The real lesson from Kiev

Chong Wai Fung & Clarence Zeng

Kiev, Ukraine. The images of clashes between anti-government protesters and the police were still fresh in the minds of our Ukrainian friends even as they tried to move on with the process of rebuilding their country.

We were there to attend the Swedish International Liberal Centre (SILC) Activist Seminar held annually to provide democracy advocates from ten countries an opportunity to learn from each other the global effort to build sustainable, democratic states.  

But while Kiev itself was getting back to normalcy, continuing violence in Eastern Ukraine at the border with Russia is threatening to take the country down the road to trouble again.

The revolution at Independence Square was called the Euromaidan. It started out as a peaceful protest against the former President Yanukovych who abandoned a deal with the European Union in favour of Russia. The people of Ukraine also wanted the presidential powers to be scaled back.

But the peaceful protest turned violent when police attacked the protesters’ camps. It sparked off a revolution with many university students playing an active role.

People from all over Ukraine travelled to Kiev to show their support. Artists gave performances on a stage at the centre of Independence Square throughout the protest to lift the spirits of protesters who hunkered down during the cold winter days.

The remnants of the revolution were evident throughout their Independence Square. The tire barricades across the roads were moved to the sides to allow vehicles to pass through as the city slowly made its way back to normalcy.

Photographs of those who were killed during the revolution were placed on the sidewalks, on trees or walls. There were flowers and lamps in many places, laid down by the hundreds of people who visited the site. It was a poignant reminder of the much-too-often sacrifices of ordinary citizens to bring about change.

During the seminar, we learned about the conditions leading to the revolution. It was not initiated by any political party. What started out as a peaceful protest turned into a revolution when police used brutal force to suppress the protests.

Social media played a huge role in disseminating information to the rest of Ukraine and the world. When governments use state machinery to turn against its own people, the result is almost always tragic. There were dozens killed and hundreds injured during the revolution.

Much has happened since the revolution that ended in February. Ukraine had elected a new President and drafted a new constitution. People from all walks of life paid tribute to the lives lost by placing flowers on the streets and educating their children about the monumental event.

There were religious ceremonies and even flash mobs held all over the country to honour the dead. The city is trying to regain its normalcy. When we visited Independence Square again before we left, the barricades were being removed and the streets reopened for vehicles.

Commenting on the crisis, PM Lee Hsien Loong said that Ukraine is a reminder that small countries must defend themselves and not depend on international community for its national security. He used this as a reason to maintain a strong military. “Only then can Singapore be safe and secure,” he said.

But Mr Lee misses the bigger lesson. The Euromaidan was a stark reminder of what can go wrong when a government has too much power and uses that power against its own people in order to advance its own interests.

The people of Ukraine rose up against their president when he refused to heed their demand for a more open and democratic country. Indeed, that must be the lesson our Government must learn.

Chong Wai Fung is Treasurer of the SDP. Clarence Zeng is a member of the Young Democrats and Deputy Head of the SDP’s Ground Operations Unit.

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