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Bringing down dictators in Foreign Policy

With all the excitement on other fronts, we’ve managed to neglect Tina Rosenberg’s extraordinary feature in Foreign Policy on CANVAS, the veterans of the Serbian Otpor! movement who have been teaching strategic nonviolent action to activists around the world—including Egyptians. Let it be neglected no longer. This is a really welcome, in-depth exploration of how resistance movements have been learning and spreading over the last decade, particularly among small, committed groups of young people.

In particular, Rosenberg gives an account of a CANVAS workshop for Burmese students. Here’s a bit of how it went:

Some of the students said they had thought nonviolence meant passivity—morally superior, perhaps, but naive. Popovic framed the task in terms of Sun Tzu: “I want you to see nonviolent conflict as a form of warfare—the only difference is you don’t use arms,” he told them. This was new. He argued that whether nonviolence was moral or not was irrelevant: It was strategically necessary. Violence, of course, is every dictator’s home court. The Otpor founders also knew they could never win wide support with violence—every democracy struggle eventually needs to capture the middle class and at least neutralize the security forces.

Over and over again, Djinovic and Popovic hammered at another myth: that nonviolent struggle is synonymous with amassing large concentrations of people. The Serbs cautioned that marches and demonstrations should be saved for when you finally have majority support. Marches are risky—if your turnout is poor, the movement’s credibility is destroyed. And at marches, people get arrested, beaten, and shot. The authorities will try to provoke violence. One bad march can destroy a movement. Here was a point that had people nodding. “Any gathering in Rangoon is lunacy,” Djinovic said.

It’s a really revealing glimpse into how CANVAS is sharing their experience far and wide. We’re also enjoying Rosenberg’s account of Otpor! in her new book, Join the Club.