'Imagination will take you everywhere'
He stands defiantly; feet apart, hands by his side, eyes closed. A peaceful expression pervades his facial features under a mop of ebony hair. Yet what he confronted must have terrified him to the core. His head is raised to the heavens – praying to a god that will not help him. He stands in Utrecht Central Museum, yet what he stood for on June 5 1989 has come to represent the plight of humanity in the face of pure evil. This is not a human, but a piece of art sculpted of wax by Fernando Sánchez Castillo. The man he is depicting has become known as the Tank Man, and his story is as real as you and me.
On that sunny morning in early June, an advance of Chinese military tanks roared into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square; their mission? To forcibly remove pro-democracy protestors. That is until a lone, isolated figure stood up for what he believed in. The 19-year-old student halted the military by blocking the path of a long line of over a dozen tanks. He stood rooted to the ground, unperturbed by the looming belly of the first tank. The rumbling mechanical monsters stopped. Silence. A cowboy style standoff ensued; one man against the raging authority – a haunting but familiar image which resonates with current crises around the globe.
At the time of writing, the past few days have been the bloodiest for anti-government fighting in Ukraine. According to the BBC at least 200 people have been killed in clashes between pro-Russia militants and Ukrainian forces, but many more will undoubtedly perish in this ceaseless bloodshed unless the new Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, can negotiate a ceasefire. Having been caught in crossfire, the Sunday Times Foreign Correspondent, Mark Franchetti, described the attack; “Bullets whizz around us, cutting the air with a distinctive whistle and a metallic ping”. Red twisting flames and plumes of black smoke billow on our TV screens each time we switch to a news channel. One could be forgiven for mistaking the violent footage for unrest in Libya during 2011, Egypt in 2012, or perhaps a fresh bout of fighting in war-torn Syria (three years and counting). But mass civil rebellion is no longer solely reserved for the Middle East. So 25 years after the Tank Man’s valiant revolt, what has the world learnt?
The consequence of the Tank Man’s courage is unknown; there have been reports that he was executed after the incident, some say he simply disappeared off the face of the earth, and many believe he is living a quiet life in China. The confrontation has become one of the most enduring and iconic symbols of pro-democracy. The waxwork not only represents hope for a greater democracy, but also raises awareness of the event that many – even the majority in China – have all but forgotten. Perhaps the modern embodiment of the Tank Man is Malala Yousafzai, the fearless Pakistani schoolgirl who campaigned for what she believed in, stared down the barrel of a gun and undeniably won her fight against the Taliban. Proof that protesting (be it en masse or independently) for what you believe in can have a transformative effect on your home country. Everyone has a voice, and everyone has the right to be heard.