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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Senator RYAN (7:01 PM) —Twenty years ago earlier this month we remembered, commemorating one and celebrating the other, two momentous events of last century: the Tiananmen Square massacre in China and the first semi-free elections—almost worthy of that name—in Poland in June 1989. I was a teenager at the time, politically aware and finishing high school, and those events made a particular impression upon me. It was the sad juxtaposition of these events, one representing the triumph of the human spirit and the other representing it being crushed, that made such an impact.
Just as the Iron Curtain started to fall across Europe and crumble as it rusted—as thousands and thousands of people opposed the regimes that had oppressed them—Beijing brought down its brutal force upon peaceful activists seeking a better life and a say in their government. It is the tragic coincidence of these events that I wish to raise this evening. I firmly believe that we must celebrate the victories of the human spirit and we must commemorate those who suffer and, in this case, die when seeking access to the same freedoms that we enjoy. Later this year we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the 20th century’s second great murderous ideology—at least in Europe.
The first matter I wish to raise is the Polish elections in 1989. Poland had a tragic 20th century history in many ways until 1989. It was stuck between the two great malevolent powers of Nazi Germany and the USSR for much of the 20th century. The invasion by Germany, the devastation of World War II and then the subjugation by the USSR and its communist cronies oppressed its people for many years. But the Polish people yearned for freedom—to vote, to practise their religion, to choose their own destiny, to have a say in their own government and to have some control over their own lives, absent an oppressive state. Australia saw many people arrive on our shores seeking to escape that very state and the Polish communist government.
After half a century this foreign and flawed ideology had never taken root in Poland. The resistance movement that came about in trade unions, in civic groups and in churches had taken root. Through the 1980s and even under martial law, the people would not yield. In 1989 the socialist and communist parties that ran Poland had no choice but to yield to the proposed elections—elections that were not fair and free in the way we would expect but a great step forward for the Polish people. The point is that the need for elections had been conceded, the Polish people had their say and they responded in force. The communist party was overwhelmed. Solidarity and their allies within the community won so convincingly that, to quote a person who did more to end the Cold War than many world leaders, Ronald Reagan:
Within months the Soviet Empire began to melt like a snowbank in May.
We have to admire the fact that, in many countries across eastern Europe at that time, we saw an incredible and mostly peaceful transition from a totalitarian form of government to liberal democratic government. This spark followed previous moves in Hungary to push the communist menace away from eastern Europe and ensure that this twisted ideology that had killed millions was put to an end on that continent.
At the same time we saw tragic events in China. Many Australians now visit Tiananmen Square. I hope that when they do they also recall the circumstances in which it came to the attention of millions of people around the world. In response to protests and gatherings requesting nothing more than that people be allowed to have input into their government and civic life, the communist regime sent tanks. We were confronted with that immortal photo that I mentioned in my first speech in this place of a man standing before a tank with two plastic shopping bags. Several weeks ago a new photo, taken at street level, of that same man became available from a photographer who had never published the print. While we saw then what looked like one brave man standing against a tank column, this photo published by the New York Times shows the chaos at ground level as that person stood in front of a tank as others were fleeing from the bullets that were being fired by soldiers. Thousands were slaughtered, thousands more were imprisoned, and they were only asking for what we take for granted.
In the House of Representatives, the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, said that he had never witnessed such a tragedy and that the aspirations for a freer China needed to be properly recognised. The then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Andrew Peacock, reminded the House that slaughter, pillage and destruction were tragic features of communist regimes. It was a true bipartisan moment as the nation expressed horror at what they had witnessed on their television screens and in their newspapers.
The communist government of China referred in much of its press to ‘counter-revolutionaries’, a term that spreads fear and terror through those who have ever lived under such a regime, a term that was used for decades to shout down, imprison and oppress those who sought nothing more than what we have here today. In the international press at the time, the Washington Post said:
Tanks pursued student victims with machine guns, ran over some and smashed others like insects against walls.
That is not something to which we have ever been accustomed in this country. The Radio Beijing English language announcer was pulled off air after admitting thousands had been killed and a new announcer was brought into his place.
I wish to raise these two issues because I believe we should remember both the triumphs of liberty and the failings of those who have yet to embrace it. The Chinese regime has never apologised for what it undertook in 1989 and I believe it is incumbent upon us to continue the memory of those who died and suffered in a quest for the liberty that we take for granted.