Simon Panek: a former student leader remembers the drama of November 1989

Simon Panek

My guest in One on One is Simon Panek. Today he is well known as the director and one of the co-founders of People in Need, one of the Czech Republic's biggest non-governmental organizations. People in Need works around the world to ease the suffering of people in times of crisis - be it war, famine or flood, and has become hugely respected far beyond this country's borders. But Simon Panek first came to the public's attention for a very different reason. It was seventeen years ago this month that he was at the heart of the events that came to be known as the Velvet Revolution. As a twenty-two-year-old student, he was one of the organizers of the demonstration on the 17th November that was the catalyst for the rapid collapse of the communist regime. For several months students had been trying to play a more active role in bringing about change.

"The first discussions that were more concrete began around the beginning of 1989 among a few groups of students in Prague, and then through the summer and the beginning of the autumn it was materialized in the building of 'Stuha' which means ribbon [also an abbreviation of Studentske hnuti, meaning 'student movement']. Stuha consisted of around 45 people from different faculties, who knew each other and trusted each other and planned to organize various student anti-regime actions."

What were your aims - because I think that nobody at that time had any idea that within a year all the communist regimes of Central Europe would collapse like a house of cards?

"The aims were probably a lot more practical - just the ability to spread information among ourselves, because a lot of unofficial demonstrations had been happening since 1988. And then there was a kind of strong feeling that we as students should start to do something as well. We were not very concrete about what it will be. We had no strategic plan. We had just a few ideas and one of them was to organize a demonstration on 17th November. It turned into the biggest demonstration since 1968 or 1969, and finally the demonstration which started the very quick collapse of the Czechoslovakian communists."

Tell me a little bit about the events of that day, because it really has gone down as a milestone in Czech and Slovak history.

"I was not in Prague. That is my very simple answer! I didn't attend the demonstration because I was out of Prague for a few days making some small money as a university student, so I can't comment on it."

November 1989
You must have found out pretty soon what happened - that the students in Narodni Street had been stopped violently by the police and that people had been injured. Did you find out straight away from your friends?

"Not from my friends, because there were no mobile phones, the communications were very limited, the regime controlled basically every means of communication. We found it out through radio - the BBC and Voice of America. I returned back during the weekend because the 17th was a Friday evening, and then, I don't know how, but I somehow found my colleagues from the student network and some other active students, and we started to produce the first statements with the demands of the students."

What happened next? There was a series of further demonstrations, there was a student strike, then a general strike....

"Yes, the students decided, with the cooperation of the actors and theatres, to start the strike from Monday 20th November. The first statements and demands of the students were completed during the night between Sunday and Monday. Then I returned home with the feeling that I had to be aware of the fact that I wouldn't be able to do so again for the next few weeks, because things were getting really serious. Then on Monday my faculty joined the strike with a vote - there was a session of the students and the professors, and all of them, or at least the vast majority, decided that we would join the occupation strike. We got the keys from the dean, the dean left the faculty and the students started to reign the Natural Science Faculty. In the first days we were very much aware that a kind of information war is at stake because the communists tried still to control the television and radio and through their very strong propaganda they tried to control the possible support for the students. But the emotive message that the police had brutally attacked a student demonstration was so strong that it sensitized and mobilized a lot of - let's say - ordinary people, who then joined the massive demonstrations, and the demonstrations turned very soon into the strongly anti-communist, anti-regime demonstration, with one main demand - the end of the leading role of the Communist Party."

And were you afraid at that time - or was there so much euphoria and optimism that you were just riding on a wave?

"The first two days were very tense because the militia - the Communist Party armoured units - started to come in large numbers into Prague and there were rumours that the army maybe will step in, and some of the communist leaders indeed proposed at closed sessions that very strong and heavy power should be used, but I think that after the third or fourth day of the strikes it was clear that they basically can't stop it, that they might send something and they might capture a few dozen people or a few hundred people, but that if they do so another few thousand people will go out into the streets, and they will lose anyway. So it was quite clear in very few days that there was no real danger for us."

By the end of the year the regime had collapsed and Vaclav Havel was president. Unlike some people in similar positions to yourself, you didn't follow a political career.

Logo of the foundation People in Need
"No, I did not follow a political career. There were a few reasons for that. I had a feeling that I was too young. I was 22 years old and had no feeling that it was the right time to start to be a professional politician. That's one thing. Another thing, which is more egoistic, was that I had just got freedom and wanted to travel around the world. I wanted to start some journalistic work, things that were forbidden for me before. So I didn't want to lose my freedom by joining politics at that time. Two years later I basically returned back to public life, being one of the founding members of People in Need, probably the strongest NGO in the Czech Republic."

The work of People in Need is extremely well known both in the Czech Republic and internationally. You have done a great deal to help people in many different situations and many parts of the world. To what extent was your commitment to this work formed at the time of the Velvet Revolution?

"If you have a look at our human rights and democratization department in People in Need, it does the same things in Cuba, Belarus and other places as were done by western countries during communism to the Czech Republic. So we basically carry on the moral duty to continue with very similar work, supporting the opposition, supporting the families of political prisoners, supporting independent journalists in non-democratic countries, because we still remember how important it was for our country that people from abroad helped us."