Opinion: The burden we must carry in the face of insecure totalitarian governments

Over the past two weeks, the Hong Kong government has silenced attempts by its own citizens to hold its annual Tiananmen Square Massacre commemoration.

For decades since the terrible events in 1989, the people of Hong Kong have used the anniversary of the massacre to show their solidarity with not only those that were killed by the Communist Party of China but also with the messages of hope and freedom that radiated out from Tiananmen during those fateful weeks three decades ago.

A sea of candles flicker over Hong Kong’s Victoria Park during a candlelight vigil attended by some 100.000 to commemorate the first anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, on June 4, 1990. (Photo by Mike FIALA / AFP)

But the HK government, backed by Beijing’s increasing belligerence, has halted any attempt at commemorating the event and have used a new security law to arrest those that would try.

It is part of the CCP’s ongoing attempt to erase all history that contradicts, challenges, or does not support the central state ideology. We see it happening in Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and most destructively in Xinjiang. (Read more here)

It is a familiar tactic for totalitarian governments to erase the history that they find inconvenient. Whether that history is found in textbooks or in the lives and traditions of living people, the autocratic state does not differentiate in their destruction.

Because in a totalitarian society, nothing matters more than the foundation myths which propagate their rule. Because they are not legitimized by regular elections that give them mandate, states must rely on the fairytales that they have created which gives them the legitimacy they so cravenly desire.

This picture taken 14 April 2007 shows dancers performing for the Arirang festival at the May Day stadium in Pyongyang to celebrate the 95th birth anniversary of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung. Thousands of North Koreans paid their respects to the communist state’s late founder Kim Il-Sung as the capital took on a festival atmosphere for his 95th birth anniversary. Families, with the men in suits and ties and the women in colourful traditional gowns, took leisurely strolls across Pyongyang where cherry blossoms were in bloom on one of the most important dates on its calendar. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Agret (Photo by PHILIPPE AGRET / AFP)

It is happening with the CCP, it has happened in North Korea with the immortalizing of the Kim family, and it is happening at home in Thailand.

Take for example the abduction and likely execution of Wanchalearm Satsakit, a exiled Thai dissident who was outspoken in his criticisms of the Prayut Chan-ocha government.

He was a threat to no one physically, he did not lead a revolution to overthrow the gods and generals that rule Thailand. But he was disappeared because he challenged the accepted history of the Thai state and dared to question the myths which bind together Thai society.

Or take for example the state’s rewriting of textbooks to not include lengthy chapters about the rule of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

While Thaksin’s legacy is complicated and marred by accusations of corruption and human rights abuse, to discount his contributions to Thai society by erasing him wholesale is tantamount to acknowledging the threat he presents.

What binds together the various totalitarian governments that exist both presently and in the past is their insecurity. And an insecure government is a dangerous government.

Thus, like the people of Hong Kong who continue to protest despite the threat of arrest and/or destruction, a burden falls to us the people that live under autocracy.

What we must safeguard are the bits of history and culture that the state would have us erase. Whether it is disparate tribes that make up the national fabric within our borders, the dissidents that push forward hard conversations, or the inconvenient histories that the state would sooner have us forget, we must protect them all.

A demonstrator holds up George Orwell’s book ‘1984’ during a rally outside the Art and Cultural centre in Bangkok on February 14, 2015. Dozens of anti-coup activists held a demonstration in central Bangkok on February 14, handing out roses and copies of George Orwell’s “1984” — a rare expression of public dissent in a nation still under strict martial law. AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURI (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP)

The act may be as small as reading and sharing a banned book, Vaclav Havel has talked in the past about the cathartic experience of reading Orwell’s 1984 behind the iron curtain, or it can be as big and grand as starting a national movement. Whatever act of defiance we choose, no matter how big or small, it helps us share and shoulder the burden.

And while it is not a burden we should take lightly it should be a burden we carry wholeheartedly.

Because the onslaught of totality, as overwhelming as it might seem, must not and will not succeed as long as brave men and women tell the stories and carries the memories that the state finds uncomfortable.


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