The first concept of civil disobedience introduced by Henry David Thoreau (1849), argues that civil disobedience is unnecessary in a system where the laws were founded upon justice. He wondered, if the government is the voice of the people as it is often called, then shouldn’t that voice be heeded. Thus, he believed that the government may not only express the will of the majority, but it may also express nothing more than the will of elite politicians. Perhaps the best description of Thoreau’s ideal relationship occurs in his description of “a really free and enlightened State” that recognizes “the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived.” It is a state that “can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor,” allowing those who did not embrace it to live “aloof.” Other scholars define civil disobedience as a deliberate, public, conscientious, and nonviolent act; a public, illegal and political protest carried out against some laws, policies, or decisions of the government; and justified actions aimed at fighting larger injustices, sometimes giving one the right to break the law.
Civil disobedience movements in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Thailand share common characteristics, but their ultimate goals are different. In Hong Kong, protestors are fighting against a controversial extradition bill that they fear will erode freedom in the semi-autonomous territory known as the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019. Indonesians were against a government bill on job creation that violated human rights, labor rights, and environmental sustainability. The Taiwanese protested further economic liberalization with China, specifically the passage of a Services Trade Agreement. Finally, in Thailand protesters called for a radical transformation in the relationship between the monarchy and its citizenry.
Since 2019, Hongkongers have been protesting against a proposed bill that would allow the Hong Kong authorities to extradite its citizens to mainland China. The bill would have allowed Hong Kong to surrender fugitives to jurisdictions with which the city does not have existing bilateral extradition agreements. Existing laws, enacted before the British government handed control of Hong Kong to China in July 1997, prohibit extradition to mainland China. Previously in 2014, Hongkongers demanded the right of citizens to choose future chief executives of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from among candidates nominated through open and broadly accessible processes. These protestors were later known as the Umbrella Movement because they opened umbrellas to shield themselves from pepper spray and tear gas fired by the police.
The protesters in 2019 were motivated by a coherent set of demands that focused on the police’s abuse of power and an unrepresentative political system. Initially calling for the withdrawal of the impending bill, the mass protests soon evolved into a prolonged city-wide movement. According to Wong (2019), although its origin was to protest the Extradition Bill, the protest evolved into a movement with the slogan of “five demands, not one less.” These five demands include a full withdrawal of the extradition bill; retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters;” amnesty for arrested protesters; an independent commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality; and dual universal suffrage, for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. The situation between the government and the protesters remains uncertain, but it highlights how a strong economy alone is not enough to promote civil satisfaction.
In early October 2020, the Indonesian government passed a controversial omnibus bill on job creation into law. During his second and final term, one of President Joko Widodo’s (“Jokowi’s”) key priorities was to improve bureaucratic efficiency, particularly with regard to business permits and investment. President Jokowi argued that foreign investment was the key for Indonesia to emerge from the global economic slowdown and that it could also protect Indonesia from a global recession, as the country’s economic growth had been declining since 2018. The omnibus reform bill is expected to benefit from the trade and investment redirection caused by the US-China trade conflict. But without a higher rate of investment, the growth will remain low, unable to create enough jobs. The law was met with resistance from both labor unions and environmentalists.
In many Indonesian cities, protests turned violent; demonstrators burned road barriers, cars, a cinema, and several government offices. The Indonesian Red Cross reported that some protesters suffered from shortness of breath after police fired tear gas; however, both protesters and police personnel were injured. The government response was to carry out legal proceedings against all perpetrators and actors who contributed to what they called anarchist and criminal actions. The protesters have demanded the government revoke the bill, while related groups have also condemned it, namely: the ITUC has strongly criticized the decision of the Indonesian government to change the minimum wage fixing system, eliminating any role for unions in the process; the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development along with its Indonesian members has made joint statements against the bill; Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, has voiced opposition stating that it only benefits capitalists, investors, and conglomerates; and finally, Greenpeace Indonesia has demanded investor countries examine the bill thoroughly, as it is a sign of the Indonesian government’s failure to protect its people, the natural resources, and the environment.
The Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) was signed between the People’s Republic of China (China) and Taiwan in June 2013 as one of two follow-up treaties to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement signed in 2010. In March 2014, Taiwanese protesters, known as the Sunflower Movement, opposed this secret free trade agreement that had been negotiated with China. Surveys taken at the time revealed that there was great concern about the agreement and the impact of a greater Chinese presence on business, media freedom, and freedom of expression. This resulted in many Taiwanese individuals becoming increasingly frustrated at the submissiveness of politicians and business elites towards China. The younger generation was demanding more transparency and accountability in the process of cross-strait negotiations, which they insisted should be predicated on the island’s preservation as an independent political entity.
Taiwanese protesters believed that the agreement with China would hurt Taiwan’s economy and leave it vulnerable to pressure from Beijing since Chinese counterparts are usually larger, better-funded state-owned enterprises. Comparably, Taiwan’s service sector, consisting mainly of small- and medium-sized enterprises, produces almost 70 percent of its GDP. In the end, Taiwanese protests ended after Wang Jin-pyng, a President of the Legislative Yuan, promised that he would not preside over any debate on the bill until a law was passed to create an oversight mechanism to deal with China. Going forward, the protesters demanded Taiwan also establish a public oversight mechanism for future cross-strait trade agreements.
Thailand has the highest number of successful coups d’état in Southeast Asia. The nation’s first coup d’état in 1932 occurred when Thailand changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. The most recent coup in 2014, resulted in Prayut Chan-o-cha (Chief of the Thai Army) overthrowing Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan (a Thai businessman and politician). Since then, the Thai have been forced to live under the control of Junta Government, a military dictatorship. A constitutional referendum was held on August 7, 2016. In the referendum, Thais voted in favor of the junta-backed constitution draft that would later become the 2017 Constitution.
In April 2017, King Vajiralongkorn ratified a referendum that extended military rule. The 2017 Constitution limited the next government’s ability to formulate its own policy, as it has already provided a list of preferred policy choices. The lack of public participation during the drafting process and in the post-referendum amendments highlights the entrenched, unaccountable, and abusive military power. In 2019 after five years of military rule, the people of Thailand voted in the first election since the military seized power in 2014. For many young people and first-time voters, this election was seen as a chance for change after years of military rule. However, in November 2019, the constitutional court found the Future Forward party leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, guilty of holding shares in a media company on the date his candidacy was registered for the election, disqualifying him as a member of parliament. As a result, the protests were initially triggered by the dissolution of the Future Forward Party.
The ongoing 2020 Thai protests are a series of protests against the government of Prayut Chan-o-cha which have included demands for reform of the Thai monarchy. On July 18, 2020, thousands of Thai protesters, led by the pro-democracy Free Youth activist group and the Student Union of Thailand, united at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok to demand three things from the monarch: (1) the government must dissolve the parliament; (2) the government must stop threatening their civil liberty, including freedom of speech and expression; and (3) a new constitution must be drafted. According to Dr. Aim Sinpeng at the University of Sydney, Thailand has learned from the recent protests in Hong Kong, where independent, free individuals have come together rather than being anchored by particular organizations or political parties. The protesters in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have even dubbed themselves the “Milk Tea Alliance,” named after the classic drink beloved in all three places.
Whether civil disobedience is sparked by legislation, as in Hong Kong and Indonesia; by closed-door political dealings, as in Taiwan; or by corrupt governments and rulers, as in Thailand; it gains momentum and power when mass protestors take to the streets – as they did in all four places. Acts of civil disobedience will always happen where laws and systems are founded on injustice. As highlighted in the four cases above, citizens’ breach of law is demanded of them not only by self-esteem and moral consistency but also by their perception of society’s best interest. Through their disobedience, they draw attention to laws or policies that they believe require reassessment or rejection, and people who engage in civil disobedience are willing to accept the consequences of their actions in an effort to better their society.