Thailand’s prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha aired a dire warning to the thousands of protesters who thronged the streets of Bangkok for days in the summer of 2020 demanding his resignation. Prayuth accused the demonstrators of bringing Thailand to the brink of collapse. ‘If that happens, just wait, everybody will be on fiery land, engulfed in flames,’ he said.
Prayuth and other political leaders eyeing masses of protesters often see forces of destruction lurking in even peaceful demonstrations. In the United States, the president Donald Trump recently levelled thinly veiled threats to would-be violent agitators as demonstrations over racial injustice unfolded. In public remarks, Trump cast the US as under threat from anarchists and looters bent on destroying the political system. Such rhetoric is standard for strongmen confronted with political anger rising around them as they point to enemies real and imagined, and charge them with sowing chaos. Politics are bloodier than ever all across the world, in a measurable way.
Political violence is alive in almost every society at any given moment. It takes many forms but follows some basic principles and patterns. At its most fundamental level, it involves individuals and small groups attacking people and property in the name of a cause. Spray painting anti-government graffiti on public buildings, a common occurrence in many places, is a form of political violence, even if bloodless and relatively benign. Setting fire to a government facility is more serious – and potentially murderous if people happen to be inside. Throwing bombs, forming mobs for rampage and other acts of aggression are an extension of this behaviour, which happens alongside peaceful political activity in many countries. Usually, governments are the targets of political violence, but civilians can be victims too, especially when state security forces and their allies in civil society abandon restraint against activists. We can get a sense of the level of political violence in any given place by simply counting these types of incidents. Some clear trends come into view when considering statistics across many countries.
The rise in political violence, around the world, over the past decade, is clear. The shift is visible, for example, in an annual tally of the aggregate number of riots across the globe. In 2010, an estimated 2,226 riots erupted worldwide. That number was more than double just in the first half of 2020, passing the 5,000 mark by the end of June. Bombings have increased at an even higher rate, climbing from 1,551 in 2010 to well over 20,000 on average annually in the past three years. The geography of political violence is widening too, with more countries seeing significant unrest within their borders on a more frequent basis. [Continue reading…]