Tiananmen in Colonel Gaddafi’s speech
Colonel Gaddafi’s public appearance on Libyan state television on February 22 looked like the last act of a forty-two year long drama – endured by ordinary Libyans for far too long. Even seasoned old Libya experts judged his stage performance a bit more bizarre even than usual: signs of desperation and insight about the end of him and his regime.
Bizarre reference to the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement
In the midst of all the tirades against the demonstrators and descriptions of them as “cockroaches” and “rats” he also invoked the legacy of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. He said, “The unity of China was more important than the people on Tiananmen Square.” It was bizarre because Gaddafi apparently thought that the memory of the Tiananmen massacre would serve him as a potent rhetorical weapon. It makes me wonder how many of the colonel’s (former) Libyan subjects got to know about the killings of students, workers, and ordinary Beijingers on the night between the third and fourth of June 1989 – through state-controlled Libyan mass media when it occurred. If it was reported at all, I guess it was only in the way of concise condemnation of a counterrevolutionary uprising that was rightfully crushed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), efficiently controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Did Gaddafi really believe that during the 22 years that have passed since the tragic event of Tiananmen 1989, Libyans had not gotten any alternative news or information about what actually did occur?
Just across the border in Egypt, at the height of the civilian protests at Tahrir Square in central Cairo, a high-ranking official also referred to the Tiananmen massacre – but as a negative example, the symbol of a horrific worst-case scenario on many people’s minds inside and outside Egypt: “There will never be a Tiananmen crack-down in Cairo.”
Tiananmen as collective memory and global symbol
As I wrote in an earlier blog post, “Comparing Egypt, China, and T-square crackdowns,” the Tiananmen Square massacre is not just a national Chinese trauma. It is also a global symbol of illegitimate regime oppression and violent crackdown on civilian protesters. The Tiananmen Square has become such a frightening symbol globally, including regions of the world long controlled by dictators and autocrats. That colonel Gaddafi, like a modern day Caligula, is out of touch with realities and sentiments is perhaps news to no one. But his use of Tiananmen Square massacre in his televised speech on 22 February made that clearer than ever.
The memory of Tiananmen continues to haunt collective memories worldwide. No matter how hard governments have tried to censor, forget or re-write the narrative of the Chinese democracy movement and the CCP elders’ decision to crush the movement and peaceful protestors with machine-guns and tanks in the heart of China’s political and cultural capital, what really happened on June Fourth is a living scar and hard-to-forget memory for hardliners and citizen activists throughout the world. And it is quite likely that, although it is one of the most sensitive things to discuss inside China, it will not go away completely from the Chinese collective memory either.
Anyhow, Libyans seem undeterred, and if anything, were angered by his referring to Tiananmen and the prospect of innocent civilian protestors being killed for maintaining the unity of Libya – and the prolonging of Gaddafi’s four decades of rule. People are still scared and there are reports of snipers shooting women on balconies, yet other people continue to take to the streets to defend their families and neighborhoods. And at the time of writing, foreign mercenaries or people loyal to the colonel, no longer controls the Eastern part of Libya on the Egyptian border. (See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12564104).
Invoking Tiananmen did not help him. The colonel is apparently facing his last stand in a Tripoli bunker.