Season of discontent as protests flare worldwide

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On Monday it was Bolivia – angry people clashed with police after the political opposition said it was cheated in an election won by incumbent President Evo Morales.

Last week, the streets of Chilean capital Santiago descended into chaos as demonstrators enraged by a hike in public transport fares looted stores, set a bus alight and prompted the president to declare a state of emergency.

Earlier this month, Ecuador’s leader did the same after violent unrest triggered by the decision to end fuel subsidies in place for decades.

And that was only South America.

Hong Kong has been in turmoil for months, Lebanon’s capital Beirut was at a standstill, parts of Barcelona resembled a battlefield last week and thousands of Britons marched through London at the weekend over Brexit.

Protests flared around the world in the last few months. Each with its own trigger but many of the underlying frustrations are similar.

Globalisation and technological progress have, in general, exacerbated disparities in countries, said Sergei Guriev, former chief economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, while noting not all current protests were driven by economic concerns.

Digital media makes people more aware of global inequalities, said Simon French, chief economist at UK bank Panmure Gordon.

“We know the economics of happiness is largely driven by a relative assessment of your position versus your benchmark,” he said, a benchmark now way beyond the local community.

ECONOMICS

In at least four countries hit by recent violent protests, the main reason for the uprisings is economic.

Governments in Chile and Ecuador incurred people’s wrath raising fares and ending fuel subsidies.

As clashes engulfed Quito, Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno reached out to indigenous leaders who mobilised people to take to the streets.

Within minutes, chief protest organiser Jaime Vargas rejected the outreach.

“We’re defending the people,” Vargas said in a live Facebook video from the march.

His response, visible to millions, underlines an added challenge authorities have when trying to quell dissent: social media makes communication between protesters easier than ever.

Thousands of people flooded Beirut in the largest show of dissent against the establishment in decades. People of all ages and religions protested about worsening economic conditions and the perception those in power are corrupt.

Similar factors were behind deadly civil unrest in Iraq in early October.

More than 100 people died in violent protests across a country where many Iraqis, especially young people, had seen few economic benefits since Islamic State militants were defeated in 2017.

Security forces cracked down, with snipers opening fire from rooftops and the internet shut to stem the flow of information among protesters.

GIVE US OUR AUTONOMY

Hong Kong has been battered by five months of often violent protests over fears Beijing is tightening its grip on the territory, the worst political crisis since colonial ruler Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

There have been few major rallies in recent weeks, but violence escalated at those, with militant activists setting metro stations ablaze and smashing shops, often targeting Chinese banks and stores with mainland links.

Police fired thousands of rounds of tear gas, hundreds of rubber bullets and three live rounds at brick and petrol bomb-throwing activists.

Events in Hong Kong have drawn comparisons to Catalonia in recent days. There people are angry at what they see as attempts to thwart their desire for greater autonomy from the rest of Spain, if not outright independence.

Protesters set cars on fire and threw petrol bombs at police in Barcelona, unrest sparked by the sentencing of Catalan separatist leaders who sought to declare an independent state.

Demonstrators focused on strategic targets to cause maximum disruption, including the international airport, grounding more than 100 flights.

That came several days after similar action in Hong Kong, suggesting protest movements are following and even copying each other on social media and in the news.

“In Hong Kong they did it well, but they are crazier,” said Giuseppe Vayreda, a 22-year-old art student at a Catalan separatist protest.

On Thursday, Hong Kong protesters plan a rally to show solidarity with those demonstrating in Spain.

LEADER OR NO LEADER

In some cases, individuals rise to the forefront of protest movements, using social media to get their message across.

In Egypt, where demonstrations last month were relatively small yet significant in their rarity, the catalyst of dissent against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was an Egyptian posting videos from Spain.

Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, inspired millions to march around the world in September demanding political leaders act to stop climate change.

Thousands gathered in a New York park to listen to her.



“If you belong to the small group of people who feel threatened by us, then we have some bad news for you,” she said. “This is only the beginning. Change is coming whether they like it or not.”