Countries are freed. Countries are enslaved.
In the 21st century, the fight for political autonomy is an ever-lasting battle for freedom — freedom from censorship, from oppression, from the humdrum of daily existence. In Hong Kong, the fight has catapulted itself onto the front stage. Marches, tear gas and posters cover a city that once served as a beacon of hope from British colonialism and Chinese communism. In Palestine, the fight has warped itself into a battle of religion, where Muslim Palestinians fight Jewish Israelis for control of their Holy Land. In Kashmir, the region claimed by both Pakistan and India, post-colonialism and nationalist sentiments have transformed the state into a battlefield, threatening the rights of Muslim Kashmiris.
And in each of those places are masses of humans, those who are bravely standing their ground and fighting their battle. This package is an exploration of their battle, their journey to attain the object of their birthright.
For many, political autonomy is more than the power to make political decisions. People around the globe are caught in struggles for freedom, sovereignty, occupation, independence, and democracy. While many of these conflicts are relevant issues today, they all have roots in human history. As a result, in order to understand the various autonomy events of our world, we must take a step back from the modern-day and move to explore the past.
Marches, tear gas and posters have covered Hong Kong’s cityscape for 15 continuous weeks as pro-democracy protesters fight against the extradition bill. The bill, which would allow Hong Kong citizens and foreigners to be extradited to mainland China, sparked protests beginning on March 31.
Though Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, its status as a British colony for 99 years has colored Hong Kongers’ culture and governance. As a Special Administrative Region of China, Hong Kong will remain semi-autonomous under the “one country, two systems” principle until 2047. Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, citizens have freedom of speech, press and assembly — rights not granted by the Chinese government — and opponents of the bill believe it would undermine their democratic freedoms and legal system. While the bill was formally withdrawn on Sept. 4, protests remain ongoing.
Though Hong Kong has become a hotspot for protests, MVHS financial specialist Calvin Wong, who marched in the protests starting on July 1, considers it a place “near and dear” to him. With many family members and close friends currently residing in Hong Kong, Calvin has frequently visited the city over the past eight years, this year being no different. When Calvin returned this summer, however, he decided to participate in the protests and support a close friend who grew up in Hong Kong.
Though Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared the extradition bill suspended on June 15 and “dead” on July 9, the bill wasn’t formally withdrawn — meaning it could have still been passed — and protests continued. They escalated in earnest at the start of June; on June 9, 1 million people marched peacefully, though violence broke out later in the day between police and protesters.
Junior Nelson Mu believes Lam’s actions were only meant to temporarily appease this growing number of protesters and that the Hong Kong government isn’t “really interested in any kind of peaceful dialogue whatsoever.”
Hong Kong protesters, however, have made their five demands clear on LIKHG, an online forum used to organize the leaderless movement: formal withdrawal of the extradition bill, independent investigation into police brutality, government retracting their characterization of protesters as “rioters,” amnesty for arrested pro-democracy activists and democratic freedoms. These freedoms include items such as free elections and universal suffrage, which were outlined in the 1997 British handover agreement to mainland China but still remain unestablished 22 years later.
And though Lam fulfilled one of the five demands — formal withdrawal of the bill — on Sept. 4, protesters intend to persist until all five demands are met. Protesters are also raising awareness to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, a bill proposed to the U.S. Congress by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and U.S. Representative Chris Smith. Calvin believes the driving force behind the protests stretches beyond the extradition bill itself; at the core of it, protesters are fighting for democratic freedoms and political autonomy, and the extradition bill is only one manifestation of mainland China’s increasing encroachment.
“Ultimately, it’s like a springboard for them to continue to fight for their rights,” Calvin said. “To make sure that China doesn’t erode into some of those liberties that they’re supposed to have under the one country, two systems policy.”
Despite the protests gaining global attention and the extradition bill’s formal withdrawal, Mu believes the protests are tinged with a sense of futility — and not only because of the looming 2047 end date, when “one country, two systems” is set to expire.
“Not because there’s no power behind democracy but because there’s not much you can do against such a monolithic government [like China that] has pretty much utter control,” Mu said. “I don’t think that Hong Kong is going to retain any kind of autonomy, even up to 2047. If they have autonomy for the next decade, I would be very proud of them for somehow managing to retain that.”
Math teacher Alan Wong echoes a similar sentiment regarding the
prospective political dynamic between China and Hong Kong, attributing the protests to Hong Kongers resisting what he views as China’s early encroachment.
“I think this protest is just an indicator of what will come in 2047,” Alan said. “I think part of the protest was Hong Kong feeling that China was already imposing what they would do in 2047, so it might end up becoming a bigger scale protest at that time.”
In retaliation, China has sent police and military troops to Hong Kong, attempting to control protests. Police responses, such as firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons into peaceful crowds, have raised concerns regarding police brutality and excessive force. However, Calvin believes that the police brutality seen in Hong Kong is at a lesser degree than that observed in the U.S.
“[The protesters] look at it as, because they grew up in that culture of less force being used, they feel they can push that line farther,” Calvin said. “That’s where me, growing up in the U.S., will never truly understand what they’re fighting for. We know they feel they’re backed into a corner, but you don’t know what that feeling feels like.”
As protesters have become increasingly restricted, some have taken their protesting to more extreme approaches. Though some continue to rally around the mantra “be water” — adapted from Bruce Lee’s philosophy to be evasive and formless, like the flow of water — and adopt a guerilla-like strategy to avoid police arrest, others have taken more radical approaches, such as throwing the police’s tear gas canisters back to them, arson or breaking into the Legislative Council building.
“[Protesters feel like there is] still animosity and hurt, from all the protesting and the police actions,” Calvin said. “Not to say that protesters are definitely 100% right either because they’ve been damaging buildings and whatnot. So it’s a very slippery slope.”
Still, Calvin acknowledges the rationale behind the protesters’ actions and perspectives: damaging infrastructure can be seen as a lesser evil than harming people.
“If you immigrated over to [the] U.S. and enjoyed those freedoms, you will never truly understand how Hong Kong people may become that oppressed that they have to fight back,” Calvin said. “So that’s why they justify some of that damaging of buildings. Because at least you’re not hurting people, compared to the police, [who] are hurting people by swinging their batons, shooting tear gas, where they’re just damaging a building.”
To Mu, police brutality in response to these protests is inevitable, especially considering past events like the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, where military tanks were used against citizens protesting against communism and pushing for more democracy. Mu believes protesting against a communist government is met in equal exchange with police brutality.
“Police brutality is like a staple of a communist government,” Mu said. “I think the protesters went into protest knowing full well it’s very likely they’d get shot at with rubber bullets, they’d get beaten, they’d get tear gas. This is something they expected because they know that there’s not a single ounce of humanity in the Chinese Communist government.”
Despite his condemnation of Chinese efforts to quell Hong Kong protests, Mu admits China has been effective in controlling dispersal of information, at least in mainland China. According to Mu, China is fighting an information war through containment and propaganda. Calvin believes this has bled into Hong Kong media coverage as well, pointing out how mainland China-owned, Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post “changes the tone” and “tries to show more violence from the protesters,” whereas independent Hong Kong Free Press is “trying to be as middle ground as possible.”
According to Mu, mainland China media coverage has taken it to an extreme. Instead of showing peaceful protesters, the “very minor part of the rioters upheaving streets and causing damage” is at the forefront of mainland China’s media coverage, and “they always play those images 24/7.”
“I [by] no means want to give any sort of recognition or praise for the Chinese government for cracking down on pro-democracy movements, but they’ve done a very clean job of limiting the amount of information that comes out,” Mu said. “Of course, they acknowledge that there’s people protesting in Hong Kong, but they don’t mention that the majority of these people are peaceful. They don’t mention that a lot of people fight back because there’s a lot of police involved.”
In return, Hong Kongers are also leveraging the power of information.
Through crowdfunding, they’ve raised $1.97 billion USD to place ads on the front page of international newspapers. During several Hong Kong International Airport sit-ins, protesters handed out or AirDropped informational leaflets to foreigners. These mass sit-ins from Aug. 12 to 14 prompted airport shutdowns and flight cancellations, garnering global attention.
“Selfishly, if I was a passenger, I’d be annoyed because we’re just looking in our own scope, [but] they’re trying to make people more aware to help them see their picture,” Calvin said. “If they are able to pass this bill or if we fast forward to 2047 and they remove let’s say social media or freedom of speech allowances, that’s way worse than you just missing a flight. ‘You can travel freely, you can get on your social media freely, you can — now I can’t. I’m just trying to fight, get some awareness. You don’t have to come protest with us, but go spread the word in your country.’”
Mu also believes Hong Kong’s recent events have shifted his own view on American democracy, putting the rights of U.S. citizens into perspective.
“There’s a lot of issues within the United States that we can try to focus on, but overall, I think this fundamental idea — this rule of law instilled by our founding documents, this idea that we have a basis of equality for people, no matter how flawed it was at the beginning — is something that we kind of take for granted,” Mu said. “If we look at Hong Kong now, their rights are pretty much protected by a treaty that the other party could probably care less about, so it definitely gives me a better sense of respect for the Constitution that we have and for the whole system that we have.”
Under this American system, youth have democratic freedoms that characterize Mu’s experience in the U.S., which are what Calvin believes the youth of Hong Kong are fighting for. With Hong Kong’s unique socio-political landscape and history as a semi-autonomous region, some Hong Kongers view China’s increasing control as erosion of their basic freedoms and cultural identity — one they can’t identify with.
“Because a lot of Hong Kong people, they don’t recognize themselves as ‘I’m Chinese,’’ Calvin said. “They say, ‘I’m Hong Kong.’”
Protests have united Hong Kong citizens, regardless of background or approach to protesting. From 3,000 lawyers marching in the streets, clad in black, to 1,000 public doctors and nurses holding a sit-in, to students and staff boycotting the start of the school year, protests have touched diverse sectors of citizenry. Two million turned out to peacefully protest on June 16, and with a population of seven million, that puts participants at more than one in every four Hong Kongers. Even those who didn’t march offered water to protesters, wrote messages of support on Lennon Walls or donated money and tickets at subway stations.
“There’s definitely been a change in terms of how people view their heritage with democracy and how they view their unique status in China,” Mu said. “You’re seeing all kinds of people marching now. You’re seeing people with jobs, without jobs, you’re seeing students, you’re seeing older people march as well. [The 2014 Umbrella Revolution] was mostly focused around students, whereas this — now, the entirety of Hong Kong is marching.”
Senior Samer Awad’s family was driving up a hill in al-Eizariya, Palestine, when he noticed something odd — Israeli soldiers at the top and children at the bottom. In particular, he noticed a 12-year-old boy with blood streaming down his face. As the Awad family drove past him, the boy began screaming in Arabic, telling the passerby to “get the hell out of there.” Then, with stones and rocks in his hand, the boy charged up the hill where armed soldiers stood waiting.
Nearly two years after his trip to Palestine, the sight of the 12-year-old boy remains sharp in Awad’s memory, serving as a testament to the “Palestinian people’s hope and fight for freedom” from Israel.
Palestine, a sovereign state in West Asia that claims the areas of West Bank and the Gaza Strip, has been occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War in 1967. However, the roots of the conflict date back to the early 20th century, when Jews fleeing persecution in Europe sought to establish a national homeland — Israel — in what was then Palestine, an Arab and Muslim-majority territory under the Ottoman and then British empire. This move coincided with the rise of Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement that believed Palestine to be the ancient homeland of all Jews, as outlined by the Torah.
As Jewish immigration into Palestine increased, so did the Palestinians’ resistance. Resistance bred violence, and Palestinians — along with their neighboring Arab allies — and found themselves fighting against Jews for political autonomy in the region. The British-mandated 1917 Balfour Declaration, which announced support for the establishment of Israel, further heightened tensions between the two groups.
To Arab residents, it was clear that the influx of Jewish immigrants was the beginning of a European colonial movement that threatened to dismantle the very ethos and essence of Palestinian people.
Although the 1993 Oslo Accords were noteworthy in that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agreed to formally recognize the state of Israel, which in turn allowed the Palestinians some form of limited self-governance in Gaza and the West Bank — dubbed the Occupied Territories — since then, both sides have engaged in political and military warfare over the precedents set by the Accords.
In particular, Awad cites the creation of Israeli settlements — communities of Jews that live in the West Bank and other Palestinian-dominated areas — as a violation of both the Oslo Accords and the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of population into occupied territories. According to Awad, the military occupation that accompanies these settlements makes life difficult for Palestinians, who are excluded from certain Israeli-only roads and are subject to random questionnaires and security checkpoints.
During his one-month stay in Palestine, Awad recalls having to wait in “super hot cars” while soldiers searched each car passing for the purpose of safety. He recalls the protests he attended, the interrogations he was forced to undergo and the arrests he personally experienced and saw others experience. He realized that protests, interrogations and arrests were just a part of day-to-day life in Palestine.
“One time, there was a shooting at one of the mosques, and the Israelis weren’t letting in anyone into the mosque entry in Jerusalem,” Awad said. “And so there were people protesting during a Friday prayer, and everyone went out and prayed in the street right outside the walls of the Old City.”
The Old City, which refers to a 0.9 square kilometers walled area within the modern city of Jerusalem, is divided into four quarters — one for Muslims, one for Christians, one for Jews and one for Armenians. Surrounding the city is a massive brick stone wall that has stood for thousands of years. In Awad’s eyes, Palestine has been rendered and transformed into the “world’s largest prison” — and for him and senior Sundus Dwidar, of Egyptian origin, that is heartbreaking.
Despite not being Palestinian herself, Dwider feels personally connected to the Isreal-Palestine issue. In fact, she asserts that most Arabs are aware of the conflict from a young age, by the mere fact that they identify with the Arab community. The issue is instilled in their childhoods by the stories they hear from their parents, from media portrayals and from news and social media accounts such as Instagram’s Eye on Palestine. And for Dwidar, it is specifically instilled by the stories she hears from her Palestinian friends, those who have visited the land and have family there. One story that especially stands out to Dwider is that of her sister’s friend’s experience crossing the Israeli border.
“My sister’s friend — she’s around 25 — she was crossing the border and because Israel controls all the borders and controls all the roads and the passages, they set up roadblocks and checkpoints at any time for any anybody,” Dwidar said. “So because of mixed messages [happening] between different people, she was told she could pass, but other people didn’t believe that so they started shooting at her because she’s Palestinian.”
Such skirmishes across the Israeli border occur frequently, and, since the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that he plans to annex all settlements in the West Bank ahead of the Israeli election, these confrontations are only predicted to increase — especially as Palestinian protestors grow increasingly agitated.
Awad understands the sentiments behind these protests, having participated in some himself. During one confrontation with Isreali soldiers, he was even hit with tear gas.
“It felt like lighters going up your nostrils, and I didn’t even get the worst of it,” Awad said. “That sh*t is illegal to use in wars for God’s sakes and people [there] can use it against the population.”
Seeing his father’s homeland in tarnish, as well as the people’s continued hope for freedom, was in many ways a revelation to Awad. For this reason, he believes that the current conflict between Palestine and Israel, although stemming from a multitude of varying factors with some blame to impart on both sides, is still somewhat one-sided.
“I think that there’s so much illegal activity through the Israeli government that goes on, especially with building illegal settlements, and revoking the rights of Palestinians from their land, their property, their water and electricity,” Awad said. “But also, at the same time, I feel like there’s a lot that the Palestinian government, especially with Hamas in control, is being very childish about. [Both Israel and Palestine] don’t get anywhere because they’re always trying to argue about past promises.”
Dwidar echoes Awad’s sentiment, stating that although Palestine has suffered greatly under the hands of Israel, the Isreali people are entitled to their rights to life and property and deserve a home of their own. However, she believes that this sympathy should not extend to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) stationed in Palestine, who she says commit great atrocities in the region.
In particular, she cites the story of Rachel Corrie, an American political activist who was killed trying to prevent a Palestinian home in Rafah from being demolished in 2003. She also brings up the story of Tariq Khdeir, a Palestinian-American boy who was beaten by Israeli police oficers in an assault caught on camera and subsequently taken to an undisclosed location after protesting his cousin’s killing. Although he was an American citizen, Israel didn’t notify U.S. authorities of the arrest, resulting in the U.S. accusing Israel for singingly out members of the Khderi family for arrest.
Making an active commitment to learn, highlight and speak about these stories — many of which Dwidar says go unheard and are then forgotten, lost to time — is one way Dwider seeks to impact change in her community.
“I feel like my role is to tell those stories, and even if only one person listens, I’m okay with that because that’s one more person that has gained a little more knowledge, and that one person will tell another person, who will tell another person,” Dwidar said.
Senior Uriel Kaminitz, whose entire family is Israeli, doesn’t have a strong stance on the Palestine-Israel conflict. However, he says that other Israelis are very passionate about the subject, as they view the issue as a conflict of whether Israel should or should not exist. In that sense, Kaminitz identifies as pro-Israel while clarifying that he is not strictly anti-Palestine.
“My perspective would be different since I live in California and not in Israel, but for people living there, they strongly believe that their country should exist so naturally they’re very anti-Palestine,” Kaminitz said. “They strongly believe that they should have Israel and Israel should be its own state.”
This strong faith in Israel translates to other aspects of day-to-day life as well. For example, Kaminitz notes IDF’s conscription policy, which states that all Isreali citizens over the age of 18 are required to enlist in the military for approximately three years. He also explains that, in his experience, the average Isreali person will cuss Palestinians out if they hear someone on the radio.
As for Kaminitz, although he agrees that Israel is overstepping its boundaries and mistreating Palestinians, it is difficult for him to outwardly support Palestine, given his close connection to Israel. Still, he hopes that someday there is peace between the two groups.
Dwidar feels the same way. To the Palestinian people, she says:
“Countries have been occupied for over 800 years and even they eventually gained their own government. It’s only been 70 years, so you’re fine — you’ve got a lot of time. Just remember that there’s always hope and you never stop and never bow down to anyone.”
The debate about Brexit. The wars over Palestine. The protests in Hong Kong. These heavily publicized international events have consumed the attention of the media, with daily coverage to inform the public of the latest, most controversial developments.
But what about Kashmir?
Much of the public is unaware of the events surrounding Kashmir, and according to De Anza Physical and Cultural Geography Professor Purba Fernandez, not even residents of Kashmir know exactly what’s happening around them.
“From what I understand, there is a total blackout on news,” Fernandez said. “People in Kashmir don’t necessarily have access to the internet, [and] the government is censoring a lot of the information. The news outlets that are trying to get that information out, they’re being blocked.”
Senior and Kashmiri Muslim Uznain Wani attributes the lack of media coverage to the “heavy militarization” in Kashmir that is part of Hindu-majority India’s attempts to establish control of the Muslim-majority region. These troops, numbering in the thousands, first moved in early August under claims of an immediate security threat. Days later, the Indian government revoked a 70-year-old piece of legislation called Article 370 that gave Kashmir autonomous status through freedom with everything but defense, communications and foreign affairs.
“What they’ve done is they’ve suspended a section of the Indian Constitution which guarantees autonomy to the state of Kashmir,” Fernandez said. “That in [of] itself is very dangerous, in that if [the] democratically elected government can suspend a part of the constitution, they might feel the power to do the same with other aspects and articles of the Constitution, which really, essentially undermines the democracy, which would undermine human rights [as well].”
But junior and Kashmiri Hindu Pearl Raina claims the removal of Article 370 signals the start of a long overdue progress.
“We don’t know the actual reason behind [the revoking of Article 370],” Raina said. “I don’t know if it’s for [the Indian government’s] own selfish reasons or not, but yet, the Kashmiri Hindus are still really glad it’s happening. I’m definitely glad. It’s like a big stepping stone. [Nothing] was resolved until right now.”
Senior and Kashmiri Hindu Meera Bambroo agrees, noting that her“parents are really happy” about the revoking of Article 370. This reaction stems back to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits (another term for Kashmiri Hindus) in the early 1990s, in which Muslim militant groups displaced and killed hundreds of thousands of Hindus from Kashmir. Many of these Kashmiri Hindus remain displaced, with some living in refugee camps in the Hindu-majority region of Jammu.
“What they were doing was basically saying, ‘You either convert to Islam, or leave, or we’re going to rape [or] kill you or kidnap your children, and set your house on fire and take all your stuff,’” Bambroo said. “So my dad actually went back to Kashmir for the first time in 25 years, a couple years ago. And everything that he knew, like his house, his neighbor’s houses, it all didn’t exist anymore. It was all burned to the ground. And now the Kashmiri Hindu population — it’s nothing.”
Raina’s family went through a similar ordeal. She recalls one story about her grandfather’s refusal to leave during the Exodus.
“He was like, ‘This is my home, I’m not gonna leave,’” Raina said. “And what they did is they kidnapped him, and they basically threatened to kill him. [He] had to fake his way into being Muslim to be alive, [and] faked his way out. [The] next day, they left. So many Hindus stood their ground, actually, but none of them stayed.”
While many Kashmiri Hindus support the revoking of Kashmir’s autonomous status, Wani provides a glimpse into the opposing perspective. He comments not only on the suspending of Article 370, but also on the Indian government’s reimposing of Section 144 — legislation that bans assemblies of over four people.
“I think [the situation is] a complete mockery of [democracy],” Wani said. “Taking away the right of freedom, taking away the right for people to react to something that is done to them that directly affects them, is not right. [I] was watching [the] Indian Parliament, and people [said] that the common man of Kashmir was happy. That just made me laugh, because I know that every single common man in Kashmir wants to protest, but they don’t even have the right to do that.”
Given the current restrictive environment of Kashmir, Fernandez believes the conflict between the Kashmiris and the Indian government would be resolved effectively through the involvement of Western democratic powers.
“When there are conflicts around the world where human rights are being trampled on, it absolutely is the responsibility of the democratic powers of the world to take a stance,” Fernandez said. “Not just in the rights of principle but also for human rights, to look after those who are being suppressed.”
Wani agrees that the democratic superpowers of the world have an obligation to help Kashmir gain autonomy, but also believes that it’s up to the people to fight for their independence. He has held his own demonstrations here in the Bay Area: one in Santana Row, and another in San Francisco with an estimated two to three hundred participants. Due to his Kashmiri identity, he feels a responsibility to speak up on the behalf of Kashmiri protesters silenced by the Indian government.
“What about the person who’s actually at ground zero, who’s actually facing [hardships]?” Wani said. “He can’t do anything, because he can’t come out of his house. [The Indian government] will arrest him, or do something [else] like that. So it’s important to raise my voice for my people. You know — raise the voice for the voiceless.”