When a City Burns


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It was Tuesday, Sept. 19 in Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand. I was in eighth grade, and largely ignorant of anything someone my age should know. That night, for the first time, I would taste the flavor of a country’s fear and hope—a mix that is often enough to ignite a revolution.

At 9 p.m., Thailand’s military crept through the streets of Bangkok. In a matter of hours, tanks and soldiers were positioned throughout the city. Fear was mounting fast. Information was hard to access because the army had censored the television. News travelled by word of mouth, but the message was clear: the military had taken over the government and had imposed martial law. The shoulders of democracy had crumbled under the weight of brute power.

What followed was six years of desperation and anger. Lines of division cracked the country’s landscape and people stood on opposite sides. As I grew older, the stench of public dissatisfaction grew stronger and stronger. In the summer of 2010, a flaming match was thrown into the toxic air, and the city exploded. The military and the supporters of the previous government were fighting openly now. The rest of us ran back to our homes and double-locked our doors. From the window of my room, I could see buildings burning. I spent many days lying on my bed, watching the destruction of my city. People were terrified of going outside. When my parents ventured out to get desperately needed food, they found themselves in the middle of a crossfire. They couldn’t move and were stranded until the next morning when the fighting moved elsewhere.

At the end of that same year, we saw the rise of the Arab Spring. News stories piled up and the public regained an intense interest in a region of the world many had dismissed as the antithesis of democracy. Pictures of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya brought back memories of the protests, riots and desperation I had lived through in Thailand. But the Arab Spring was much, much bigger than what was happening at home.

The Arab Spring was, and is, a revolution in the most essential sense of the word—a fundamental change. In Tunisia, a man set himself on fire. People in country after country built upon this man’s message: enough is enough. A corrupt and dysfunctional political and economic system, added to decades of dictatorships, was the breaking point. The idea of revolution spread like wildfire. Some leaders carried out reforms to appease the people, but others fought back. Some leaders fell, others didn’t, but all felt the brunt of their people’s anger. Now, almost two years later, many countries have settled into an uneasy peace with completely different government systems, while other countries have seen only slight change. Some are still fighting.

When I look at the Arab Spring and the earlier riots in Thailand, I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, it is painful. My city was devastated, and my people killed, like in those countries affected by the Arab Spring. On the other hand, after the riots, we finally gained the freedom to decide how we would live and who would govern us. In Thailand, we held national elections and now have a democratically elected prime minister. The people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya can say the same. Soon, Syrians or Bahraini may be able to as well.

What is absolutely stunning about the Arab Spring—what has caught and held the world’s attention for more than a year—is the lengths to which people are willing to go to fight for their freedom of choice and for their voices to be heard. By fighting their leaders—many of whom had ruled with an iron fist for decades—protestors didn’t just face pepper spray, they faced torture and death. And they knew then as now that the fight is till the end; dictators don’t take possible usurpers lightly.

Almost a year into the Arab Spring, in the fall of 2011, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) rolled around, incited by the revolutionary air of the Middle East. People cried out that they were the 99 percent. They voiced their unhappiness with the economy, duplicitous banks and laws the government had passed that favored the elite and ignored the rest.

OWS looked promising. Like the Arab Spring, protestors were largely middle-class, young and educated. They shared the belief that their governments were rapacious and corrupt, and though their aims lacked ideological consistency, they knew that change was needed. However, OWS protestors did not face consequences comparable to those that Arab Spring protestors faced. Beyond that, they had much greater networking ability. On the whole, OWS protestors had it pretty good. If Egyptians managed to topple a decades-old police state, why couldn’t Americans get their government to respond to their basic demands?

Compared to the Arab Spring’s towering fist for freedom, OWS’s was barely big enough to create a shadow. It started strong, managed to hold wide media attention and brought many points of public discontent to the national stage; but now it has all but disappeared. The “official” OWS website asks supporters of the movement to donate money that will go to supporting unpaid activists. With nine days left as of Sept. 15, zero percent of activists have been funded because only $50 has been raised.

In 2011 Andrew Kohut, the President of the Pew Research Center, published an article in the New York Times reviewing current polls and studies that explained how most Americans support the ideologies of the OWS, even if they may disagree with some of their tactics. They believe that the movement has shed light on significant problems that the United States faces. If the goals of the movement resonate with most U.S. citizens, why hasn’t OWS achieved major change? Why is the movement essentially already finished? And most importantly, why are U.S. citizens so complacent?

One could argue that because OWS’s demands weren’t as immediate as, say, getting rid of a dictator, people didn’t have as much incentive to push for change. This is a weak argument, to say the least. OWS could have gone much further. It had a massive support base and generated public interest with comparatively little resistance. It had all the resources it needed to become something that could have drastically altered government policies.

As the Arab Spring has shown, change must come from the bottom up. People in countries like Egypt and Thailand were willing to risk their lives for the sake of freedom and democracy—the very ideals that the United States was founded upon. But maybe that’s all talk. If Americans truly cared about preserving a democracy that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” democracy would mean more than having the right to vote and accepting the decisions of elected representatives. Democracy also means that you have the right to voice your problems and demand a change.


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