- Protests and social unrest were a defining characteristic of 2019. From Chile to Lebanon and Hong Kong, social conflict became more intense and divisive. Protests were the norm in many places, often organized in response to moves by cash-strapped yet unpopular governments as in Colombia or Venezuela or Lebanon, to fight perceived racism or discrimination as in the U.S., or due to social or political change as in Hong Kong.
- Helped by online tools and social media, these protests and social unrest have been driven by grassroots and often leaderless movements.
- While many embraced non-violent efforts, violence was difficult if not impossible to avoid. Authorities have also responded aggressively with the use of arms and even legislative changes in a bid to restore order.
Protests and social unrest continue to simmer in many places around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many of these into a holding pattern but it did not solve any of the underlying social or political problems that drove these large movements.
These protest movements will continue to impact the lives of people around the world, but where are protests and social unrest a defining characteristic? Here we map out the most significant and high profile of these movements.
AMERICAS: Years of simmering tensions boil over into protests and unrest
Colombia is no stranger to social unrest but the social unrest reached new heights between November 2019 and January 2020 and again starting in September 2020.
The protests last year led to at least two deaths, although people suspect many more. One of the people who died cried out “I’m choking” before dying, apparently at the hands of police.
Last year, more than 250,000 people protested against corruption, reforms that had the potential of lowering the minimum wage and continued violence in rural areas where coca and marijuana plantations continue to proliferate and violence remains the norm despite a 2016 peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
More than 223 community activists have been killed this year alone, according to Amnesty International.
This year, thousands protested again in September after another protestor died. In the capital of Bogota, dozens of police stations were burnt and firefights frequent.
Since April 2018, Nicaraguans have carried out on-again-off-again protests against social security reforms that could see them pay more in taxes. It did not help that a raging forest fire and an unpopular canal projectfinanced by a Chinese billionaire had earlier stoked anger.
Nicaragua president Daniel Ortega has now banned protests and shut down several media outlets. Sporadic violence targeting churches occurred this year.
Chile has been home to some of the most high-profile protests in the world. Starting in October 2019 and continuing to this day, the protests are in large part a response to perceived income inequality.
On the surface, students and Chileans from low-income families first unleashed their fury at 81 train stations in the capital of Santiago over increases in fare prices. But that was only the beginning.
The protests have involved riots, looting and deaths and appear to ultimately be about widening of inequality.
Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s billionaire president, has called for a referendum for a new constitution that has been delayed. Fare prices were not increased.
Rising fuel costs were the trigger but an investigation that revealed kickbacks for Haitian leaders is what has led to a total breakdown of order between July 2018 and December 2019.
Leading politicians allegedly embezzled money from Venezuelan oil loans meant for infrastructure projects. President Jovenel Moïse imposed harsh lockdowns and Haitians now live in fear as they hear of continual reports of journalists, students, civilians and at least one prominent lawyer being killed.
The U.S. has been wracked by protests on a couple of fronts, with the most significant ones linked to the rise, once again, of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
Tensions have simmered for years. BLM started in 2013. The resurgence this year was sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 at the hands of police. Other police-involved deaths and injuries followed. In two weeks of protests after Floyd’s death, more than 19 people were killed.
BLM-related protests in places like Portland and nearby Seattle built on anti-lockdown protests that started in April 2020.
ASIA: Protests and social unrest over race, religion and government
Starting in March 2019, more than two million residents marched to protest a bill that would allow extradition to mainland China and, later, the encroachment of mainland Chinese government into autonomous Hong Kong. Protesters that have been peaceful for decades, turned violent. A city best known for its stock market and cosmopolitan lifestyle became home to pitched battles, fires, shootings and the all-too-frequent site of smoke grenades and tear gas.
The protests reached a fever pitch through the end of 2019 and were tamped down by the emergence of COVID-19 lockdowns. Tensions did not go away. Leaderless movements have continued, with protests and social unrest fueled by more energetic police tactics and a new law governing national security imposed by Beijing – a law that also had the effect of tamping down on dissent.
University students have been at the forefront of the protests in Thailand since July 2020.
Dismayed by the disbanding of an opposition political party, they are also unhappy at King Maha Vajiralongkorn, whose power they want to see curtailed. They also want constitutional reforms.
Coronated last year, the Thai king has amassed greater wealth and the constitution in its current form guarantees the ruling military-backed party can easily stay in power.
The Indian government passed a law that eased the path to citizenship for non-Muslim migrants. That move sparked widespread protests and social unrest across the country between December 2019 and March 2020.
People in Northeast India feared a deluge of new Hindu migrants from nearby Bangladesh while others protested the rising tide of anti-Muslim discrimination. A crackdown did little to quell the unrest.
Matters took a turn for the worse in February when mobs goaded by Hindu nationalist leaders sought out and killed more than 50 people in New Delhi.
Sparked by the death of five sisters, a series of protests flared up in Kazakhstan in February 2019 and continue to this day.
The focus of the protests expanded to include efforts against the four decade-long rule of Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazhakhstan installed a new leader last year but Nazarbayev continues to hold the reins of power and laws governing public assembly have been controversially amended.
In August, the world was shaken by visuals of people fleeing a massive explosion at the port of Beirut. That explosion was the nadir of a difficult period.
Since October 2019, protests and social unrest to fight against higher taxes, corruption and government mismanagement have rocked Lebanon. The spark was a proposed tax on the popular messaging app WhatsApp.
Eventually, the prime minister resigned but people remain disillusioned by poor governance, a lack of foreign currency reserves that increase costs for fuel, hospital equipment and other imports, banking secrecy laws for politicians and a constitution that preserves a religious oligarchy.
Since October 2019, protestors in Iraq have come out at the peril of death as shootings and abductions are common.
Protests and social unrest have been fueled by stagnant development. The country, which has long depended on oil revenues, has seen those start to grow again but there has been little development.
Meanwhile, many Iraqis feel the country is a victim of covert Iranian influence and want the U.S. to pull its troops. Complicating matters, there are Iraqi militia groups backed by Iran and others supported by conservative sects that don’t want to men and women to protest together.
EUROPE: Politics and corruption spark social unrest and protests
Albania’s parliament currently has few opposition leaders. The Democratic Party of Albania led by Lulzim Basha resigned en masse last year inspiring protests against the government led by the outspoken Edi Rama. Protests and social unrest kicked off again in February 2019.
Both Basha and Rama are former mayors of Tirana, the Albanian capital, but Rama, a painter and a writer, has steadily solidified control and reportedly colluded with criminals to rig the 2017 election. Pro-EU Albanians are expected to protest again.
Protests kicked off in Belarus in May 2020 and have continued. During the first Sunday of October 2020 more than 100,000 marched to protest against the country’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. It was the ninth Sunday of protests in a row.
Protesters want Lukashenko to resign and political prisoners to be freed. Police have used water cannons to quell protesters.
The latest wave of unrest kicked off after an Aug. 9 presidential election. Lukashenko claimed victory saying he had received 80% of the vote. The main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, received just 10%. Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters said the election was manipulated.
Tsikhanouskaya accepted defeat in a video made under duress. She fled to nearby Lithuania.
Independence Square, in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, has been home to protests and social unrest since early July 2020.
The protests have been focused on political corruption and government inefficiency. At times, the rallies in Independence square have attracted 30,000 people and smaller protests have also been held in multiple cities.
As with other protests, it all started over a relatively small event that exploded. In this case, it was a government figure using a public beach as his private property and even using security personnel, whose salaries are paid for by taxpayers, to keep people off that public beach.