Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Political Demonstrators, Rebels--what's the difference?

This blog was originally posted on May 12th. It was removed by blogger for maintenance but never restored, thanks to several faithful readers who responded to the last post--Here it is again:

In the last month or so many Ugandans have participated in "walk-to-work" demonstrations across the country to express dissatisfaction over rising costs of food and fuel in Uganda among other political grievances. The main organizers are also political opposition leaders and they have been arrested (sometimes with excessive force) and released several times. Some demonstrations have turned violent. Police and military were not exclusive in their use of non-lethal force using live ammunition with fatal consequences. People have been injured and even killed (9 unarmed civilians according HRW)--including a two year old girl. Most of this has taken place in Kampala, and a few other towns. We had one day of it in Gulu.

There are many things I could say about the demonstrations and the state's reaction to them--but there is one aspect that I've found particularly troubling:

State actors keep making references to Joseph Kony and the LRA when they are talking about the demonstrators.

One friend actually witnessed police beat people in the street outside her shop in Gulu and heard them say, "We dealt with Kony--we can deal with you!"

I was shocked to hear that such inflammatory language is being used in a place where violence at the hands of the LRA is no distant memory. Those in the street and even being beaten had suffered from the war--some of them, undoubtedly, were formerly abducted people who had been forced to take part in LRA activities. I hoped that such statements were just isolated incidences of some over-zealous and insensitive soldiers, but then I watched President Musevini on the news discussing the demonstrations in a press conference. He assured the room full of journalists, "We have the capacity to defend the people of Uganda. We defeated Kony, we are going to defeat these opportunists and criminally minded people."

Then I read an article where General Tinyefuza, the coordinator of Uganda's national intelligence agencies was commenting on the excessive force of police and military and unlawful arrests of many opposition leaders in the past weeks during "walk to work" campaigns:
On how our police handled the situation, yes there could have been mistakes but that is Besigye’s (an opposition leader's) plan to provoke the State to make mistakes so that he gains political capital. These mistakes of the police which I am talking about should be put into perspective. Uganda has been peaceful for the last 25 years and our people know how to handle armed insurgents like Kony or violent demonstrators.

um,what? Uganda's been peaceful for 25 years? someone forgot to tell my neighbors--and just curious, if it's been so peaceful, who's this Kony character you mention? and what relation is he to the demonstrators?

It's not clear to me if the associations being made between demonstrators and the LRA are somewhat unconscious--the product of viewing the world through the lingering lens of the "liberation war"leading to an inevitable interpretation of political demonstrations in tribal/regional terms, or if it is slightly more calculated:

1) to emphasize that the government is in control, and capable of maintaining the security of the country/stamping out any challenge to its' rule.
2) to deliberately evoke a public opinion that associates the demonstrators and the political opposition's leaders to Joseph Kony, playing on negative north/south Ugandan dynamics and perpetuating an image of Acholis/political opposition as dangerous, militant, untrustworthy, brutal, bent on the destruction of the peace--AND therefore justify the harsh reaction of military and police.

Fortunately some people see the situation a little more clearly. “The excessive use of force by security officers was plain to see in the television footage of the event. While I do not condone the violent rioting that followed, the Ugandan authorities must realize that their own actions have been the major factor in turning what were originally peaceful protests about escalating food and fuel prices into a national crisis.” That's the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. read the full release here

In Gulu, I did't want watch it on TV, I got caught in the middle of it. We turned around as quickly as we could when we saw rubble in the road and a crowd of people shrouded in tear gas. But not fast enough. Riot police almost hit our car while they swerved at terrible speed cutting us off and stopping in front of us to fire tear gas. Three times they fired tear gas toward us while we yelled "there's a baby in the car," until we finally managed to get past them and out of the line of fire.(I'd take issue with anyone claiming that the military and police were only targetting those involved in the demonstrations--Z even watched as they shot teargas into a primary school and a crowd of children scatter) After a rather surreal encounter with Mao on the side of the road where we discussed topics as common as the weather, as personal as our adoption process and as significant in that moment as non-violence and how he intended to lead people in a moment of political upheaval in a context where, as he said "anything can happen. this is a traumatized people," We finally got home and had dinner in the dark with explosions and gunfire in surround sound. Things quieted after a couple of hours and we listened as best we could to a neighbours' radio with Mao's voice in Acholi admonishing the demonstrators not to resort to violence. "I don't support anyone who throws stones," he said.

Yeah, there are one or two differences between demonstrators and rebels. There are also a few differences between demonstrators and rapists and murderers but apparently President Musevini thinks they ought be in the same category and wants to have the constitution amended to exclude each of those categories from eligibility for bail--rather making them stay in prison for a mandatory 180 days! (I smiled a little, when I saw one commenter suggest that changing the constitution in that way would be just fine as long as it was also changed back to having term limits...)

On a side note, the new, less brutal, more colorful police tactic is to spray people with pink water. A friend came over for dinner last night and shared what I think is wonderfully creative twist on Mao's statement after being sprayed and arrested yesterday, "I'm all pink." The walk-to-workers should adopt pink as their color of protest--and start off by all wearing pink T-shirts.

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