A Taiwanese protestor holds a sign featuring a “V for Vendetta” quote, which reads “The country belongs to the people. People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
By Kirstie Yu
In the first part of this series, I reviewed the current situations in Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand. In this second installment, I will provide a brief update on the status of each of these countries as well as present information about a new protest movement in Taiwan that emerged in mid-March. Additionally, I will discuss why the U.S. should be focusing more on these countries due to both economic interests and human rights violations, and attempt to explain why I believe the U.S. and Western media focuses so heavily on the Ukraine crisis when it really should provide more coverage of other equally important movements. Although there is definitely some coverage of other conflicts, Ukraine is always on the front page of the news.
Since the publication of Part I in early March, the protests have continued in Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand. In Ukraine, Russian troops took over the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine at the end of March, and 97 percent of voters in Crimea supported secession from Ukraine to Russia in a referendum held March 16. As Ukraine awaits presidential elections scheduled for May 25, it has just launched its own anti-terror operation against armed pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine on April 13. In Venezuela, violence abounds as the death toll has risen to 41 and about 650 people have been injured since early February. Since the beginning of March, additional groups of people, including doctors, medical students and mothers, have joined the student protests against the Venezuelan government’s handling of commodity scarcity issues and the economic crisis. Students also set up tents outside of United Nations offices in Caracas on March 26 to complain that not enough international attention has been paid to the Venezuelan crisis. In Thailand, a Constitutional Court decision on March 21 that nullified the February general election bolstered a second wave of protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government in Bangkok. Most recently, protestors started targeting government buildings on the outskirts of Bangkok.
One additional protest that is personally important to me as a Taiwanese American is the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan that lasted from March 18 until April 10. Tensions over the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) that was signed between China and Taiwan reached a boiling point when the ratification of the CSSTA was pushed through Congress and passed in 30 seconds without a line-by-line review of the clauses. President Ma Ying-Jeou and his pro-China Kuomingtang (Chinese Nationalist Party) faced heavy backlash from students and supporters of the pro-Taiwanese-independence Democratic Progressive Party. The predominantly student protestors stormed the Legislative Yuan (parliament) and refused to leave for 24 days until Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-Pyng conceded and made promises to create an oversight mechanism to make the CSSTA review process more transparent and democratic. Within the three weeks that the students stormed the Legislative Yuan, protestors took to the streets to demonstrate their displeasure against not only the CSSTA, but also the Ma administration in general, with about 350,000 people participating in a rally outside the Presidential Office in Taipei.
Individually, the Venezuelan, Thai, and Taiwanese protests each have an impact on U.S. economic interests. First, Venezuela, which is perhaps most directly linked to the U.S. economy, is one of the top five suppliers of foreign oil to the U.S. according to the U.S. Department of State. Additionally, the U.S. is Venezuela’s most important trading partner for both imports and exports; 500 U.S. companies are represented in Venezuela. However, relations between the two countries are only becoming more strained as President Nicolás Maduro keeps blaming the U.S. government, specifically Secretary of State John Kerry, for inciting protests and a “Ukraine-style coup”. This is problematic for the U.S. because even if it wants to improve relations with Venezuela, enduring accusations from President Maduro prevent the U.S. from taking even the slightest actions that would make the U.S. appear to be imposing its will on Venezuela. With the International Monetary Fund recently releasing its World Economic Outlook that states that Venezuela’s economy is expected to shrink 0.5 percent, the U.S. is virtually powerless and must sit idly by as the Venezuelan economy declines while its government fails to answer the demands of the people.
Next, the U.S. is Thailand’s third-largest bilateral trading partner and has more than $13 billion in direct foreign investment for Thailand. The Department of State also notes that the U.S. supports many other aspects of the Thai government, such as law enforcement, science and technology, wildlife trafficking, public health, and education. Similar to the situation in Venezuela, the protests in Thailand have caused the Bank of Thailand to cut its economic growth projection from 3.7 percent to 3 percent. A country that relies on tourism for 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product, Thailand has steered tourists away from its country due to its inability to control the protestors. Furthermore, both Western and Asian corporations may begin to think twice about basing their operations in Thailand due to its ongoing risky conditions. Although the U.S., as in the case of Venezuela, has little direct leverage in this situation, it can take advantage of the fact that it is one of the key investors in Thailand and use this as leverage to ensure that human rights are being protected during the protests. Cutting off aid to Thailand could be devastating for the Thai economy. Moreover, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes that “it is critical that U.S. officials not ignore Thailand while it goes through this crisis” and should “engage the business community, the military, and other sectors of the society.” The protestors’ desire for anti-democracy is an unprecedented theme that has gone unnoticed. The lack of coverage of these protests has reinforced that this region does not seem to be a priority to the U.S. despite CSIS recommendations.
Lastly, although the Taiwan protests have stronger and more direct implications for the Taiwanese economy than for the U.S. economy, the protests ultimately affect China, which in turn affects the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Department of State, Taiwan is the United States’ 11th largest trading partner, and the United States is Taiwan’s largest foreign investor. Whether the treaty in question is ultimately ratified or not by congress will either expand economic ties with China or keep the economic situation the same in Taiwan. The most important issue here is the fact that since Taiwan is still technically owned by China, China has the final say in controlling the extent of foreign trade Taiwan is allowed to engage in. If the CSSTA is sent back to China for renegotiations and China wants to force the CSSTA to be ratified by Taiwan, it could threaten Taiwan by not allowing it to sign free trade agreements with other countries. President Ma believes that if the CSSTA is not passed, “it will have a grave impact on [Taiwan’s] international image,” which would result in a long-term threat to foreign trade.
Collectively, the three conflicts in Venezuela, Thailand, and Taiwan highlight various human rights and due process issues. The peaceful protests in all three countries are often met with police force. In Venezuela, police have retaliated with buckshot, tear gas, and water cannons, while in Taiwan, police officers have used batons and physical force to try to drag and remove the protestors. Protestors have demanded an end to police brutality, yet it seems that these demands for a respect of human rights, especially the rights to life, physical integrity, and free speech, are not being met by the governments of these three countries. In addition, the belief that the Thai general election in February was rigged and the corresponding refusal to vote by many citizens threaten the future integrity of free and fair elections in Thailand. The undemocratic passing of the CSSTA without an article-by-article review coupled with a lack of transparency and responsiveness to the people’s concerns threatens democracy itself in Taiwan.
The economic interests the U.S. has in Venezuela, Thailand, and Taiwan, as well as the growing human rights concerns in those countries, should make the conflicts within these countries a priority to the U.S., yet the U.S. and Western media only focuses on the conflict in Ukraine and Russia. One possible explanation for this is that the U.S. is stuck in a Cold War mentality, where it still sees Russia as its biggest enemy and will always support the side that is against Russia. Even though the media believes it may be more interesting for readers to have alarming front cover news about Ukraine day after day, it is unfair to other countries that have just as important conflicts. Another explanation is that the media might think that since Americans in general do not care about the news, it is easier to focus on one news story at a time rather than change headlines every day. Less coverage may also seem to indicate to readers that the U.S. will not intervene in these conflicts so the American public will not be as upset with the U.S. government, which has a historic reputation for sticking its nose in other countries’ business. A final possible explanation could just be that the media does not like reporting on conflicts until something drastic actually happens, such as violence and bloodshed or a President being ousted or impeached. For example, President Viktor Yanukovych has been ousted in Ukraine, but President Maduro of Venezuela and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand are still in power despite mass demonstrations. However, just because a ruler has not been ousted does not mean that the situation is more stable by any means, and the media should still monitor these conflicts and update the public.
Why does the Western media insist on focusing on one conflict for headlines day after day when they could just as easily view these conflicts as a collective problem of democracy and middle class revolt throughout the world? There is growing global unrest, better coordinated with the advent of social media. The unparalleled situation the world finds itself in should garner more recognition from both the international community and from Western media, especially considering the economic and human rights ramifications these conflicts have. Society today relies heavily on media to give us real-time updates on events happening halfway across the globe. By favoring certain news stories over others because they are more convenient to cover, media outlets fail in their duty to provide fair coverage of world news. This failure ultimately causes the public to be grossly uninformed about important current affairs that affect U.S. interests.
Image by billy1125