Last week, in a great interview with Irradwaddy, a newspaper started in 1993 by Burmese journalists living in exile, Gene Sharp offers his thoughts on the military intervention in Libya and why nonviolent resistance has not yet succeeded in Burma:
Q:Since Tunisia and Egypt, the protests in the region have changed. Libya’s uprising has become an armed revolt. Do you feel that—even with UN Security Council and Arab League support—it is right to intervene in Libya at this juncture?
A: It is not the course of action I would have chosen. I think the Libyan democrats did not do their homework in advance like the Egyptians did—in Egypt, they appeared to have a plan and studied quite some time in advance to develop a program of non-violence without fear, which brought them victory quite quickly. In Libya, this appears not to have been the case. The Libyans have gotten in over their heads, and should have expected the type of repression that Gaddafi is capable of.
People who are realistic about the power of political defiance know that if it is a threat, the regime will see it that way and will fight back. The regime will jail and beat and kill, and that is a sign that what you are doing is threatening the regime.
Dictators can beat you with violence, if you fight on those terms, and of course the rebels cannot defeat the Gaddafi regime on the level of armed force. So they are left to call in help from outside, which cannot give them the empowerment or victory they seek.
Q:Do you think that when legitimate peaceful protest—such as in Burma—is met with state violence, the protesters then have the right to self-defense? To fight back? To seek alliances with sympathizers in the country’s police and army? To appeal for international military support, as the Libyan rebels have done?
A: I think it is an unfortunate choice that people make. It is predictable that your opponent will have the means of violence, the means of oppression. If you get someone else to come and help you, they will come with their interests, and potentially turn your country into a battlefield. Even if they help defeat the oppressor, it will not result in empowerment. People will not be ready to fight the next oppressor who tries to take over the country. In contrast, if the Egyptian military tries again to take control, the people know how to counter this, they have the sense of empowerment, of their own power.
Ultimately, in any non-violent resistance, you have to plan, you have to study. You have to know what the hell you are doing.
I couldn’t agree more and am thrilled that Sharp hasn’t backed this war like so many others in the progressive world. This is exactly the kind of stance that those of us who believe that nonviolence is the most effective way to stop dictators and end repression should be taking.
And here is Sharp’s take on the situation in Burma:
Q: Why in your view has non-violent resistance failed, so far, to undermine military rule in Burma? What are the factors differentiating Burma from recent changes in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as older examples such as the Color Revolutions in the former Soviet bloc, Serbia in 2000 and the Philippines in 1986?
A: I think there are a few explanations for that. For a start, many of the opposition groups, the various nationality groups such as the Karen, Mon and others, they all had their armies and mini-armies, and they thought they would be weakened by departing from those and going over to non-violence, or “political defiance” as it was known in Burma. Other groups, such as the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), had their mini-army, and people in the camps, though temporarily agreeing to switch over to just political defiance, reversed that after a couple of years. All the various armed groups thought they could defeat the Army, but I think that was a foolish judgment on their part, as the Army was bigger and stronger and had more weapons.
The so-called National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, which isn’t really a coalition government at all, with headquarters in Washington DC—not very close to Burma—they had their own ways, they thought, to get independence and defeat the government, but they didn’t show much signs of learning something new.
And, Aung San Suu Kyi, for all her wonderful qualities, and her heroism and inspiration for those who believe in democratic rights and the rights of Burmese people—she is not a strategist, she is a moral leader. That is not sufficient to plan a strategy.
Although “From Dictatorship to Democracy” was written for Burmese, there were no Burmese groups who really took that analysis seriously or used at as a strategy for the liberation of Burma. People got arrested and sent to prison for carrying it, in Burmese and other languages, they could organize very powerful and brave demonstrations in Rangoon and elsewhere, but they did not plan a grand struggle. If you don’t plan, if you don’t have a bigger strategy, you’re not going to win.
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Sharp is nothing if not consistent. Consistency is the privilege of those who insist on clarity about empirical facts, in this case the overwhelming likelihood that challenging a violent regime with insurrectionary violence will fail, as history amply confirms. Alas, there are other political and humanitarian considerations outside the context of a contest between a regime and an opposition movement, such as the risk — once a conflict like this is underway — of witnessing gratuitous carnage visited on large numbers of civilians by a violent regime while it represses a resistance (nonviolent or violent). Obama made the choice that he didn’t want the U.S. to stand by and accept that risk, knowing that failure to act would reap an international whirlwind of criticism. All states with the power to project transnational force live in the shadow of Rwanda, where the failure of outside powers to intervene permitted genocide. That’s a political fact, and historically it’s good that they should regret what happened in Rwanda. The international community should not permit genocide. The U.S. was damned politically if it intervened and damned politically if it didn’t, in Libya.
You don’t think Obama could have got away with pointing to the research quoted in the Walt article, that foreign military intervention doesn’t work? 🙂
In the interview Sharp was asked, “what do you say to conspiracy theorists who allege that your ideas are a convenient intellectual front for US or Western interference or intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states, a sort of power projection masquerading as locally motivated non-violent resistance?”
Needless to say Sharp failed to answer the question, as he views the allegation that his “ideas” are used to promote imperialism as “a big joke.” So instead of answering this question he pleaded financial poverty, and said that: “We have had no support from the US government or military or from intelligence agencies.” While not answering the very specific question he was asked, this response does tell us a little about Sharp’s political acumen and dare I say honesty. I say this because the most recent annual report of his group which is online shows that the Albert Einstein Institution HAS received SUPPORT from government agencies which include the National Endowment for Democracy.
Kim Scipes in his book AFL-CIO’s Secret War Against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lexington Books, 2010) writes that the National Endowment for Democracy “is a product of a shift of US foreign policy from ‘earlier strategies to contain social and political mobilization through a focus on control of the state and governmental apparatus’ to a process of ‘democracy promotion,’ whereby ‘the United States and local elites thoroughly penetrate civil society, and from therein, assure control over popular mobilization and mass movements…’ What this means is that instead of waiting for a client government to be threatened by its people and then responding, US foreign policy shifted to intervening in the civil society of an country ‘of interest’ (as defined by US foreign policy goals) before popular mobilization could become significant, and by supporting certain groups and certain politicians, then channel any potential mobilization in the direction desired by the US Government.” (p.96)
In response to the next question the interviewer asks Sharp, Sharp observes that: “Genuine criticism is always welcome, but proffering false charges is ridiculous.” In this regard, perhaps Sharp would care to respond to my genuine critique of Stephen Zunes’s dangerous misrepresentation of the Filipino people-power movement. http://www.swans.com/library/art17/barker74.html
Further, in a strange attempt to bolster his progressive credentials against what he sees as ridiculous criticisms of his recent work, he reminds people that they “should remember that I spent over 9 months of a two-year prison sentence for civil disobedience and for criticizing the policies of the US government.” One should note that another fellow pragmatic advocate of nonviolence, Ambassador Mark Palmer, has used the same strange “defence” of his progressive credentials by highlighting his former membership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement. Yet surely there is a better way of demonstrating progressive credentials than by drawing upon activist commitments from over half a century ago. Sharp did not go to prison to oppose the war on Libya, Iraq, or Afghanistan, instead much to his credit he “spent nine months in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., as a conscientious objector during the Korean War.”
For more on Mark Palmer’s “peace” activism, see http://www.swans.com/library/art17/barker73.html
Just one more point: Eric why are you so “thrilled that Sharp hasn’t backed” the war on Libya?
Why you are thrilled that one of the world’s leading theorists of nonviolence did not back what is a war on Libya? Surely it would have been obvious that such someone who had dedicated their life to writing about the utility of nonviolence (without considering the utility of violence) would always oppose war?
I’m thrilled because, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts on Libya, other progressives, and even folks in the nonviolence world, like Michael Nagler, are supporting military intervention. I think that is not consistent. But it points to the divide among folks in the nonviolence world. There are those that make exceptions for violence and war and those that do not. I consider myself to be in the latter group.
And as for your previous comment on Sharp, I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop posting things like this on our site. You keep repeating the same things. You keep just linking to your own articles. It’s really getting old.
You can’t ever give the man the benefit of the doubt, which really sucks. It’s amazing to me that you think he is so nefarious and are attacking him of all people.
In previous comments, you’ve seemed to be against military intervention in Libya. So is Sharp. But instead of saying something positive and agreeing with him, you have to jump into your old arguments against him.
Unless you have something genuinely new to say, that isn’t referring to the same stuff you’ve always written, please stop.
Eric, I leave comments on your web site that relate the to posts that are made.
I have decided to take the time to leave comments because your web site notes:
“It’s through conversation that we come closest to the truth. Gandhi spent his life perfecting methods of nonviolent action, which is why he titled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. “Far be it from me to claim any degree of perfection for these experiments,” he wrote. “I claim for them nothing more than does a scientist who, though he conducts his experiments with the utmost of accuracy, forethought and minuteness, never claims any finality about his conclusions, but keeps an open mind regarding them.” We try to do the same when writing about other people’s experiments with truth and invite others—including activists, scholars, students, and critics, as well as those just discovering nonviolence—to leave constructive comments and submit posts of their own.”
With regard my latest criticisms about Gene Sharp, I am not “repeating the same things”; I explicitly addressed the responses made by Sharp in his latest interview (which you posted today). Furthermore, the two articles I linked to were written in the last couple of months (and were first published on March 14 and February 28, 2011 respectively). Seeing as you do not like me providing supporting evidence for my arguments I will not provide such evidence in future posts I make.
I would be grateful if you could explain to me why my current criticism of Sharp is not valid.
We welcome constructive comments, but not the same points being made over and over. While your articles are new, they are not about Sharp, but critiques of Zunes and Mark Palmer, who I’ve never heard of. And you keep using the same arguments to critique Sharp. Namely pointing to his receiving funds from the NED at some point.
Do you how much he got or what they were used for? What year he received them? And does that mean that he is somehow beholden to them? Does that discredit his research, his analysis about the nature of power and how nonviolent resistance works?
And more to the point of timeliness, did you just discover this bit of info within the last month or two or have you been using it to try to discredit him for years? If I remember correctly, this is not a new revelation for you. So unless you discover something new that proves that Sharp has nefarious motives, that he’s getting rich off this stuff, I would ask that you stop saying the same thing, which I find insulting.
From time to time I read your comments on here and I very much agree with Eric – many of them seem to be arguing over and over the same point: that Gene Sharp (and by extension most anyone promoting his ideas regarding the utility of nonviolent action) must somehow be in the service of the United States government. This you base on the fact that at some point in time Dr. Sharp received money from organizations who themselves, at some point in time, received money from the Government. I would like to point out that there are a lot of nonprofit organizations fitting that description, and to imply that this fact makes them all simply covert fronts for advancing US interests seems very facile, and frankly tiring to read.
This is only compounded by the fact that the majority of your comment was in no way referencing the substance of Eric’s article. It comes off like you’re merely looking for excuses to once again trot out the same tired arguments, and promote the same types of “anti-imperialist” authors. If there is one thing I normally associate with imperialism it is its overwhelming reliance upon violent means. It consistently strikes me as ironic and unfortunate that so much work is being done on the part of yourself and a few others to discredit a man who’s spent the better part of the past 60 years arguing against the utility of violence – the main tactic of imperialism.
Let me ask you whether you think Gene Sharp was happier to see a nonviolent movement overthrow Milošević (himself at odds with the US) than he was to see a similar nonviolent movement overthrow Mubarak (a dictator that the US liked). If not, then what exactly are you trying to say? In my opinion, consistent with what he’s been writing for so long, I’m pretty sure Dr. Sharp is happy to see dictatorships fall whether they’re friendly to US interests or not.
Finally, allow me to clear up the last part you were confused about. Dr. Sharp has never claimed to be a “theorist of nonviolence,” as you put it. Nonviolence in Sharp’s opinion refers only to the principled belief that violence is never the answer. Instead, what Dr. Sharp has spent his entire career researching and promoting is nonviolent action – something in no way synonymous with dogmatic opposition to war.
Given this fact, I believe that Eric was merely happy that Dr. Sharp – a proponent of nonviolent action – did not go the same route as Michael Nagler, who himself has always been very much in favor not only of nonviolent action, but also of principled nonviolence. This distinction is important, particularly when it comes to the views that one would expect proponents of each to hold regarding something like military intervention in Libya.
You go on to write that Dr. Sharp has spent his life “writing about the utility of nonviolence.” Again, his work centers on the utility of nonviolent action (NOT nonviolence). And to claim that he doesn’t consider the utility of violence quite honestly completely maligns the man’s work. How can anyone effectively argue for the utility of anything without also arguing against the utility of its counterpart? Dr. Sharp has in fact very articulately argued against the utility of violence – both implicitly and explicilty – in virtually every single thing he’s written. If you haven’t yet taken the time to read anything by him, which from your incorrect characterization of his work I assume you haven’t, I suggest you do so before continuing on with your by now extremely well-worn line of argumentation.
Thanks, Will—lots of great points here.
And Michael, please do keep supporting your claims, so far as you make them, with evidence. We’re all for that.
Thanks for your reply.
Please could you help me, as I am not familiar with the US nonprofits that have received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy? You note that “ there are a lot…” of them and I was surprised by this statement.
Imperialism is clearly not just reliant upon violence.
Yes, Gene Sharp was very happy that his group could assist Otpor and the National Endowment for Democracy to overthrow the US unfriendly leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Yes, Gene Sharp was very happy that his friends at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) assisted the Egyptian uprising in May 2007, an uprising which eventually ousted the US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak. One should however note that years ago the US government clearly did recognize that rising popular resistance in Egypt meant that Mubarak might eventually have to be replaced (much like they recognized that the US-backed Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines had to be replaced by a suitably pliant “democratic” figurehead for US power). Thus in the past five years, the US government, acting through the bipartisan National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has been “assisting” the overthrow movement in Egypt.
My reference to Gene Sharp’s commitment to nonviolence only echoes those made by other scholars of nonviolence, like for example ICNC advisor Brian Martin who last year wrote: “Sharp is the world’s leading nonviolence researcher.”
The NED operates by intervening in the civil society of interest (as defined by US foreign policy goals) BEFORE popular mobilization becomes developed so as to channel potential mobilization in the direction desired by the US government. In other words, it seeks out important people and organizations in civil society, and tries to enmesh them in NED networks and operations so as to limit their ability to coalesce with other local allies in meaningful and independent (i.e., self-determining) ways, and which also raises questions about trustworthiness among allies and potential allies concerning the NED-affiliated organizations’ operations. This is not to say that connection with the NED is automatically “evil,” but it raises serious questions, and requires affiliated organizations to consciously act on their own defined interests and not those of the NED.
Barker is back, flacking his paint-by-numbers, guilt-by-association theories. But perhaps in his swipe at Eric, he reveals his real motive: He seems to dislike the fact that Sharp hasn’t considered “the utility of violence.” Others have, and the news isn’t good for Barker: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/IS3301_pp007-044_Stephan_Chenoweth.pdf But what I’d really like to hear is Barker’s defense of that icon of social justice, Colonel Qaddafi. The latter had already made war on initially nonviolent resisters before NATO got involved.
This US Government that Michael talks about seems pretty smart. Amazingly forward thinking too. Everything that happens, anywhere in the world, has been planned in advance by them. Even hundreds of thousands of people standing in Kiev for 2 weeks in the middle of winter; Egyptians daring to take on Mubarak, and now I discover they were the ones mobilising the poor in the Philippines to overthrow their own ‘mate’, Ferdinand Marcos. Pope Benedict XVI will be relieved to hear it wasn’t those commie Catholic priests and nuns after all!
Sharp states that the success of the protests in Egypt was due solely to the Egyptian movement doing their homework, while the Libyan protest had not.
Success in Egypt was due in large part to the military, which to a large degree supported, and then came over to the sides of the protest. They probably acted behind the scenes to persuade Mubarak to step down. In Libya the military splintered; enough members of the military defected that it would seem that many were trying to do what happened in Egypt–but without success to the far greater intractability of Gadaffi.
It takes only one side to make a war, two sides to make peace. Successful peace never happens when only one faction wants peace.