By Shaazka Beyerle and Cynthia Boaz
Published: Thursday, 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 system.
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 and offices.”
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.
Nonviolent strategies 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.