Want to learn the tools of nonviolent action from the leaders of a movement that actually brought down a brutal dictator, and earn a real academic degree in the process?
That is exactly what Srdja Popovic hopes to offer at “Democracy Island,” a campus in the Maldive Islands “where activists can study nonviolent resistance amid coconut trees, white sand, and lagoons the color of Cool Mint Listerine,” according to a great profile of him by Nicholas Schmidle in the March-April issue of Mother Jones.
For those that aren’t familiar with Popovic, he was one of the leaders of Otpor (“Resistance”), the nonviolent movement that forced Slobodan Milosevic from power in Serbia in 2000.
After that incredible victory, Popovic served as an member of Serbia’s parliament and in 2004 co-founded the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) in Belgrade to “give pro-democracy activists the nitty-gritty tools for nudging intransigent leaders and, if necessary, toppling governments without firing a shot.” Since its start, CANVAS has been busy, training activists in:
…Georgia, Ukraine, and Lebanon who went on to lead the Rose, Orange, and Cedar revolutions, respectively. CANVAS staff has also worked with activists from Azerbaijan, Palestine, Egypt, Western Sahara, Zimbabwe, and Burma.
Now Popovic has his sights set on starting Democracy Island, which grew out of his:
…recent success in the Maldives, where, in 2008, a former political prisoner named Mohamed Nasheed defeated the country’s longtime strongman in a multiparty election held after three years of nonviolent agitation. CANVAS had worked closely with Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party, and in gratitude, the 42-year-old president has agreed to help it and a handful of environmental and human rights NGOs establish a campus in the archipelago.
Besides attracting rabble-rousers, Popovic wants Democracy Island to be a legitimate academic institution where Maldivian and foreign scholars, activists, and politicians can get a master’s degree in nonviolent political change.
While the article says that this school of nonviolence could get off the ground this spring, if everything goes according to plan, a quick google search doesn’t turn up much about the project. So, if you’re itching to get on that first roster, it unfortunately doesn’t appear to be up and running quite yet. (We’ll try to get more details on how things are developing and report back soon.)
My only concern is with the long-term viability of anything in the Maldives, which are already sinking, and could be completely submerged by the end of the century, due to rising ocean levels caused by climate change.
Interestingly, Schmidle also asks Popovic about those on the fringe who accuse his organization and other proponents of nonviolent action, like Gene Sharp and the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, of working in cahoots with the US government to help overthrow regimes it dislikes.
…Popovic says such claims are baseless. Not only would American support jeopardize CANVAS’s nonpartisan stance, but for him, it’s personal: In 1999, NATO warplanes bombed the Belgrade offices of Serbian state TV, where his mother was an editor. She wasn’t there that evening, but 16 of her coworkers were killed. “Do you think I would ever collaborate with the government that tried to kill my mom?” he once asked.
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It’s an exaggeration for Mother Jones to imply that any foreign group was a decisive factor in the change of government from former president Gayoom’s authoritarian rule. Reportedly Popovic’s organization did a few basic workshops on nonviolent action for Maldivian civil society and MDP activists. Those were undoubtedly helpful, but workshops do not make a revolution. The larger reality also includes these other factors: Amnesty International and other human rights organizations had been gradually raising the pressure on Gayoom’s regime, which had long suppressed political dissent, that the UK was applying pressure for a democratic transition, and that the elderly Gayoom was faced with a choice: He could gracefully accept defeat in the Maldives’ first internationally monitored election and retire with his fortune intact (which was his choice), or he could be sanctioned by the EU and other governments. The latter would have squeezed the Maldivian economy and thus the income of Gayoom’s cronies who own islands where resorts are located (a huge fraction of the country’s income depends on European tourism). Moreover, the pressure from indigenous protest groups was broad-based and not limited to the MDP, and while they surely benefited from learning about nonviolent action, they should get more credit than any foreign groups for the role of bottom-up agitation in the transition.
I’m not sure that it was Mother Jones’ intention to say CANVAS was the decisive factor. I read it as saying just that they were there and did play a role, and are now being rewarded for that. And like Justin said below, I would really be surprised if Popovic or his organization would claim to have played that key of a role either. But perhaps that could have or should have been spelled out more clearly in the article so that readers unfamiliar with this stuff wouldn’t read into it.
That said, I’m very interested in the rest of your comment, and would love to learn more about that movement. I really only read a couple articles on it. If you’d like to write something for our site on it, if you can find a news hook, that would be great. You’d also be welcome to write on any other issue that might fit on this site, since you seem to have a deep knowledge of this stuff. Let’s stay in touch.
Agreed Tom, and something that Popovic and the folks at CANVAS and ICNC would absolutely agree with as well. They are always keen to emphasise the local resistance (as one ICNC staffer said to me, “you try getting 250,000 Ukrainians to stand in -20 degrees for weeks on end with a few cash bribes, and let me know how you go!”
I more or less agree with Tom too….. while it sounds amazing to me to study nonviolence on a tropical island it seems really distanced from real issues activists face. The idea also sounds so close to corporate conference-vacations that I wonder if activists are just feeling the lack of those mainstream perks, rather than seeing an opportunity to change the system.
I take issue with the commercialization of nonviolent movements as a business and locating such a school in the middle of remote tropical islands that cost thousands of dollars just to get to. How might the “real activists” working at the grassroots in remote and urban areas of their own countries find the resources to attend such an elitist institution? What does sipping drinks under coconut trees have to do with the social, economic, and political struggles of ordinary people around the world. While I think the education of nonviolent resistance in an academic and practical manner is essential, I find this particular implementation distasteful and far from the point of what nonviolent movements are all about.
At first I had similar thoughts, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. The Maldives was scene of a recent nonviolent movement that brought down a dictator. Moreover, it is at the forefront of the struggle against climate change. So its location there is not without reason.
And I don’t think there is any place in the world that would be centrally located for activists. For example, I live in New York City. If such a school were to be located here, I would seriously wonder how activists would survive financially. I’m sure the cost of living in the Maldives is far cheaper.
That said, it would definitely be wise for them to raise money for scholarships for folks who couldn’t afford the travel. That is what the Masters program that I participated in in Spain did. They used tuition from students from the West to provide full-ride scholarship for folks from the developing world, which made for a very diverse program. There were about 80 students in my class from nearly 40 countries, and it was definitely hearing their perspectives that was most valuable to me.