that this mode of operation would continue even after the lifting of the movement control order.”
In Malaysia, in early March, the police questioned activists speaking out against the new, unelected government—a sign, many worried, that the government would use Covid-19 as an opportunity to crush dissent. “That week or so before the lockdown, we saw how the police were extremely tough on activists that were holding small protests,” said Fann. “Even the freedom to voice out and express oneself has largely been curtailed.”
Meanwhile, Indonesia has begun parliamentary deliberations on the omnibus bill, raising fears that public input will be curtailed by health concerns. One of the challenges is that, unlike Hong Kong, with its active online communities, Indonesia lacks the infrastructure and capacity to translate an in-person social movement into an effective presence on the web.
Even with widespread high-speed Internet access, moving protests online is a challenge because bots and state-supported digital “armies” are increasingly active: They’re currently spreading Chinese misinformation about Hong Kong and denigrating the ongoing uprising in Indonesia’s occupied region of West Papua. “The activists and members of various grassroots movements are not on the offensive,” said Anugrah. “People are confused about what to do with regards to their advocacy efforts.… So far I haven’t seen any major actions or breakthroughs as far as advocacy strategies are concerned.”
While it limits their ability to mobilize in the streets, the pandemic is also a chance for protesters to show solidarity with their communities, especially those who are vulnerable to Covid-19. In Hong Kong, pro-democracy leaders took a lead in procuring medical supplies and shifted their communication channels from organizing to disseminating information of the coronavirus.
“Social media sites, which used to be filled with movement-related information, turned into hubs of anti-coronavirus resources, such as how to get and distribute masks,” said Wong, the Hong Kong–based media researcher. “Political groups like Demosisto and activists related to movement groups turned their resources to the war against the coronavirus.”
In India, organizations that were active in the recent protests have started to provide aid for the thousands of migrant workers now jobless and homeless as a result of the government’s sudden, poorly planned shutdown. Similarly, Indonesian labor unions and civil society groups are working to get medical aid, food, and social services to urban and rural poor.
“In recent weeks, most of the focus of activists and community organizations and unions is to prevent the spread of the pandemic, including donation efforts,” said Anugrah. “My sense is, in these visits to the most marginalized communities, they also try to discuss and communicate about the impact of the omnibus law.”
In Malaysia, too, Bersih 2.0 has been gathering donations and giving grants to feed vulnerable communities, including migrant workers who have been all but abandoned by the state. If these groups are seen as aiding the vulnerable amid government blunders or inaction, it could theoretically expand their political base in the future. “The public in general can see that the work that all of these movements and civil society have been doing, but whether there will be higher public support for these movements’ agendas, that is still up in the air,” said Anugrah.
While the pandemic worsens across much of the region, Hong Kong looks to be returning to semi-normalcy. Small protests are taking place again, though it will remain difficult to mobilize a mass response, even after the government arrested 15 pro-democracy leaders. Many demonstrators felt the police timed the arrests to occur when protests would still be difficult to convene. Since then, modest, socially distanced protests have started up in malls and other social spaces—with disproportionate response from the police, who are tearing down memorials to protest victims and using pepper spray to disperse even small crowds.
Besides any post-Covid-19 protests, the key event to watch in Hong Kong will be the upcoming legislative elections, planned for September. They aren’t fully democratic—the system is stacked in favor of the current, pro-China elite, with a significant number of seats not open for direct election, but there is a chance to claim a majority if pro-democracy turnout is overwhelming. “After our district election landslide victory last year, Hong Kongers are now hoping for a majority in the democrats’ number of seats,” said Mo. “If we can manage that, we should be able to chart a new course for proper political reform in the years to come.”
In Malaysia, the fight will likely be a long one. The next election is not due for another two and half years, and it might take that long to build a popular movement. “We are not optimistic that this new government will be much into institutional and electoral reform—basically they are the old government,” said Fann. For Bersih 2.0 and others in Malaysian civil society, this is nothing new. They’ve been fighting for fair elections and transparency for more than a decade.
It’s an even steeper climb in India and Indonesia, which both had elections last year, meaning voting the governments out of power in Jakarta and New Delhi is not possible until 2024.
The fight for social justice in Asia will be a long one. The pandemic and growing economic crisis will only create more tension—but whether the outcome is greater democracy or more autocracy remains to be seen.