Gene Sharp, a lifelong advocate of nonviolent resistance whose influence has been cited in social upheavals around the world, died on Sunday. He was 90. His book “From Dictatorship to Democracy” is renowned as a handbook for strategic non-violent protest. It originated in his work with the Burmese opposition and ethnic groups in the early 1990s, and was intended as a blueprint for the liberation of the country from military rule. To mark his passing, The Irrawaddy revisits an interview Gene Sharp gave in March 2011 in which he spoke about why resistance in Burma had failed to dislodge the country’s military rulers.
He has been called the man who toppled Mubarak, a description he says demeans what he sees as a wholly Egyptian uprising against authoritarian rule. Before that, he was the victim of a whispering campaign in which his work was alleged to be a US front for regime change in the guise of citizen uprisings. He calls those allegations “a joke” and reminds that he went to prison in the US for civil disobedience there.
From Dictatorship to Democracy is perhaps his best-known and most-influential work. Renowned as a handbook for strategic non-violent protest around the world, it originated in Dr Sharp’s work with Burmese opposition and ethnic groups in the early 1990s, and was intended as a blueprint for the liberation of the country from military rule.
With the army in control since 1962, and seemingly entrenched behind a parliamentary makeover, the challenges facing activists and opposition groups in Burma are among the most daunting anywhere. Now 83 years old, and with a CV that dates back to working with Norwegian opponents of Nazi/Quisling rule during World War II, Dr Gene Sharp shared his thoughts on the recent events in North Africa and the Middle East with Simon Roughneen, as well as outlining why he believes that resistance in Burma has failed to dislodge the military rulers of that country.
Dr. Sharp, your interest in Burma and the pro-democracy movement there goes back a long way. Can you tell The Irrawaddy readers about the history of your engagement with Burma?
I was brought to Burma by Robert Helvey, a former US military attache in Rangoon, who became sympathetic to the groups opposing the regime, particularly the Karen. I was asked to write some articles for Khit Pyaing, a Burmese and English journal based in Bangkok, and run by the late U Tin Maung Win, and those eventually became part of the publication known as “From Dictatorship to Democracy.” I also visited Manerplaw a few times and met with Burmese exiles in Thailand.
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?
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.
Do you see any change in Burma since the elections last November and the convening of Parliament on Jan 31? Is there now a viable outlet for non-violent opposition to express itself in Burma, without having to take to the streets, without having recourse to some of the methods you have outlined over the years?
I am not sufficiently up to date on the details of the situation to comment, I am sorry.
Moving away from Burma, 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?
It is a big joke. We have had no support from the US government or military or from intelligence agencies. Our office is very small. We have very little money to operate. Someone is trying to discredit the analysis we have offered, and that is all there is to it. Such charges are false.
Some of the critiques of your work, by seeing an external or meddling hand in what might be local or nationally focused events, are themselves guilty of a sort of colonialism of the mind, implying that Burmese or Egyptians or whoever the case may be are incapable of taking action autonomously, or reacting themselves to the conditions in their own country, without a guiding hand from outside.
I think that is a good point, and a key thing to remember when people try to discredit the analysis I offer, which is based on work over decades in many countries, and contact with freedom-loving people in many parts of the world.
Often it is people who believe in violence who attack us, because they want to weaken peoples adherence to non-violence, and to the practical usefulness of a strategy of non-violence. Look at those people and ask what do they offer? Genuine criticism is always welcome, but proffering false charges is ridiculous.
For those who want to make such allegations, to say that I am a tool of the United States government, 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.
Your work has come back into public focus due to events in North Africa and the Middle East. One newspaper headline went as follows: “Gene Sharp, the 83 year old who toppled Egypt.” What is your take on that?
I may or may not have provided some analysis that fed into the actions taken by the people there, I have no confirmation of that, but the Egyptian people deserve the credit for toppling the Mubarak regime, not me.
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?
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.
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?
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.
You have been credited with influencing the actions of thinkers and doers around the world. But who has influenced you?
I have learned from the many people I have met around the world over the decades, but have no single guiding light. I learned from Gandhi, that is, Gandhi as a shrewd political strategist. I learned from the Norwegian resistance against the Quisling fascist government during World War II. I learned from the non-violent resistance undertaken by Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—whose governments also read some of my work. I don’t have any political doctrine, no political messiah, just my own thinking and learning, for the most part.