Courageous citizens can topple dictators

Singapore Democrats Mr Lim Tung Hee and Mr Chris Neo recently attend a seminar in Belgrade to learn more about activist work. The event was organized by the Swedish International Liberal Centre and below is a brief report by Mr Lim. (Another Democrat Mr Bryan Lim is currently in Taiwan to observe the Legislative Yuan elections under the invitation of the Democratic Progressive Party and the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats.)

I could not help feeling deeply impressed and awakened by the accounts of my fellow participants at the activist seminar held in Belgrade, Serbia last week.

In particular, the spirit and persistence of the Serbs to fight for their freedom were a revelation. The courage and determination they demonstrated against a dictatorship led by Sloboda Milosevic (now undergoing a trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity) where the control of the media and financial institutions was extremely rigid and the secret service merciless is a tale that needs to be told and retold.

In 1996, a group of students initiated the Students Resistance Movement which ultimately forced Milosevic into holding multi-party elections. The former dictators grip on power was dealt a severe blow when his party lost some 40 municipal seats in local elections to a coalition of the opposition.

The resistance was further strengthened in 1999 when some 20 university students with no political affiliation staged protests wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan Freedom of Mind. Other universities soon joined in the protests. The government ordered a crackdown and many protestors were arrested. But the arrests were covered in the local media which made many people angry at the authorities. This resulted in the movement growing even stronger, now attracting working adults in society.

With the help of non-government organizations from overseas, the resistance staged a series of protests with the themes Hes finished and Its the right time. What initially started out as a peaceful and carnival-like event headed by 12 young activists quickly turned ugly as the regime ordered mass arrests and brutality against the peaceful protestors. An astonishing 44,000 people were estimated to have been arrested throughout the period of protests.

But each time arrests were made the publicity for the regime grew increasingly adverse and served to anger the people even more. The resistance grew so strong that at one point, nearly one million people joined in the street protests.

Posters and leaflets criticising the dictator flooded the streets and marked the beginning of the end for Milosevic. When the dictator was finally toppled, democracy triumphed. The role of the 12 students in the movement that brought down a dictatorial regime cannot be underestimated. They were not high-profile politicians or charismatic leaders with political ambitions; they were ordinary people who had had enough with the Serbian dictatorship and wanted free and fair elections in their country. Most important they were willing to work and sacrifice for their vision.

It was perhaps the conviction and zeal to fight for civil and human rights of ordinary Serbs that impressed Chris Neo and myself the most. Their courage and sacrifice will inspire those of us who are going through our own struggles to bring freedom and democracy to our countries. I have only great admiration and respect for those brave people.

Mr Lim Tung Hee stood as an SDP candidate in the Hong Kah GRC in the 2001 GE. Mr Chris Neo was also a (NSP) candidate in the same elections.

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