Southeast Asia in 2011: A Year of Protest

The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are localized protests that still made a tremendous impact in the world in 2011. They were organized in response to place-specific issues, but their appeal and influence were immediately global. In Southeast Asia, Global Voices was able to feature several protest movements in 2011 that echoed the radical politics of Arab Spring and Occupy.

Malaysia’s Bersih (Clean) was the most outstanding protest event of 2011 in the region. The event, which was initially organized to ask for very sensible and doable electoral reforms (e.g. cleaning up of the electoral roll and the use of indelible ink), in the end became a pro-democracy action because of the massive participation of the civilian population in the streets – and the violent reaction of the state.

And like the tech-savvy Arab protesters, the Bersih marchers maximized social media to broaden the movement’s appeal among the apolitical segments of the local internet community.

Perhaps to prevent another Bersih, the Malaysian Parliament has approved the controversial Peaceful Assembly Bill which gives police and government authorities broad powers to control and even ban street assemblies and protests. Rallies were also organized to oppose the bill

Bersih rally from the FB page of Yuvanesh Prabakaran

Next to Bersih were the various Occupy protests in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. They didn’t succeed in sustaining big crowds, (Singapore’s Occupy flopped) but through their militant and creative actions, they were able to highlight the worsening poverty in their societies.

The Occupy protests in the Philippines were joined by students and other young people who used planking as a unique and funny way of expressing their anger over the state budget cuts on education and other social services. Early this month, the Occupy-like campout protests of students near the presidential palace were violently dispersed by the police.

Mass planking protest. Photo from participant

Perhaps the most underrated protest of the year was the rally of Cambodian villagers who dressed up like the Na'vi tribe from the 2009 science fiction film Avatar in opposition to the government’s plan to convert the Prey Lang forest into plantations and mines. Prey Lang is the largest remaining primary lowland dry evergreen forest in the region.

Protest to save Prey Lang forest

Prey Lang Avatar

Environmental protests actually intensified this year, and one of them succeeded in forcing Myanmar's government to cancel its hydroelectric dam project on the Irrawaddy River.

Not all those who fight for land rights, even through non-violent means, are able to freely express and organize their campaigns – a fact underscored by the experience of seven activists in Vietnam who were arrested, charged, and found guilty of overthrowing the government.

The protesters whose actions perhaps most symbolized the deep hatred and frustration of the poor against an oppressive system were Pham Thanh Son of Vietnam and Sondang Hutagalung of Indonesia. Son burned himself early this year in front of Da Nang’s municipal office to protest the confiscation of his family’s property by local authorities, while Sondang set his body on fire just a few weeks ago in front of the presidential palace to condemn the anti-poor policies of the government.


There were no London-like urban riots in Southeast Asia this year, but the great floods that destroyed rice fields and food crops in almost all countries of the region could lead to food and rice protests next year. Delays in the rehabilitation of flooded communities could also ignite more anger and political backlash. During the Thailand flooding, residents removed flood barriers and defied authorities in protest to what they perceived as unfair government policy to ‘save’ central Bangkok from flooding at the expense of nearby towns.

Human rights advocates decried the continuing crackdown of democracy protests in West Papua and the various activities of their supporters in Indonesia.

We also recognize the SlutWalk protest in Singapore for its brave articulation of equality and sexual freedom through a rare protest assembly in the city.

Protest hashtags of the year: #bersih, #bersih2, #bersihstories, #occupydataran, #campoutph, #walk4freedom, #sawangsawa

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