This has not been an easy year for Madagascar. A power struggle between the president, Marc Ravalomanana and Antananarivo mayor Andry Rajeolina led to the army ousting the president, who resigned on March 17th. Rajeolina has been leading the High Transitional Authority, which has become increasingly autocratic and hostile towards free speech.
It’s hard to characterize the opinion of my Malagasy friends towards the civil strife. I think some were frustrated with Ravaolmanana’s government, which faced accusations of corruption and mismanagement, and hopeful that matters might improve under Rajeolina. But everyone I’ve spoken to has been deeply saddened by the violence that’s accompanied the protests, and increasingly upset about the detention of journalists, the closure of radio and television stations and the harrassment of bloggers. And I think everyone is hoping that the country can find a way to come back together and return to normalcy.
That may help explain why Razily has emerged as a hero for many Malagasy bloggers. On March 28, Razily carried the Malagasy flag into a street that had been closed by the Malagasy army. While the streets were filled with protesters, they remained behind the military cordon – Razily crossed into the space controlled by soldiers carrying the flag and marched solemly down the street. He was promptly seized by soliders in a pickup truck, and carried away from scene along with a companion, who had approached the truck to make sure Razily was unharmed.
Razily has not been released from military custody, and news recently emerged that he would be tried by the military for the crime of “flag theft”. Friends in the Malagasy diaspora are organizing a campaign to petition the transitional government not for his release, but for transparency regarding the charges against him and the trial he faces. The petition also expresses concern at the restrictions on speech and the use of tear gas and live rounds against protesters. The petition invites people to sign by adding a comment, and recognizes that many supporters in Madagascar may be unable to sign with their real names due to very real concerns about their safety.
Razily embodied the hope of the silent majority that is neither pro-Rajoelina, nor pro-Ravalomanana, that believe that there is still room for understanding and compromise if we reach out to each other and think of the nation first ( hence the flag). The fact that he marched on undeterred by the bullets around him made a strong impression on many of us. Bloggers have the protection of being behind the computer screen, Razily did not.
One of the reasons the crisis in Madagascar persists is that it’s receiving very little attention from the media, even on the African continent. In the absence of sustained pressure and scrutiny, there’s not much pressure on Rajeolina and Ravalomanana to find a solution that allows Madagascar to go forward. I’m often skeptical of the value of online petitions, but I think that demonstrating that people around the world are paying attention to the situation in Madagascar, and to the rights of a peaceful demonstrator, could have an important impact in this case. I hope you’ll join me in signing the petition and in spreading the word about Razily.
Global Voices has been covering the situation in Madagascar closely.
Wikipedia’s article on the 2009 protests is a good introduction to the situation as well.
A note on the video embedded above: There are at least two videos circulating of Razily’s march with the flag. The one above, from YouTube, has no sound. The one on DailyMotion has the sounds of the people recording the video. I interpret their laughter as a sign of their amazement at the audacity of Razily in walking towards the military with the flag. The fact that they cheer as he resumes his march after pausing suggests to me that they’re supportive of what he’s doing, not laughing at him, as does the fact that they posted the video. But I suspect the laughter could be confusing, and could seem very inappopriate given Razily’s arrest and subsequent disappearance. That’s why I’ve embedded the silent version, but am linking to the version with sound.