Soldiers are human too

We hear that the shooting of demonstrating students in Tien Anmen Square in Beijing ended the pro-democracy movement in China in 1989, but why did ordinary soldiers shoot down ordinary students?

The demonstrators had been camped in the square for days and they had shown the soldiers who faced them that they were not violent. I saw the television film of the events and I can offer my interpretation of how the tragedy happened.

The world watched the news each evening and saw students offering flowers to the soldiers and trying to talk to them. The soldiers seemed friendly. Perhaps some of them even had brothers or sisters among the demonstrators. All seemed peaceful, but the students kept demanding more freedom and the political leaders didn’t want to give it.

One evening we saw a few students attack a soldier, but other students quickly called up a bus, put the soldier into it and sent him out of harm’s way. That showed they were peaceful. But I suspect the political leaders used that bit of film for a different purpose.

A regiment of soldiers had been brought in from distant Inner Mongolia to a camp on the outskirts of the city. They were kept in the camp for two weeks, so they didn’t know what was really happening in the city. The leaders, I believe, exploited this ignorance. If they had shown the first part of that film clip to those soldiers, showing them students attacking a soldier, they could have said Look, all hell is breaking loose in that square. We want you to go and sort it out’, they could have convinced them.

It is quite easy to cut your film so that a few people look like a crowd. It is even easier to cut out the bits of film that don’t agree with the story you want to tell.

The result was the tragedy we saw. When those soldiers were sent to the square, they went in with guns blazing as if it was a battlefield. No one knows how many they killed. Some say dozens, some say hundreds, but it would never have happened if the demonstrators had been able to talk with the soldiers.

Now it is possible that one day our junta may feel so threatened that they set the soldiers on us. We want to make sure that no soldiers can be fooled the way those Chinese soldiers were. Then, when ordinary soldiers are ordered to shoot us, they would more likely say What? Shoot our brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers? We can’t do that.’

We heard how police were refused lodgings after Operation Murambavanhu. That could have been done in a way that made them feel we were enemies, or a householder could have said I’m sorry, but I had to put my son and his family in the lodger’s room. Some of your colleagues knocked down his house, so they have nowhere else to go.’ That sounds to me like a fairly friendly way of making a necessary criticism.

Can we try that approach more often?

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