Humanity In Coverage: Activists In Asia You Should Know

Photo taken and received from an anonymous source via Facebook on March 26, 2021 shows protesters holding signs during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon. (Photo Credit: AFP Via. TRTWorld)

Importance of Humanity in Coverage

In today’s world, it’s becoming increasingly common and easy to detach from the news stories and conversations we come across in the classroom, TV, and social media. The subject or story can be thousands of miles away in a country you will most likely never visit, and never directly experience the resulting effects. Social media and traditional news sources are becoming flooded with infographics, policy debates, and “expert opinions,” while examples of individuals experiencing these realities can become lost in the shuffle. Understanding and covering these topics insightfully is critical to fully comprehending the necessary contexts and developments. This extends to looking at issues with humanity in mind, as it allows for a deeper interpretation of actual impacts on the realities of directly involved individuals.

While this idea that humanity is necessary to produce adequate coverage and discussion applies to almost any topic or story, it is foundational to topics rooted in activism and human rights. Human rights were built off the ideas of humanity itself, supporting that there are “rights inherent to all human beings.” So when we discuss stories of activism fighting for human rights defenses and related topics, we must try to understand the realities of these humans directly interacting with these topics and stories. Therefore, this article will highlight two ongoing and critical movements concerning pro-democracy and human rights defenses by highlighting a leading young activist in each movement. Hopefully, by amplifying their experiences and efforts, a contribution to the growing awareness of individual realities of those directly working in the movements or topics that have turned into international discourses can be made.

Joshua Wong Pro-Democracy Activist In Hong Kong

Under the idea of democracy activism, Hong Kong’s relationship with The People’s Republic of China has been embroiled with fights for universal suffrage and rights protections, as China has been increasingly tightening its grip on the area’s autonomy. While this issue has made many international headlines and discussions as protests got increasingly more violent in 2014 and 2019, many fail to recognize that large proportions of leading activists and organizers of famous pro-democracy movements were high school and college-age students of Hong Kong. 

HONG KONG – OCTOBER 04: Student leader Joshua Wong speaks to protesters on October 4, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. Thousands of pro democracy supporters continue to occupy the streets surrounding Hong Kong’s Financial district. The protesters are calling for open elections and the resignation of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

One specific Pro-Democracy Activist, Joshua Wong, would be central to the organization and participation in the pro-democracy movement before even turning 15 years old. Joshua and his activism group of students around the same age, in 2012 would prevent the government from introducing “pro-China national education” schemes in schools in Hong Kong through their protests and occupations. In 2014, Wong would continue to contribute to the pro-democracy movement by fighting for universal suffrage by participating in and organizing the 2014 student-led Umbrella Movement protests that blocked Hong Kong’s financial center for 79 days. Furthermore, Wong established his own political party in 2016 called Demosistō to continue the pro-democracy movement in the call for a referendum for Hong Kong’s sovereignty in 2047.

While Wong would be recognized for his leadership in the 2014 Umbrella Movement by being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 and showcased in a Netflix documentary titled Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (2017), many do not realize the cost and difficulties Wong has had to face for his activism. The 2014 Umbrella Movement received its name because of the wide use of umbrellas seen in the crowds attempting to block the onslaught of police pepper spray and tear gas directed at the protesters. As well, each organization or perceived leadership in protests by Wong came at the cost of Wong’s freedom, having to serve jail sentences three different times in 2018, 2019, and being formally charged for subversion under the China National Security Law in 2021. Furthermore, his political party Demosistō would also be forced to disband due to China’s national security law on the 30th of June 2020, and his family felt it necessary to flee to Australia. 

Activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung gets arrested by the police after protesting along with other activists at the Golden Bauhinia Square for the release of Liu Xiaobo at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai. 28JUN17 SCMP / David Wong (Photo by David Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Wong’s activism is essential to be aware of because he is an example of many young activists in the country who have dedicated much of their young lives to change and achieve progress in Hong Kong. However, to a government not eager to bend, these activists are seen as a sign of growing unrest and opposition, which leads to many young activists losing their freedom. Wong is now imprisoned, and during the last year, he has been convicted two more times, adding ten months and then four months to his sentencing. With the goal of continued punishment to “deter others,” many might wonder what future democracy-related movements could look like under these increasingly oppressive punishment standards

Thinzar Shunlei Yi – Democracy Activist & Now Peace Activist in Myanmar (Burma)

Regarding the conversation on democracy activism, Myanmar (Burma) has been known for its long history of internal conflicts and debate on the future of democracy’s role in the country. From ongoing civil wars and the recent military coup, a large portion of the focus of international discourse has been focused on the impacts and future of the democratic political party of the National League for Democracy and its leader. However, what is important to note is that young activists like Thinzar Shunlei Yi, have and do play essential roles in the democracy and peace activism in the country, especially since the military coup in February of 2021.

Thinzar Shun Lei Yi speaks at a march for press freedom in Yangon on Sept. 1. (Photo By: REUTERS Via. JapanTimes)

From being an inaugural member of the U.S. Ambassador’s council in Myanmar, to being an advocacy lead at the Asian Youth Peace Network and first woman coordinator of the national youth congress, Shunlei Yi has dedicated much of her young life to promoting democracy and defending human rights in the country. Furthermore, she co-founded and hosted a TV show called  “Under 30 Dialogue” on Free TV Channel Mizzima TV. This was a place to interview and discuss issues with prominent youth leaders in the area, supporting the voices and ideas critical to helping push democracy and human rights activism. However, it ended in January and was forcibly shut down when the Junta revoked their license,

After the military junta overthrew the government in a coup in February 2021, democracy and peace activism has become even more critical and extremely dangerous for the people of Myanmar (Burma). Shunlei Yi has been working to organize and help bring together demonstrations and activist groups to resist the coup and many young activists have taken to the streets to join in on the protest movements. However, falling in line with the aggressive nature of a military coup, the protests have been met with intense suppression involving political imprisonment and mass killings on a large scale. Recent observations in August 2021 have said that the death count has surpassed 1000 people since the Junta overthrew the government. 

Photo from Shunlei Yi Twitter on October 18th, 2021. Captioned “Day 260 of #CoupAttempt, the Junta bargains the #ASEAN & Intl Pressure that they r releasing 1300+ Prisoners & will drop charges of 4000+. Don’t lose sight #WhatshappeninginMyanmar on the ground. This 8AM #Oct18Coup, #Mandalay strike was shot down & 10+ abducted.” (Photo Via. @thinazshunleiyi twitter)

Like many other activists, Thinzar Shunlei Yi has had to go into hiding and have to change her location from different safe houses regularly. However, she has decided to use her voice to speak out publicly and internationally, making her a leading face for the current movement at the cost of her safety. In a Time Magazine interview from a safe house in March 2021, Shunlei Yi stated that “nowhere is safe in the country right now. Nobody is safe. … It’s clearly a daily slaughter of the peaceful protesters.” This choice to speak out at the risk of her own safety and the continued involvement of people at the risk of their safety on the ground highlight this movement’s critical importance to activists like Shunlei Yi and people in Myanmar (Burma).  As Shunlei Yi has stated in an interview with the Global Network of Women Peacebuilding,Our movement is not just a resistance to the coup, it’s a cultural and ideological revolution”.

Concluding Thoughts

The importance of being aware of activists like Joshua Wong and Thinzar Shunlei Yi is rooted in attempting to humanize the understanding of topics and conversations. While it might be becoming increasingly common and easy to detach from the news stories and conversations taking place thousands of miles away, individuals are experiencing these realities every day while working towards a movement they believe in. These two leading young activists deserve your awareness not simply because of their own accomplishments and sacrifices but also the importance of the movement their stories represent. 

Being aware of these activists and helping amplify their experiences and efforts contribute to a growing awareness of individual realities of activists like them, who are directly working in the movements or topics that have turned into international discourse and news stories. People are fighting for what they believe in and making tomorrow better. If we are to forget this reality and remove humanity from the conversation, we will forever limit ourselves from genuinely beginning to understand the impacts on those directly involved and the costs that have been paid in the name of progress. So, I encourage you to continue to pay attention to activists and individuals inside of the movement because they are real people risking it all for what they believe in.


About Matthew F. Fleming 9 Articles
Matthew F. Fleming (M.A., Global Affairs and Policy) is a recent graduate from Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, and is an Academic Journal Intern at North Korean Review (NKR) and Journal of Territorial and Maritime Studies (JTMS). Fleming is currently working on research regarding the US-Japan-Korea relationship for Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, in partial fulfillment of a Master of Arts in Media and Governance. Fleming has multi-year experience in mechanical and substantive copyediting, academic and editorial research, and published research and content writing. Fleming is looking to expand his role as a writer and editor to more private-sector international institutions based in Tokyo, Japan, or open to remote collaboration.