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power of nonviolence
Shaazka Beyerle and Cynthia Boaz, International Herald Tribune
October 18, 2007
It was not a surprise
that the Burmese junta violently cracked down on the "saffron
revolution." The generals had lost all credibility in the eyes
of their people, and were left with only one tool of control - repression.
But no matter how many
guns and tanks they have, the generals still depend on ordinary
soldiers to do their dirty work. History teaches that once enough
people stop carrying out their orders, or switch sides, the junta's
power will disintegrate.
Through this lens, the
saffron revolution isn't over, it has just begun.
Disobedience is at the
heart of nonviolent struggle. "Even the most powerful cannot
rule without the cooperation of the ruled," Mahatma Gandhi
said. Nonviolent movements succeed not necessarily when there are
masses on the streets, but when enough people withdraw their cooperation,
refuse to obey, and thus undermine the sustainability of the existing
Reports of defiance continue
to leak out of Burma. Dissident sources report that opposition posters
are appearing in public spaces, on prison walls, taped to helium
balloons, and even on river rafts.
Protests are not the
equivalent of a nonviolent movement, but they are one type of nonviolent
tactic. Moreover, "people power" is not an inexplicable
force whereby thousands of citizens suddenly materialize on the
streets and trigger a conversion in the hearts of oppressors.
People power is the sustained,
strategic application of a variety of nonviolent tactics, including
civil disobedience, boycotts, strikes and noncooperation. Gene Sharp,
a student of nonviolence, has documented over 198 kinds of nonviolent
actions, and each successful struggle invents new ones.
The strategic objectives
of nonviolent actions are four-fold. They can disrupt normal functioning
in a city, region or country, thereby making business as usual impossible.
Under Augusto Pinochet's brutal regime in Chile, the opposition
called for a slow-down, and the designated day the majority of Santiago's
residents walked at half speed and drove at half speed, and thus
told the generals that they'd had enough - without putting a single
person at risk.
A Burmese exile with
sources inside Myanmar reported that activists there are "calling
for noncooperation with the regime and for non-attendance of factories
Nonviolent actions, as
Thomas Schelling, a Nobel laureate in economics, pointed out 30
years ago, can also deny an oppressor what it needs, such as money,
food, supplies or manpower.
During the popular revolt
against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, the public withdrew
its money from banks associated with the regime and stopped paying
utility bills. This put real pressure on a cash-starved, mismanaged
economy. Marcos needed money because repression does not come free.
It costs huge sums to feed, transport and arm soldiers, as well
as to buy the loyalty of the top brass and the inner circle.
and action can also undermine the oppressor's pillars of support
- the institutions and groups it needs to retain control - including
the police and military. A Burmese exile reports hearing that Burmese
soldiers are not fully obeying orders and that some are going AWOL,
and that a rift has apparently developed between the two top generals
in the ruling "State Peace and Development Council."
A lesson from past nonviolent
struggles is the importance of communicating a vision of society
based on justice, not revenge, which includes a place for those
who defect from the oppressor's side.
Finally, nonviolent actions
can themselves attract people to the opposition. A growing number
of Myanmar's residents have been turning off their televisions,
and even lights, when the regime's nightly newscast begins, thereby
signaling support for the opposition and disgust for the government.
So if the generals wanted
quiet, they got it - a quiet mobilization with a potential to grow.
Such was the case in Turkey in 1997, when a protest against corruption
that began with people turning off lights ended up with demonstrations
by 30 million.
While in prison, the
Reverend. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: "We know through painful
experience that freedom is never given by the oppressor; it must
be demanded by the oppressed." In Burma, thousands have been
doing and continue to do just that.
* Shaazka Beyerle is
senior advisor at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
Cynthia Boaz is assistant professor of political science and international
studies at the State University of New York at Brockport.
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