Examining Non-state Stakeholders’ Role in Modern Nonviolent Conflict

The article was published in The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Summer 2022 edition:

 

Abstract

 

This essay addresses some of the challenges that nonviolent activist movements encounter when navigating non-state stakeholders, including violent groups and transnational corporations. It argues that as the more successful strategy to wage conflict, contemporary nonviolent movements track non-state stakeholders’ fluctuating loyalties and leverage methods of protest, boycott, civil disobedience, and noncooperation in order to secure small wins. The essay provides insight into two movements in Iraq and Myanmar and breaks down how each group engaged non-state stakeholders and used nonviolent tactics to garner support and enact meaningful democratic change.

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

Since the end of the Cold War, power continues to be devolved from the state and into the hands of non-state stakeholders including militias, extremist groups, and international corporations. Some of the particularly violent stakeholders, such as those in Iraq, developed into extended and highly unaccountable arms of a military. In other scenarios, wealthy individuals and global corporations have scaled to compete with the state in monetary terms by leveraging their investments to influence geopolitics in their favor. Nonviolent activists know better than most that this dispersion of power has greatly altered the political landscape, and that non-state stakeholders must be skillfully navigated to guarantee victory.

This essay examines how nonviolent movements pivot their strategies to achieve democratic change and considers the rise of non-state stakeholders to positions of power. While subscribing to the core methods of strategic nonviolent struggle, the essay compares how movements in Iraq and Myanmar are utilizing non-state stakeholders’ newfound power to achieve positive change.

Part One provides context on the method of strategic nonviolent struggle and why, even in the face of violent repression, it is more likely to result in sustainable change compared to a violent strategy. Part Two discusses the challenge that movements face in navigating non-state stakeholders due to the nature of these actors’ loyalties. This section also compares how activists in Iraq and Myanmar tracked non-state stakeholder’s loyalties over time to identify ripe moments to secure wins for the cause. Despite a difference in context, this essay concludes that the scenarios in Iraq and Myanmar illustrate how a nonviolent approach that carefully navigates non-state stakeholders is the key to achieving democratic change—even in the face of unimaginable violence.

WHY NONVIOLENCE WORKS

The success of nonviolent resistance challenges conventional thinking, which assumes that political violence is the most effective way for a resistance campaign to challenge an adversary and achieve its goals. As a civilian-based method, strategic non-violence leverages social, psychological, economic, and political means to challenge an adversary without the threat or use of violence.[1] Hundreds of methods of nonviolent resistance—including economic boycotts, labor strikes, public protests, non-cooperation, and nonviolent intervention—have been recorded by scholars and are employed regularly to mass mobilize populaces as means to assert political pressure and delegitimize adversaries.[2]

History even favors nonviolence as the choice method of resistance over that of a violent strategy. According to The Nonviolent and Violent Conflicts Outcome (NAVCO) 1.3 Data Set (an initiative including comparative data on 622 global resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2019) movements that adopt a nonviolent strategy are successful 52 percent of the time.[3] The achievements of nonviolent movements starkly differ to violent resistance campaigns, which have so far only been successful 39 percent of the time.[4]

Still, some contemporary scholars and activists have argued that political violence is a legitimate tool that activists should employ, particularly in the face of repression.[5] Nevertheless, the strategic logic behind nonviolent resistance reaffirms the method’s superiority. Many who argue in favor of violent tactics have claimed that nonviolence is a “Western” technique and that those who advocate for its application fail to consider risks involved with the strategy.[6] Some also argue that using methods of unarmed violence, like launching Molotov cocktails or throwing rocks, is effective for achieving short-term change due to a lack of other mechanisms at a groups’ disposal, such as elections.[7] Other activists claim that they’ve found a balance in establishing fringe groups in their movement who successfully employ unarmed violence in tandem with nonviolent actions.[8]

While it may be possible that the adoption of unarmed violent tactics resulted in short-term change for some movements, there is little evidence to suggest that the use of these tactics is effective for enacting long-term democratization. This is because when a resistance movement adopts a violent strategy, they are challenging their adversary in an area where their adversary maintains the upper hand.[9]

Adversaries (whether they are a corporation, military, or extremist group) have wielded violence to uphold what Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist, refers to as structural violence.[10] Unlike direct violence, which Galtung defines as the “physical harming [of] other humans with intention,” structural violence is the driving force behind social systems which prevent part of the population from meeting their basic needs, causing premature death as a result of exclusion, neglect, and poverty.[11] In modern societies, structural violence tends to manifest as institutionalized colonialism, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, elitism, and nationalism. Galtung argues further that those stakeholders who benefit from structural violence rely on widespread direct violence, such as police violence or disinformation, to maintain their position of power.[12]

The theory of structural violence highlights a key reason for why adopting violence is unwise: a movement’s adversary has had many years of experience in using violence as a tool to stay in power. This means that in most scenarios, a movement’s adversaries will have an absolute advantage in a violent strategy from both a material and structural perspective.

WHAT ARE NON-STATE STAKEHOLDERS AND HOW DO WE CONCEPTUALIZE THEIR LOYALTIES?

Non-state stakeholders are entities that are not directly funded by the sitting government of the state from which they operate. In real terms, high net-wealth individuals, multinational corporations, non-governmental organizations, militias, and nonviolent movements are among some of the entities that fall under the category of “non-state stakeholders.” Some of the more powerful non-state stakeholders tend to operate with a large degree of impunity as they have superseded the authority of a sitting government.[13] While countries have combined their resources to develop a global system of justice through the establishment of entities like the United Nations or international courts, powerful non-state actors persistently subvert accountability for international crimes.[14] Groups operating with impunity can be highly problematic for nonviolent movements as they can lead to unchecked repression targeting activists or result in a non-state stakeholder becoming the lifeline of the movement’s adversary.[15]

In order to overcome the conundrum of non-state stakeholders, successful activists have broken down non-state stakeholders according to their loyalties and created campaigns that aim to shift some of those loyalties to the movement’s cause. Loyalty in this scenario may be thought of as both an emotion and a set of behaviors.[16] Similar to emotions like love or sorrow, individuals can be loyal to multiple things at once and their expression of loyalty manifests in myriad forms. An individual’s loyalty to something or someone may also shift radically if a superior alternative comes along.[17]

This approach for conceptualizing loyalty alignments is congruent with the logic of strategic nonviolent struggle. This approach humanizes the individuals within a non-state stakeholder by asking: “what are those individual people loyal to as it relates to being part of that non-state stakeholder and why?” Therefore, instead of approaching a non-state stakeholder as an institution, activists view them as a large group of individuals. Each of those individuals, a human, is loyal to a variety of things, such as their families, their religion and their job.[18] The goal for activists is to acknowledge these loyalties and present individuals that constitute the stakeholder with a beneficial alternative, such as gaining freedom of expression or earning more money.[19]

 

Navigating Non-state Stakeholders to Achieve Victory

To complement the theory, we will now examine two examples of nonviolent movements that successfully navigate non-state stakeholders. The first example in Iraq conveys the importance for movements to act on individual’s loyalties when the prospect of winning the support of an entire non-state stakeholder group is not possible. The latter example in Myanmar examines how a boycott and divestment campaign tracked several non-state stakeholders’ fluctuating loyalties to apply sustained pressure and eventually, win over their support. In both cases, activists were faced with a choice between adopting a nonviolent or violent strategy to achieve their goals; activists in both cases chose nonviolence in the face of violent adversaries and yielded victories for their causes.

Iraq:

Popular discontent over poor living standards, unemployment and insecurity had been simmering in Iraq’s Shia Muslim majority areas during summer 2019, including the capital city Baghdad and across the oil-rich southern governorates. It had been one of Iraq’s hottest summers and despite generous oil revenues, most low to middle income Iraqis lacked clean running water and a sustained source of electricity. The situation boiled over in September 2019 when security forces violently dispersed a peaceful student sit-in outside the Prime Minister’s office in Baghdad using a water cannon.[20] Coordinated demonstrations surged across the capital and in the south; protesters were met regularly with live ammunition by the country’s Hashd al-Shaabi formations, an umbrella of militias that were originally mobilized to combat ISIS.[21] Several of the Hashd’s more powerful militias are loyal to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Force, both ideologically and monetarily, and have affiliations with Iraqi political parties.[22]

The coordination among activists grew more sophisticated as more took to the streets, particularly following the former Prime Minister Adel Abdil Mahdi’s decision to transfer a commander Abdel-Wahad al-Saadi from the elite Iraqi Counter Terror Service to the Defense Ministry.[23] Seen as one of Iraq’s core war heroes in the fight against ISIS, al-Saadi was celebrated, particularly among Shia young men. While his promotion was executed by Prime Minister Madhi, al-Saadi’s followers perceived his demotion as an act of political coercion stemming from the Hashd’s powerful pro-Iran militias, and thereby an act of foreign influence from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.[24]

Protest participation surged once more, as activists began occupying public squares in Baghdad and the southern governorate capitals. In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, protesters developed methods to communicate their demands, including a newspaper publication known as “Tuk-tuk,” named in honor of the local motorized taxi drivers known for bravely transporting wounded demonstrators to hospitals.[25] The movement also broadened its membership, inviting Iraqi women to join its leadership ranks. Participation surged once more with numbers reaching up to 100,000 in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square as hundreds of women took to the streets.[26]

To challenge the Iranian-aligned militias’ loyalties and persuade them to join the cause, protesters focused on a commonality among the support base’s loyalties: national pride. The demands, though arguably vague, included a stop to all foreign intervention in Iraq, whether it be Iranian or Western, fresh elections and an end to the country’s “status quo” of corruption, high unemployment, sectarianism, and violence.[27]

Fringe groups using unarmed violent tactics popped up, particularly in the South. They burned down the Iranian consulate general in Najaf as crowds chanted “death to Khamenei,” the Iranian Grand Ayatollah.[28] Iranian-aligned militias reacted aggressively, employing indiscriminate live ammunition, and launched Iranian-supplied military-grade tear gas, killing over 500 protesters.[29] Between December 2019 and August 2020 the militias proactively kidnapped and assassinated activists, namely female activists, to condemn their participation.

As a reaction to the militias becoming more entrenched in their loyalties, Iraqi protesters began to focus on chipping away at the militia’s source of manpower by persuading young disenfranchised, unemployed men to join the cause instead of the militias’ ranks.[30] When threatened by powerful clerics over gender integration in the streets, protesters held hands in the square and covered public spaces with drawings of martyrs and Iraqi women resisting.[31] This strategy enabled activists to forgo focusing on pulling the militias to their side altogether and instead appealed to the loyalties of individual fighters or prospect fighters.

As the protests raged, the Iraqi parliament pushed through electoral reform legislation in late 2019, changing the system from a proportional system to a single non-transferrable system.[32] Though imperfect, the change allowed for voters to select individual candidates over party lists. The legislation also reserved a quarter of the total 251 seats for women.[33]Still, the protests pressed on, with corruption and foreign influence remaining. On February 11, 2021, activists demonstrated the true influence of their actions after the powerful Iraqi Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr dissolved his “Blue Caps” militia. This was in response to protester demands over viral videos displaying the militia members killing dozens of protesters in Najaf to reopen roads.[34] The appetite to appease the movement reflected the protesters’ adjustment to appeal to Iraqi-aligned militia members’ loyalties to their country. In May 2021, the protesters’ campaigns over the Iranian militia’s kidnapping and assassination intimidation campaign also yielded a small win after the head of the Iranian aligned al-Anbar militia Qasim Muslin was arrested for playing a role in the death of two kidnapped activists.[35]

The movement’s true success shone through the parliamentary elections in fall 2021. The Iran-aligned militias’ Fatah Alliance lost ground in Parliament, relinquishing 31 seats. Meanwhile, Iraqi women- including two women representing the ethno-national minorities in Iraq, surpassed the established quota and won 97 seats.[36] Iran-aligned militias deemed the results as illegitimate and threatened to escalate their violence. Instead, the Iraqi Supreme Court ratified election results in December 2021.[37]

While the results may appear to be small victories, these extraordinary developments represent a

demotion in the militias’ power, a condemnation of their use of violence and an endorsement for the Iraqi state’s inclusion of women and minority groups. This progress was achieved as a result of the activist movement acknowledging that the Iranian militias’ loyalties were unlikely to shift in their favor. Instead, they made a conscious decision to appeal to the loyalties of young Iraqis and persuade them to join the nonviolent cause over the militias.

Myanmar:

 

On November 8, 2020, Myanmar’s National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the national elections. The elections were a major step forward on the path to democratization.[38] Nevertheless, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) declared the results as illegitimate on February 1, 2021, and launched a coup d’état against the elected government. Established activist groups, professional unions and civil servants quickly mobilized to form the “Civil Disobedience Movement” that aimed to garner broad support from across the country.[39] The goal was straightforward: to execute a national labor strike and bring the economy, and the Tatmadaw’s sources of financing, to a full stop.[40]

While the United States and its European counterparts began imposing economic sanctions on the Tatmadaw’s revenue streams, Myanmar’s liquified natural gas (LNG) industry remained untouched. Lobbying by companies with direct investments in the country, including the French oil and gas venture TotalEnergies (Total) and the US-owned Chevron Corporation (Chevron ensured smooth operations in the LNG sector).[41] The Civil Disobedience Movement recognized that by not sanctioning the LNG activities, the Tatmadaw would still maintain a strong source of revenue.[42]

The movement set about winning over non-state stakeholders’ support, convincing them to divest from the Myanmar LNG pipeline connecting the offshore Yadana Gas field to Thailand.[43] Activists mapped out Total and Chevron’s loyalties and deduced that profit and brand reputation were the critical assets that both companies were most loyal to. The Civil Disobedience Movement then worked with supporters abroad to develop the “Stop Buying Juna Business” boycott and divestment campaign, while also pulling both companies’ workers at the Yadana gas field into the nationwide labor strike on February 11, 2021.[44] LGN workers posted pictures from the offshore platforms calling on both companies to condemn Tatmadaw’s growing list of human rights violations against nonviolent protesters.[45] TotalEnergies promptly responded to the strike and calls to divest claiming that they would not stop producing gas on the Yadana Fields “in part to protect employees from those who might otherwise risk repercussions from the military junta.”[46]

Over the next 30 days, international pressure mounted as global news agencies, such as Reuters, published lists of foreign companies with direct ties to the Tatmadaw and acts of protest and civil disobedience which directly targeted these companies’ offices began to pop up.[47] In Washington D.C., American activists staged a demonstration outside of Chevron’s local office and took turns whacking a pinata adorned with a picture of the company’s primary lobbyist responsible for aggressively working to keep the US from sanctioning Myanmar’s energy industry.[48] This dilemma action targeted Chevron’s loyalty to its profit and identified the absurdity of its actions to protect that profit while directly funding the violent military junta. In May, an activist covered the façade of the national Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise’s headquarters with red paint, brandishing slogans demanding that Chevron and Total withdraw from the country, otherwise risking more Burmese blood being spilled.[49]

By the end of May 2021, sustained, albeit small scale protests, had popped up at numerous Chevron refineries in the US and at Total offices in Europe.[50] The campaign managed to impose enough upward political pressure on Chevron and Total that on May 27, 2021, the energy giants jointly suspended cash distributions derived from the Yadana gas venture to the Tatmadaw junta. The decision followed a joint vote by both companies’ shareholders.[51] The suspension marked an important step in the shift of the energy companies’ loyalties, as it signaled that they were unwilling to risk their reputation and potentially, their profit, if the boycott and divestment campaign grew stronger. With a combined 59.24 percent share in the offshore project, the act partially fulfilled The Civil Disobedience Movement’s goal to cut off financial support to the Tatmadaw.[52]

Amidst sustained nonviolent campaigns, including continued direct action targeting both companies, the energy giants halted all operations and withdrew from the Yadana gas venture on January 21, 2022, citing human rights abuses and a deteriorating rule of law as a direct result of Tatmadaw’s coup d’état.[53]

CONCLUSION

Non-state stakeholders, ranging from high net wealth individuals to violent extremist groups, will continue to emerge onto the political scene and challenge traditional sources of political power like standing governments, militaries, and international courts. The cases in Iraq and Myanmar demonstrate how those non-state stakeholders which manage to supersede a domestic government may act with high levels of impunity in using violence against civilians, or in maintaining business ventures that directly fund entities accused of committing war crimes. This shift in the political landscape presents a particularly complex challenge for nonviolent movements that aim to pull as many individuals as possible to their side because powerful non-state stakeholders exist outside of the system already attempting to democratize. For several movements, such as those in Iraq and Myanmar, tracking and appealing to individuals’ loyalties who collectively make up a non-state stakeholder has proven fruitful in realizing their goals.

Successfully tracking loyalties as a means to navigate the rise in non-state stakeholders will be critical for those movements seeking to enact meaningful change in constituencies especially where extremist groups have established viable alternatives to government systems. Despite their extremist ideologies, groups like Al-Shabaab in Somalia or the Islamic State-Khorasan in Afghanistan, are able to govern territories because they provide core services in the absence of the central government, such as security and clean water delivery. The populations they govern therefore, have accepted their ruling in order to survive. In other scenarios, such as Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, large-scale corporations’ boycott and divestment from those abusing human rights may prove to be a powerful tipping point in a movement’s ability to apply political pressure on its adversary. Activists’ ability to influence large-scale divestments may be achieved by appealing to the loyalties of the core decision makers within these corporate non-state stakeholders.

To work in parallel with activists’ strategy in appealing to loyalties, policy makers must meaningfully engage and endorse nonviolent movements as the legitimate voice of the people. Further, by applying economic sanctions on individuals within militias, extremist groups, or corporations who either monetarily support or directly repress nonviolent activism, the international community will aid in democratically diffusing power to the people.

[1] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2014), 18.

[2] Gene Sharp, 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action, Albert Einstein Institution, 1973.

[3] Erica Chenoweth and Christopher Wiley Shay, List of Campaigns in NAVCO 1.3 – NAVCO Data Project, V1 (2020), distributed by Harvard Dataverse, https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/ON9XND.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See: Brent Simpson, Robb Willer, and Matthew Feinberg, “Does Violent Protest Backfire? Testing a Theory of Public Reactions to Activist Violence,” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 4 (January): 1-14.; Daniel Q Gillion, The Loud Minority : Why Protests Matter in American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).; Isaac Chotiner, “How Violent Protests Change Politics,” The New Yorker, May 29, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-violent-protests-change-politics.; Tonya Mosley and Allison Hagan, “Violence As A Form Of Protest | Here & Now,” Wbur, June 11, 2020, https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/06/11/voilence-protests-racial-justice.; John Morreall, “The Justifiability of Violent Civil Disobedience,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 6 (1) (March 1976): 35-47.

[6] Mosley and Hagan, “Violence As A Form Of Protest.””

[7] Interview with Hong Kongese activists, July 9, 2021.

[8] Austin Ramzy, “In Hong Kong, Unity Between Peaceful and Radical Protesters. For Now,” The New York Times, September 27, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/27/world/asia/hong-kong-protests-violence.html.

[9] Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 22–24.

[10] Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6 (3) (1969): 175-179.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” 183.

[13] Sabine C. Carey, Michael P. Colaresi, and Neil J. Mitchell, “Governments, Informal Links to Militias, and Accountability,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 59 (5) (2015): 850-876; Stéfanie Khoury, “Corporate (Non-)Accountability and Human Rights,” Asian Journal of Social Science46 (4/5) (2018): 503-523.

[14] Ore Koren, “Means to an End: Pro-Government Militias as a Predictive Indicator of Strategic Mass Killing,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 34 (5) (2017): 461–84.; Khoury, “Corporate (Non-)Accountability,” 2018).

[15] For detailed examples in Iraq and Myanmar, see Marija Ristic, Ivan Angelovski, and Maja Zivanovic, “‘Epic’ Serbian Arms Deal Led to Pierced Skulls in Baghdad | Balkan Insight,” Balkan Insight, December 13, 2019, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/12/13/epic-serbian-arms-deal-led-to-pierced-skulls-in-baghdad/.; Manny Maung, “Myanmar Atrocities Show Need for International Action,” Human Rights Watch,  December 15, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/12/15/myanmar-atrocities-show-need-international-action.

[16] For theories on how loyalty is considered an emotion versus a behavior, see: James Connor, The Sociology of Loyalty, 9–34. (New York: Springer, 2007); Robert C. Solomon and Lori D Stone, “‘On “Positive” and “Negative” Emotions,’” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 32 (4) (2002): 417–35; Jack Katz, How Emotions Work (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999).; Morton Grodzins, The Loyal and the Disloyal: Social Boundaries of Patriotism and Treason (Cleveland: Morton Books, 1956).

[17] Katz, How Emotions Work.; Connor, The Sociology of Loyalty.

[18] Connor, The Sociology of Loyalty, 222–24; Grodzins, The Loyal and the Disloyal, 82–86.

[19] Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works.

[20] “In Baghdad, All Bridges Lead to Revolution,” Al-Wasat, November 7, 2019, http://alwasat.ly/news/arabic/263236.

[21] “The Popular Mobilization Forces Admit to Shooting Protesters on the Night of the ‘al-Khilani Massacre,’” Al-Quds, December 9, 2019, t.ly/q5BR.; “Protests Erupt in Iraq against the American Targeting of the ‘Hashd,’ Abdul-Mahdi Threatens to Review the Relationship with the International Coalition,” Al Jazeera, December 31, 2019, t.ly/IcF4.

[22] For an excellent overview of the Hashd al-Shaabi’s structure and operating model, see: The Hashd and Politics from Iraq’s Paramilitary Groups: The Challenge of Rebuilding a Functioning State, International Crisis Group, July 30, 2018.

[23] Mustafa Saadoun, “Iran’s Influence Seen in Transfer of Iraqi War Hero,” Al-Monitor, October 4, 2019, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2019/10/iraq-protests-abdul-wahab-al-saadi.html.

[24] Ibid.; Mizar Kamal, “A Women’s Revolution in the Iraqi Streets: We Will Win!” Daraj, October 30, 2019, https://daraj.com/23324/.

[25] “Iraqi Protesters’ Newspaper Aspires to Be a Means of Change,” Reuters, November 20, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/idARAL8N2802YD.

[26] Mass Al-Qaisi, “Women Become the Icon of Iraqi Protests,” Al-Ithtijaj, March 8, 2020, https://alihtijaj.com/view.php?cat=1140.; Kamal, “A Women’s Revolution”; Dr. Ilham Makki, “The October Demonstrations Are a Turning Point in the Iraqi Feminist Movement,” Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 2020, t.ly/hfus.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “The Protest Scene after Protesters Burn down the Iranian Consulate General in Najaf,” Enab Baladi, November 28, 2019, https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/345572.

[29] Saadoun, “Iran’s Influence Seen.”

[30] Makki, “The October Demonstrations.”; Saadoun, “Iran’s Influence Seen.”

[31] Ibid.

[32] Iraqi Council of Representatives, Iraqi Parliament Elections Law (No. 9 of 2020), 2020, https://moj.gov.iq/upload/pdf/4603.pdf.

[33] Iraq’s Electoral Preparations and Processes- Report No.4, United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, December 10, 2020; “In a Remarkable Precedent, Women Make a Surprise Win in the Iraqi Elections,” Al-Jazeera, October 20, 2021, t.ly/2DeE.

[34] Muqtada Al-Sadr, Twitter post, February 11, 2020, https://twitter.com/Mu_AlSadr/status/1227247455818915840.

[35] “Iraq Arrests Commander in Iran-Backed PMU over Activist’s Murder,” Al-Arabiya, May 26, 2021, https://english.alarabiya.net/News/middle-east/2021/05/26/Iraq-arrests-chief-of-Iran-backed-PMU-over-attacks-on-base-hosting-US-force-Sources.

[36] “The Iraqi Federal Court’s Approval of the Election Results Removes Opacity in Iraqi Politics,” Iraqi News Agency, December 27, 2021, https://www.ina.iq/144833–.html.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Maung, “Myanmar Atrocities.”

[39] Victoria Milko, “How Are the Myanmar Protests Being Organized?” AP News, February 9, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/technology-aung-san-suu-kyi-myanmar-yangon-asia-pacific-026ad5eb9ad6920f0d0d5446e17e27c2.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Kenneth P. Vogel and Lara Jakes, “Chevron Lobbies to Head Off New Sanctions on Myanmar,” The New York Times, September 16, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/22/us/politics/chevron-myanmar-sanctions.html.; “403 Myanmar Civil Society Organizations to Patrick Pouyanne and Michael Wirth,” Progressive Voice Myanmar, April 20, 2021, https://progressivevoicemyanmar.org/2021/04/20/open-letter-to-total-and-chevron/.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Amanda Battersby, “Oil Workers in Solidarity against Myanmar Coup | Upstream Online,” Upstream, March 11, 2021, https://www.upstreamonline.com/politics/oil-workers-in-solidarity-against-myanmar-coup/2-1-960420.

[45] Battersby, “Oil Workers in Solidarity.”; Reuters Staff, “Total Says Abandoning Myanmar Gas Field Would Hurt Workers, Cities,” Reuters, April 3, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-politics-total-idUSKBN2BQ0OX.

[46] Reuters Staff, “Total Says Abandoning Myanmar Gas Field Would Hurt Workers, Cities,” Reuters, April 3, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-politics-total-idUSKBN2BQ0OX.

[47] “Rights Groups Call on Total to Suspend Payments in Myanmar Operations,” Reuters, March 16, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/rights-groups-call-total-suspend-payments-myanmar-operations-2021-03-16/; Thomas Conway to Michael K. Wirth, March 21, 2021, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1gJxc8edR_FidQaH1TJxIx6eMB1qvaMYLC9kKcVyEuxQ/edit.

[48] SomOfUs, IMG_7380, photograph, Flickr, April 16, 2021, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sumofus/albums/72157718943019609.

[49] “Rights Groups Call.”

[50] “Protesters Demand Chevron Suspend Payments to Myanmar Junta Ahead of Shareholder Meeting,” MyanmarNow, May 25, 2021, https://myanmar-now.org/en/news/protesters-demand-chevron-suspend-payments-to-myanmar-junta-ahead-of-shareholder-meeting.

[51] Agence France-Presse, “French Energy Company Suspends Payments to Myanmar Army,” Voice of America News, May 26, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/a/east-asia-pacific_french-energy-company-suspends-payments-myanmar-army/6206257.html.

[52] “Chevron, Total Energies Stopping Operations in Myanmar over Human Rights Abuses,” NPR, January 21, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/01/21/1074792462/chevron-total-myanmar-human-rights.

[53] Ibid.

 

 

How to Sharpen a Nonviolent Movement

Article Source: Journal of Democracy

By Sophia McClennen, Srdja Popovic, and Joseph Wright

In 1982, during the Polish Solidarity movement, the people of Świdnik, a small town in eastern Poland, decided to protest government-media propaganda by taking their television sets for a walk. Activists had wanted to register their discontent at the communist state’s control of all news media, but decided that encouraging individuals to attempt a private boycott would be pointless: After all, who would know if you were sitting at home in your living room not watching the news? But what if a way could be found to make such a boycott publicly visible? What if dissatisfaction with government propaganda and the state’s stranglehold on information could be put on unmistakable display for everyone to see?

Eventually, the activists decided to take their television sets onto the street at the time of the main evening newscast, “walking” them in wheelbarrows as though they were babies in carriages. Before long, anyone walking the streets of the town at this hour could see friends and neighbors ambling and laughing, pushing their TVs, using the thirty minutes previously spent listening to the official newscast to greet one another, gossip, and share in the thrill of standing up to the regime together.

The practice of “walking” TV sets was not only creative but contagious. It was a great gag, and the practice soon spread to other Polish towns. Flabbergasted, the communist government weighed its options. It could not arrest anyone; there was no law forbidding Polish citizens from pushing television sets down streets. All the regime could do was move the 10 p.m. curfew up to 7 p.m., thereby forcing everyone indoors [End Page 110] and signaling its powerlessness to contain criticism with a move that outraged the Polish public even more.

The wheelbarrow protests put the government in a tough spot: Ignoring the protesters would simply embolden them, reveal the government’s weakness, and increase resistance. Repressing protesters for doing something as innocuous as pushing TVs in wheelbarrows would make officials look heavy-handed and overly repressive. The clumsy effort to tamp down the protests by decreeing an earlier start to the curfew cost the regime credibility, expanded the base of Polish citizens critical of the government, and made the authorities look absurd. They could no longer claim that they were acting in the best interest of the people. Once that narrative had been disrupted, their grip on power became tenuous and eventually the regime fell. This specific type of nonviolent tactic is called a dilemma action. It is designed to create a dilemma for the target and force opponents into a “lose-lose” situation: Whatever the opponents do, they will suffer reputational harm and end up looking bad. A well-chosen dilemma action taps into widely held beliefs and uses unpredictability and humor to destabilize the official narrative and attract widespread public support.

But, beyond making for a good story, is this tactic effective? Does it have outcomes that we can measure? Our research suggests that dilemma actions can make a nonviolent campaign 11 to 14 percent more likely to succeed. Nonviolent campaigns are already nearly twice as likely to succeed as violent campaigns (working half the time versus only 29 percent of the time), and our findings suggest that dilemma actions can give nonviolent campaigns a further edge, helping them to succeed almost two-thirds of the time (64 percent).

Over the past three decades, research has shown that nonviolent social protest has been the most reliable path to democracy.1 Recent democratic backsliding notwithstanding, sustained nonviolent mobilization remains a proven path to democratic survival, especially among new democracies.2

Nonviolent mobilization campaigns can and do fail, of course. Since 1905, their rate of full success has been 47 percent (150 of 320 cases). In a more recent subset of all cases since 1974—namely, all the cases that have occurred since the “third wave” of democratization began with the Carnation Revolution in Portugal—the rate of failure (defined as anything less than full success) has been 53 percent (137 out of 258 cases). Civil resistance reached a “new level of popularity” after 2010, but its effectiveness began to decline.3

We know that nonviolent mass movements are significantly more effective than violent ones, but why do nonviolent movements sometimes fail? Could their tactics play a role? Nonviolence itself is a broad tactic, but simply saying that a movement is nonviolent says little about how it actually pursues its goals (other than by abjuring violence, of course). [End Page 111] There is a vast difference, for example, between nonviolent movements that emphasize protests and ones that incorporate more disruptive direct actions such as strikes.

Research on the efficacy of specific nonviolent tactics is scant. Most of it focuses on comparing a few cases to one another, or studies tactical changes within a movement. Apart from suggestions that campaigns will be more effective if they use a “variety” of methods, there has been little noted regarding specific types of tactics and their role in campaign success.

This said, there has been growing interest in assessing the effects of creative tactics. Building on anecdotal accounts such as Steve Crawshaw’s Street Spirit: The Power of Protests and Mischief, or activist training guides such Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell’s Beautiful Trouble: A Toolkit for Revolution, or the Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle published by the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), Steven Duncombe and Silas Harrebye offer data on the relative effectiveness of creative versus conventional forms of activism.4 They find that across nearly every quantitative measure—observations of interest, numbers of petition signatures gathered, speed and scale of flyer distribution, reactions to the activists—the creative approach beat the conventional one when it came to reaching desired objectives.

Our study is meant to add to these contributions. It introduces, conceptualizes, and measures the efficacy of dilemma actions. We then use global data on dilemma actions during nonviolent campaigns to assess how this tactic influences campaign success. Our findings suggest that dilemma actions reliably boost campaign success. What makes this tactic so effective?

Dilemma Power
During their colonial occupation of India, British authorities held monopoly control over the vital everyday staple of salt, taxing it and controlling its production and distribution with an eye toward its value as an export. The independence movement could have angrily protested this state of affairs, but instead chose to do something far more creative. Led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, independence activists marched to the coast and began evaporating seawater to make their own salt. Tax protests and noncompliance soon spread across India and affected many things besides salt.

The British authorities found themselves in a bind: They could watch their control over salt (and more) go away, or they could launch a crackdown. They chose the latter, arresting thousands and along the way harming the colonial regime’s legitimacy, sparking an international outcry, and giving the independence movement additional momentum. [End Page 112] Gandhi’s unique ideas regarding civil disobedience became famous, but he was also a master at devising creative dilemmas that would confound his opponents and help his cause.

We have documented cases of dilemma actions across history and on every continent, but systematic study of them is a recent endeavor. The first activist to write about the success of dilemma actions was George Lakey, who in 1987 described what he called “dilemma demonstrations.” Canadian activist Philippe Duhamel read Lakey and devised a “dilemma demonstration” in 2001 designed to protest the Canadian government’s participation in the Free Trade Association of the Americas. Armed with a “giant key,” protesters embarked on a “search-and-seizure operation” at the Department of International Trade and Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, where they demanded that they be given access to the draft trade treaty. Protesters were arrested, which then drew public scrutiny. Why was the Canadian government refusing to release a draft? Why the secrecy? A week later, the protesters had achieved their goals and the drafts were made public. Duhamel later published a detailed account of the tactic.5

For Lakey and Duhamel, at the tactic’s core is the dilemma, which is created by a direct action tactic that forces the opponent into a lose-lose choice. Like all direct actions, dilemma actions work outside of conventional advocacy. They are designed to make the target respond. The typical choice is between efforts to repress the activists, which look heavy-handed, or inaction, which looks weak. In both scenarios, the target loses public credibility and the campaign builds momentum.

In one classic example, the Serbian movement Otpor! (Resistance!) plastered an oil barrel with President Slobodan Milošević’s picture, then placed the barrel in a busy shopping area. Passersby could drop a coin into the barrel and hit the image of Milošević in the face with a baseball bat. Calling the action “dime for change,” the activists encouraged their audience to recognize that they lived under a regime where the government cared more about shielding the autocrat’s image than about letting people peacefully express themselves. Police arrived and had to decide what, if anything, to do. They chose to “arrest” the barrel, which provided excellent photo opportunities and left the police, and by association Milošević, looking absurd. Otpor! could have gone the route of traditional protest, but a fun, provocative dilemma action drew far greater attention to the regime’s repression and built support for the nonviolent movement against it.

Even more important, our definition of dilemma actions, which builds on the CANVAS training experience, requires that activists tap into a widely held belief. Thus, for example, the “dime for change” dilemma action foregrounded the belief that people should be able to peacefully express frustration with their government. When the police shut things down, the repressive response made Otpor! more legitimate and the Milošević regime less so. By combining a peaceful action with [End Page 113] one that taps into a widely held belief, activists have a better chance of building broad public sympathy for their goals and incorporating the type of “large and diverse participation” that Erica Chenoweth has noted as critical for campaign success.6

The third element of a good dilemma action is playful irony. Humor is a powerful tool for activists targeting authoritarian regimes. Laughtivism has been defined as the “strategic use of humor and mocking by social nonviolent movements in order to undermine the authority of an opponent, build credibility, break fear and apathy and reach target audiences.”7 Showing that humor in political activism goes beyond just “letting off steam,” Majken Jul Sørensen explains how funny political stunts can disrupt repressive regimes’ discourse and reframe the narrative.8 Her research shows that using humor also helps activists themselves, who report feeling less fear when engaging in acts that have a humorous element.

Not all humorous stunts are ironic, of course. Activists dressing up in funny costumes may be fun but is not necessarily ironic. Dilemma actions, by contrast, need irony. They hinge above all on exposing the situational irony of opponents’ claims to be acting in the public’s best interest when in fact they are not doing so. As Bill Moyer writes, power-holders devise myths to justify their self-serving policies and programs.9 Oppressive governments do not need citizens to actually believe these myths, but they do need citizens to act publicly “as if” they believe them.10 The inherent irony is that the powerholders’ public narrative hides the truth of their actual practices.

The activists’ goals, then, are to use creative tactics to reveal the truth behind the myths that have been presented to the public as true, and—just as important—to expose citizens to public acts that subvert those myths. If, for example, a regime will not allow the people to publicly express themselves in protest, then a dilemma action will ironically call attention to that by displaying blank signs, staging silent protests, or having toys instead of people do the protesting. Dilemma actions are therefore a form of public disobedience that undermines regime narratives, but in a manner that honors a widely held social norm. The upshot is a public demonstration of how the regime’s narrative defies social norms.

A government may say that it has started a war to keep its citizens safe, while in fact the war puts the citizens at far greater risk. Protesters could respond by hitting the streets in a traditional protest, or they could try creatively ironic dilemma actions: writing antiwar messages on currency, [End Page 114] dressing in skeleton costumes to protest in cemeteries, or holding up blank pieces of paper in silent complaint.11 Arresting a bunch of creative activists for peaceful actions will hurt the regime’s reputation. This outcome is of great interest since a major factor shaping campaign success or failure is how the public perceives activists. When they are seen as disruptive or annoying or extremist, they tend to fail to attract new members.12 By contrast, research shows that if the public feels moral outrage at how the state treats activists, public support for the movement will likely rise.13 Actions that have an element of ironic play can be very effective at portraying activists sympathetically and their targets as hostile.

While the dilemma actions in our study vary in terms of how playful or funny their actions may be, they all share an effort to use creative irony to expose the intrinsic ironies of autocratic power.

The Dilemma-Action Study
This project began with the goal of pairing decades of activist experience with academic research. One member of our research team, Srdja Popovic, knew that dilemma actions could make a difference. He learned this firsthand as a leader of Otpor! helping to bring down the Milošević regime, and later from decades of CANVAS work training other activists across the globe. In order to put experience to a test, we conducted a holistic case study of 44 dilemma actions, coding nine different success metrics. This formed the basis of our 2020 book Pranksters vs. Autocrats.14 The results were encouraging, and led to this study, which documents the extent to which nonviolent campaigns use dilemma actions and tests whether they affect success rates.

To test the efficacy of dilemma actions as part of a nonviolent campaign, we examined dilemma-action tactics that took place during the 320 nonviolent campaigns occurring between 1905 and 2019, and which are included in the larger Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) 1.3 dataset covering the period from 1905 through 2019.15 The nonviolent campaigns in NAVCO 1.3 provide a sample that we can code for the presence of dilemma actions, allowing us to compare success rates of campaigns with and without dilemma actions.

The first step in coding was to learn the range of tactics used by each campaign and to search for markers of dilemma actions. Examples of these markers include boycotts, hunger strikes, media art, labor strikes, sit-ins, and symbols. If we found a dilemma action, we then coded its descriptive and evaluative features. If our team found a single example of dilemma-action tactics being used within a campaign, the search of the campaign stopped at that point—there was no need to find all dilemma actions since one was enough for comparative purposes. If no evidence of dilemma actions surfaced at first look, the team revisited primary and secondary sources twice more to confirm the absence. [End Page 115]

To give an example of how the coding went: In January 2009, during Iceland’s so-called Cutlery Revolution, nearly two-thousand people gathered outside the Althing (parliament) building to bang pans, pots, and other kitchenware. This use of everyday kitchen items was a helpful and ironic way to highlight the effect that the government’s handling of a massive banking collapse and financial crisis was having on ordinary citizens’ ability to feed their families. Banging pots and pans also made a lot of noise and drew media attention.

The demonstrators called on Prime Minister Geir Haarde and his cabinet to resign, and demanded reforms to make government more transparent. This disruptive action forced the government to either treat the protesters like criminals—and likely face charges of having overreacted—or let the noisy demonstrations continue. The demonstrators achieved their short-term goals: Haarde, the head of the central bank, and the country’s top financial-oversight officer all stepped down. Early elections were held that April. In order to code this case, two members of the research team independently consulted five distinct secondary sources, including newspaper articles, an encyclopedia entry, a peer-reviewed journal article, and an extant database of nonviolent mobilization.

Iceland’s Cutlery Revolution is just one example. Overall, our data indicate that dilemma actions occurred in only about a third of nonviolent campaigns, but at a fairly constant rate over time, suggesting that the presence of dilemma actions is not new. Dilemma actions also occur outside nonviolent campaigns, in part because many attempts at mass mobilization—both with and without dilemma actions—never attract the thousand or more participants that are needed to make it into the NAVCO dataset. In order to get around this limitation in the data, we have assembled our own database of more than four-hundred dilemma actions that includes instances where such actions were one-off events untied to any larger movement, let alone one with a thousand members. We have included, for example, the May 2013 “Kisses in the Subway” protest that happened after public-transit officials in Ankara, Turkey, looked at a station’s security-camera feed and noticed a couple kissing. Defying official admonitions to cease displaying affection on public transport, more than a hundred people flooded a station and spent several minutes kissing. Some held signs reading “free kisses.” Officials then had to decide whether to criminalize kissing or let these protesters undermine their authority. The dataset of dilemma actions found in the NAVCO data comprises about a quarter of the cases that we have studied thus far.

The Evidence
The success rate across all nonviolent campaigns in the NAVCO 1.3 dataset is roughly 54 percent. The left plot in Figure 1 shows that this average varies considerably by whether a campaign uses a dilemma action. [End Page 116] Nonviolent campaigns lacking a dilemma action have an overall success rate of just under 50 percent, while those with dilemma actions succeed on average 64 percent of the time.

 

Figure 1.

Dilemma Actions and Nonviolent-Campaign Success

Note: Partial success is treated as 50 percent, failure as 0, and full success as 100 percent.

Next, we tested the efficacy of dilemma actions.16 Our estimate suggests that dilemma actions are associated with an increase of ten percentage points in the probability of campaign success. This is lower than the prior fourteen-point estimate (64 versus 50 percent success rate), but our estimate comes from an approach that is often less sensitive to outlier observations. Both approaches suggest that, on average, dilemma actions make nonviolent campaigns significantly more likely to succeed.

The difference in success rates has narrowed over the last three decades, however, just as the overall success rate for nonviolent campaigns has dropped. Both these trends—the smaller difference made by dilemma actions, and nonviolent campaigns succeeding more rarely overall—seem to have started as the Cold War was ending. For much of the twentieth century, including the years from 1920 to 1950, we see a success rate for dilemma-action–inclusive campaigns that substantially outstrips the success rate of campaigns lacking a dilemma action. In the three decades or so since the Cold War ended, however, the difference shrinks. Specifically, it goes from 25 points between 1905 and 1988 to 9 points since that latter year: From 1989 through 2019, nonviolent campaigns with at least one dilemma action succeeded in 61 percent of cases, while campaigns without succeeded 52 percent of the time.

What can explain the shrinking success gap? Could it be that dilemma [End Page 117] actions have a bigger impact when used against full-fledged autocracies of the sort that were more common before the Cold War’s end? Such regimes are by definition farthest from rule by consent of the governed, and as such start out with wider legitimacy gaps for dilemma actions to exploit. To examine this possibility, in Figure 2 we plot the estimated marginal effect of dilemma actions by the level of democracy of the targeted government.

Figure 2. Dilemma Actions Boost Nonviolent-Campaign Success in Autocracies

Source: Democracy data (x-axis) from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project.

The plotted line indicates that the marginal effect of dilemma actions is highest in more autocratic countries. When campaigns target the most autocratic governments (those with democracy scores between zero and 0.2), the dilemma-action effect is well above average. In the most democratic governments in the set (those with democracy scores above 0.6), by contrast, the dilemma-action effect is about half what it is in autocracies. In short, when nonviolent campaigns target more-autocratic governments, dilemma actions are nearly twice as likely to boost campaign success compared to the situation where dilemma actions are used in more-democratic settings.

How Dilemma Actions Help Nonviolent Campaigns
Our team gathered a range of descriptive data on each dilemma action case to code fifteen distinct metrics, some of which were descriptive and some evaluative. Our evaluative findings indicate four specific elements of dilemma actions that shape nonviolent-campaign success: facilitating [End Page 118] group formation, delegitimizing opponents, reducing fear, and generating sympathetic media coverage.

Group formation
Popovic has argued that a successful movement will tap into what he calls the “cool factor.” His experience is borne out by research regarding what dilemma actions can do to shape public perceptions of the movement as well as the morale of those directly involved. Such actions, for example, present activists as nonthreatening.17 Research on humor and activism further suggests that the use of humor lowers the resistance of the audience to the activist’s message and can induce audience members to think about an issue that they might have been avoiding.18 Even more important, the use of play in activism can help to break down social barriers, creating new alliances among disparate members of society.19

Dilemma actions not only affect public perceptions but the activists themselves. Dilemma actions done with humor and irony give participants as a group positive feelings. To a greater degree than other nonviolent strategies, dilemma actions can help groups to form and stay active. The short-term adverse reactions that dilemma actions tend to rouse from opponents are easily interpreted as tactical successes, which can make activists feel empowered.

Almost all the time (that is, in 92 percent of cases) dilemma actions during nonviolent campaigns are followed by increases in the numbers of campaign participants. Movement mobilization continues after the dilemma action 82 percent of the time, and in 93 percent of cases the event boosts public sympathy for the nonviolent campaign.

Legitimacy
Dilemma actions must not only pose a true dilemma (failed attempts are often traceable to a lapse on this score), but must also touch the chord of a widely held belief. Getting the opponent to respond to the dilemma action in a norm-transgressing way is key. The response is “lose-lose” because the dilemma action dictates that the only alternative to violating a widely shared norm is nonaction, which is a loss because it looks weak.

The dilemma then creates a situation whereby the target is likely to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the public. How onlookers assess the probable value of activism against the target may change as well.20 For example, if the opponent’s first choice is to avoid responding publicly to a dilemma, citizens may sense weakness and resistance grows as a result. If the number of people involved in the dilemma action swells, activists’ legitimacy will rise while their target’s falls. In practice, this means that one of the best ways to mount a dilemma action is to aim at an opponent’s absurd, excessive, irrational, or repressive rules. If protesting is outlawed, then activists can hold up blank signs. Arresting people with blank signs will cost the opponent legitimacy as the public loses respect [End Page 119] for the opponent’s rules. A well-executed dilemma action can reframe the narrative of the regime from legitimate to illegitimate, from just to unjust, from representative to autocratic, and so on.

Regime nonresponse is rare. We find that 90 percent of the time, a dilemma action meets with an aggressive or violent response, or at least one that arguably looks like an overreaction. In July 2011, for example, people marched en masse in Malawi to protest their government. They flew the country’s original postindependence flag—the government had recently changed the design and banned display of the old one. They wore red clothing and called themselves the “Red Army for Democracy and Peace.” Riot police launched violent crackdowns in several cities, but this did not quell the protests, which went on for several more days and sparked again in August and September. The authorities’ harsh reaction, just as in our earlier example of the Polish government’s overreaction to walking TVs in wheelbarrows, aided the activists and undercut the legitimacy of the regime.

Fear
A third causal mechanism linking dilemma actions to campaign success involves the psychology of fear. Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef writes that fear has always been the “best weapon” of repressive regimes, but “when you laugh, you aren’t afraid anymore.”21 He is the Cairo heart surgeon who became famous for his satire in early 2011, not long after the Arab Spring had toppled the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship, through videos shot in his laundry room and posted to YouTube. Youssef accumulated millions of views on the internet and then made waves with a television show styled similarly to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Youssef’s program, Al Bernameg, eventually reached thirty-million Egyptians (almost a third of the populace) and offered groundbreaking comedy featuring unprecedented open mockery of the Egyptian government. Authoritarian regimes use fear to discourage expression, stifle resistance, and foster social division. Fear may create feelings of isolation and apathy by inducing pessimistic perceptions of risks and by boosting risk aversion—two mechanisms that reduce participation in protest.22 Yet as Youssef learned firsthand, laughter can work against fear. When the government of President Mohamed Morsi arrested him in March 2013 for allegedly insulting Islam and the Egyptian state, for example, Youssef showed up at his hearing in a massively oversized version of the hat that Morsi had worn earlier that month while receiving an honorary degree in Pakistan. Rather than let himself be intimidated by the arrest, Youssef used the opportunity to laugh at Morsi’s inability to handle criticism.

Youssef left Egypt in 2014 after further repression from the military regime that had ousted Morsi in a July 2013 coup, but the effects of Al Bernameg continued as other comics such as Shady Abu Zeid launched their own political-satire shows. Zeid also took his satire to the streets [End Page 120] with a dilemma action in 2016, offering inflated condoms as balloons to police in Cairo on the fifth anniversary of Mubarak’s fall. Videos of the protest show the activists and members of the public laughing in the face of police authorities.23 Since laughter is a positive emotion that enhances group formation and collective action, it can be a powerful activist tool.

Dilemma actions may reduce the fear of both activists and their observers. The use of laughter to counter fear may well attract more members to the movement and ease the problem of activist burnout. Perhaps even more importantly, dilemma actions that induce the opponent to react absurdly or illogically may reduce fear among nonparticipants such that they may be likelier to join future protests against the opponent or to replicate the dilemma actions in a different time or place with a different audience.

Autocrats, as Popovic and Youssef underline, do not like jokes. Dictators tend to have thin skins, and to overreact if ridiculed. Their overblown reactions to humor lay bare their outsized egos and fragile identities. In Belarus in 2011, activists were able to agitate the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka by simply clapping in public. When his police arrested some of them, the public saw a heavily armed authoritarian government with every means of coercion at its disposal revealing its fear of peaceful protest.24 We find qualitative evidence suggesting that most dilemma actions (87 percent) help to reduce fear or apathy among campaign participants. By reducing fear and boosting public sympathy, dilemma actions nearly always (88 percent of cases) help to reframe the opponent as less scary or more repressive.

Media
Finally, a well-designed dilemma action will receive media coverage. The key question is whether it is favorable. Research has shown that, in general, protests get bad press and protesters are painted as deviants.25 Coverage will vary based on the outlets doing the reporting and the level of press freedom in the country. Regarding actions in highly repressive countries, international and domestic coverage will predictably diverge.

In the ideal case, media coverage of the dilemma action will introduce the group doing it (assuming it is new or otherwise unfamiliar to the public) and document the norm-violating behavior of the opponent.26 A media report might convey summary information about the group such as its size, composition, and ties to allied or sympathetic groups. Widening public awareness may in turn lead more citizens to change how they assess the legitimacy of the group and its goals.

Media coverage is key to agenda setting, framing, and priming.27 Agenda setting has to do with issue saliency (whether or not the public is thinking about an issue), framing has to do with how the public thinks about an issue, and priming has to do with what leaps first to mind when the topic is raised. For a dilemma action, media coverage is crucial: [End Page 121] Without sufficient coverage of the right sort, there will be no reframing the narrative or priming the public mind to influence what people think of the activism and the reasons behind it. The playful nature of dilemma actions, their use of irony, and their appeal to widely held beliefs are meant to attract sympathetic coverage that can reshape how the public sees the opponent. Our finding in this regard is encouraging: The goals of dilemma actions drew favorable coverage 84 percent of the time.

What Does Success Look Like?
Chenoweth has noted that even when campaigns of nonviolent civil resistance fail, they still lead to long-term reforms more often than violent campaigns do. In fact, nonviolent campaigns were about ten times more likely to precede a democratic transition by five years or less than were violent campaigns.28 Our research suggests that nonviolent campaigns deploying dilemma actions may be even more effective at these long-term outcomes.

In 2012, protesters in Sudan organized “elbow-licking Friday” in an ironic reference to then-president Omar al-Bashir’s habit of calling those who wanted him to leave office “elbow-lickers”—people with a foolish appetite for attempting the impossible. As masses of “elbow-licking” protesters hit the streets, they were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, beatings, and arrests. This aggressive repression went hand-in-hand with internet and media clampdowns plus the president’s bizarre efforts to claim that there had never been any real revolt in the first place. His government’s legitimacy drained away. He hung onto power, but it seems fair to say that the “elbow-lickers” contributed to the growth of a prodemocracy movement in Sudan. Bashir was finally toppled by a 2019 military coup, and despite another putsch in 2021 there are plans to hold elections and write a new constitution in 2023. There were no immediate concessions in this case, but again it seems fair to say that the cause of better and freer government did gain ground in the public mind, and that exposing a repressive president’s absurd ego aided the cause.

Thus, even within the set of campaigns that the NAVCO set designates as failures, those that used dilemma actions still had high success across critical metrics such as reframing the narrative, increasing activists’ appeal, and reducing fear among activists themselves. Each of these positive outcomes has the potential to help unravel repressive power in the future. Once an autocrat’s image has been tarnished by an effective dilemma, it can be hard to recover.

These effects can be seen in various instances that we have tracked of dilemma actions targeting Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia, revealing the potential positive effects of dilemma actions even if they have not so far led to regime change. Over the last decade, a range of Russian [End Page 122] activists have deployed dilemma actions to challenge the legitimacy of Russian autocracy. In one hilarious 2012 example, activists in Barnaul, Russia, bypassed a ban on public dissent by setting up a display of toys holding tiny protest signs. Seeming to take inspiration from the arrest of the Milošević barrel in Serbia, the authorities ruled the toy array an “unsanctioned event,” then denied an application for a new display by declaring that toys could not be citizens of Russia.29 The situation drew international media coverage and made the Kremlin look ridiculous. In 2021, the police made an arrest in a snowman protest.30

Since the invasion of Ukraine, creative activists in Russia have used dilemma actions to protest the brutal crackdown on any mention of “war.” They have staged silent actions with copies of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and have drawn up self-censored posters that bear asterisks where the phrase “no to war” should appear. They have even added antiwar signs to merchandise price tags.31

In late 2022, similarly, protesters in the People’s Republic of China held up blank signs and violated bans on public gatherings in response to the government’s repressive “zero-covid” laws, efforts that led to modest concessions as the government decided to loosen restrictions. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, protesters have also used dilemma actions in antigovernment protests. Women have danced, removed their head coverings, and cut their hair publicly in efforts to mock the authority of the morality police. Their actions have received widespread public support. Each of these acts allows protesters to playfully expose the ironies of repressive power and to reframe aggressive policies as exercises in absurdity.

Will these creative tactics force the regimes in Russia, China, and Iran to end their aggressive policies? Probably not. But can such approaches harm these regimes’ authority and popularity?32 Our research shows that there is a decent chance for both to suffer damage. [End Page 123]

What would success look like for the protests in China and Iran?

Article Source: Grid News

By Joshua Keating

What would success look like for the protests in China and Iran?
An activist who helped bring down a dictator on how China’s government learns from dissent, why Vladimir Putin might be more vulnerable than we think and why the climate movement could be a force for democracy.

It’s been a year of dramatic demonstrations in authoritarian regimes around the world, and several of the most-watched protest movements are now at critical junctures.

In China, where protests in cities across the country erupted late last month, sparked by draconian anti-covid measures, the government has now reversed course and is easing up on many restrictions. Some China experts view this as a victory for the protesters and proof that people power can force change, even in the most authoritarian of countries — though the pivot from “zero-covid” is far from the more fundamental political transformation that some protesters were calling for.

In Iran, where protests against discriminatory laws and dress codes targeting women have been roiling the streets since September, the government has hinted at concessions including disbanding the much-despised morality police and amending the law requiring women to cover their hair in public. But it’s not clear whether the regime is really serious about these measures or whether the changes will satisfy a movement that, as one expert told Grid, has “targeted the heart of the Islamic Republic” rather than any specific grievance.

Meanwhile, in Russia, the public protests that erupted in response to the invasion of Ukraine in February and the government’s mass mobilization order in the fall appear to have died down. But questions remain about the strength of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule, given clear signs that opposition to the war is growing among the Russian public.

These and other ongoing examples of public dissent have raised a question: When and how do protests against authoritarian governments actually achieve results?

To assess these movements, and the state of the global struggle against authoritarianism more broadly, Grid contacted global democracy activist and researcher Srdja Popovic. In his 20s, Popovic was one of the founders of Otpor!, the student movement that played a key role in organizing the mass protests that overthrew Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. He went on to form the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) an organization that has provided support and training for pro-democracy activists in dozens of countries around the world. Speaking by Zoom from Oslo, Norway, Popovic discussed the strategies that make nonviolent movements effective, why Putin may be more vulnerable that he appears and why the climate movement may be the future of pro-democracy activism.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: What’s more important to the success of a protest movement in an authoritarian country, the movement itself or the political context in which it operates? Continue reading “What would success look like for the protests in China and Iran?”

Welcome to CANVAS

CANVAS Executive Director Srdja Popovic to receive Brown Democracy Medal

Why dictators hate pranks, why Nazis are so afraid of clowns and why a mix of wits and dilemma actions may be the most powerful tool to change the world? The answer is simply – humor and creativity beat fear and apathy. Every time!

— Srdja Popovic

Join us on March 25th at 4:00PM EST for the Brown Democracy Medal ceremony, to see Srdja Popovic be awarded for his work with CANVAS! Find out about our research and the new book Pranksters vs. Autocrats!

Have a good giggle with us, as Srjda shares inspirational stories of social change, through the brilliant efficiency of dilemma actions. Come learn about how laughtivism, dilemma actions, and creativity can scare dictators and build democracies across the world. Who knew laughter could be the death of a dictatorship?!

Register for the award ceremony below to learn and laugh!

Download it for free or order a hard copy HERE

Don’t Fight the Fascists. Laugh at Them. – How to use humor against hate.

The article has been originally published here .

If you have watched the recent footage from postelection protests in Little Rock or Los Angeles, in Dallas or Detroit, the images are by now familiar. Angry crowds chanting with hatred, huge “Black Lives Matter” signs torn and then burnt in front of an ecstatic mob, violent attacks on people who disagree, police forces under siege or using force to arrest protesters.
This Wednesday, as Congress meets to certify the results of the Electoral College, crowds of alt-right protesters will once again descend on D.C. President Donald Trump, in his ongoing denial of the reality of his election loss, has called for a “wild rally” to take place. Violence is likely.

At the core of this situation is a thorny problem: How best to effectively respond to hate speech, xenophobia, racism, and political extremism? The level of delusion and aggression among “Proud Boys”-style protesters logically triggers a response. In many cases, though, counterprotesters have met the alt-right’s anger with anti-alt-right anger, or even violence.  The results have been predictably disastrous.
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While it’s completely reasonable to feel angry at these marches and the odious ideas they represent, it isn’t a good political strategy for the simple reason that it doesn’t help advance your goals and may actually strengthen the alt-right. It may be tempting to combat the extremism of the alt-right with righteous anger, and for many, it sounds like a logical response; but our research shows that it is a terrible tactical one. Meeting anger with anger not only increases violence; it tends to diminish support for your movement and distract media coverage so that it centers on the violence rather than the core issues at stake.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, anger, while a useful rallying cry for a political movement, is generally not as effective in achieving a movement’s goals and often backfires during demonstrations. In the case of neo-Nazi and alt-right groups, it is an even worse tactic. As Pulitzer Prize–winning  journalist Tina Rosenberg noted in a 2017 New York Times article on how best to counterprotest Nazis following that year’s deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, alt-right rallies have six core goals: legitimize their views, strengthen their self-image as part of the downtrodden, unite their squabbling factions, attract new people to the movement, control media coverage, and feel powerful and heroic.

In her piece, she explains that aggressively counterprotesting the alt-right is exactly what they want. It allows them to build on the narrative of themselves as victims. In fact, she points out that when antifa protesters angrily respond, it helps alt-right groups accomplish all of the above goals. Since Charlottesville, examples of far-right violence have only been on the rise.
This means that if we want to meaningfully counter the far right, we need to choose a tactic different than anger. In our new study, Pranksters vs. Autocrats: Why Dilemma Actions Advance Democracy, we came up with a surprising answer: The best counter to the aggressive and delusional anger of the right is creative, playful, often humorous counterprotests. Strange as it may seem, there is a lot of evidence that proves that the lighthearted, fun-loving, ironic challenges to Nazis are more effective than anger.

One especially strong example of effective laughtivism is the case of clowns versus Nazis.
Clowns have been a successful way to counterprotest Nazis in a range of nations from Finland to Germany to the United States. In one brilliant example, Sarah Freeman-Woolpert describes a Nazi rally in Whitefish, Montana, where counterprotesters showed up in bright blue wigs with signs that read “Trolls Against Trolls” and “Fascists Fear Fun.” When the Nazi rally fizzled out, the counterprotesters gleefully deemed it a “Sieg Fail.”
Not only were the counterprotesters successful at defusing the energy at the right-wing rally; they defused each of the six core goals of alt-right rallies. They made the Nazis look like idiots and in so doing made anyone wanting to join them seem stupid too.
The reason why clowns work better than angry protesters is because they put the alt-right in a dilemma they can’t win. Either they ignore the clowns and look weak or they attack the clowns and look violent and stupid. Violent clashes between the alt-right and clowns will only backfire for the right and strengthen the left. In contrast, violent clashes where both sides are angry tend to increase polarization and alienate moderate observers.

This doesn’t always require literal clowns. There are a range of creative, playful tactics that are at the disposal of counterprotesters. Feminists have been known to sling used panties at toxic males in Burma, environmental activists have superglued their butts to Parliament in the United Kingdom, democratic activists have silent-clapped at an autocrat’s speech in Belarus, and more. The key is crafting the right dilemma—one that brings to light the internal hypocrisies that define your opponent.

Looking into a range of nonviolent movements in different contexts teaches us that not only is it the case that nonviolence is more effective when you are facing violence and oppression, but that using a strategic approach and dilemma tactics tends to make your opponent’s violence backfire.

For instance, take the recent “involuntary walk-a-thon” organized in response to an annual neo-Nazi march in the German town of Wunsiedel. The organizers used chalk markers to draw lines along the planned parade route marking the starting point, halfway point, and finish line. Then they enlisted local residents and businesses to pledge to donate 10 euros for every meter the white supremacists marched to a group called Exit Deutschland, which is dedicated to helping people leave right-wing extremist groups.

Rather than attempt to block the neo-Nazi marchers, counterprotesters chose the tactic of ironic encouragement. They came out to cheer the marchers on the day of the event, flanking the route with signs that read, “If only the Fuhrer knew!” and “Mein Mamph!” (or “My Munch”) by a table of bananas offered to the walkers. This turned the marchers into involuntary resistors of their own cause and brought the community together in unity to counter the messages of white supremacy.

These examples of creative resistance are especially helpful in the current context. With the extreme right losing its “mainstream ground” in the United States and the majority of European countries after four years of a “populist wave,” and as the topics of race, environment, and gender equality continue to become more central in social debates across the globe, it is likely that alt-right anger and aggression are only going to grow.

If we want to effectively resist the increasingly angry alt-right, progressive activists should consider confronting political divisions by using the examples of creative pranksters. Because the last thing an angry right-wing protester wants to deal with is a counterprotester making fun of them and getting all the attention. In other words: Before you hit the streets to protest the alt-right, leave your anger hanging in your closet and instead pull out your creativity, humor, or even a clown nose.

Coup returns Myanmar to military rule: what we know

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi

What’s happening in Myanmar?

The military of Myanmar overthrew the civilian government Monday, February 1st, arresting civilian leaders, shutting down the internet across large parts of the country, and canceling domestic and international flights. The stock market and many banks have also closed. Myawaddy TV, the military-owned television network, announced in a read statement that Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing would lead the country for one year during a state of emergency. Throngs of migrant workers from Myanmar living in neighboring Thailand protested in front of the Myanmar embassy Monday, many holding pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi and donned in red, the signature color of the National League for Democracy party. 

Sources indicate that numerous arrests have taken place, potentially even extending to non-N.L.D. party members. After Myanmar’s slow march to democracy began in 2011, many citizens are concerned that new strife could prove to be detrimental to Myanmar’s sputtering economy, which has already been damaged by the Covid-19 Pandemic. 

How did the coup unfold?

The coup d’etat came the morning that Myanmar’s new parliament, elected last November, was about to begin its first session and followed days of concern that the overthrow was imminent. The military maintains its actions are legally justified, citing a section of the constitution that allows the military to take control during times of national emergency. The military has said that the take over was necessary, because the civilian government had not acted upon claims that election fraud was widespread during the November election, and because the government allowed the election to take place amid the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic. No major violence has been reported, but soldiers have blocked the main roads in the capital Nay Piy Taw, and the largest city, Yangon. The military has also announced that twenty-four deputies and ministers had been removed from their posts, and eleven replacements have been named, including positions in finance, health, the interior, and foreign affairs. A curfew is reportedly in effect from 8:00 PM to 6:00 AM local time. 

Sources on the ground in Myanmar indicate that, despite chatter among the government and international actors, the coup d’etat came as a surprise to many ordinary people. According to the Constitution drawn up in 2008, only the President has the power to approve a state of emergency. However, in the early hours of the take over, the military announced that Vice President Myint Swe, a former general, would be elevated to acting President, giving the military the go ahead for declaring a state of emergency. 

Why did it happen now?

Monday’s coup d’etat returns Myanmar to military rule after a brief stint of quasi-democracy between 2011 and 2021. Before the military government instituted parliamentary elections and other reforms in 2011, the military had single-handedly controlled the levers of power since 1962. In elections that took place on November 8, 2020, the National League for Democracy (N.L.D.), Myanmar’s leading civilian party, won a resounding victory, garnering approximately 83% of the parliamentary seats. The election was widely seen as a referendum on the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the N.L.D. and the de facto leader of Myanmar’s civilian government since 2015. Tensions further intensified in the days before the overthrow, after the military had tried to argue in Myanmar’s Supreme Court that the November election results were fraudulent, and threatened to take action and surround the houses of Parliament with soldiers. 

Who is in charge?

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief who is now leading the country, was supposed to age out as army chief this summer. His ascension to Myanmar’s top political leader prolongs his career and cements military rule in the country. Under the former power-sharing agreement, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing retained significant influence in the quasi-civilian government, presiding over two business conglomerates and having the power to appoint cabinet members who oversee the police and border guards. While leading the army, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has overseen campaign’s against several ethnic minorities which reside in Myanmar, including the Rohingya, the Shan, and the Kokang. 

The coup d’etat marks a significant fall from grace for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who came to power as state counselor in 2016. The daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi spent fifteen years under house arrest, which made her an international icon. Since her release from detention, her reputation has been dimmed by her cooperation with the military and her defense of Myanmar’s campaign against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group. In 2019, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi defended Myanmar at the International Criminal Court against accusations of ethnic cleansing. Her cooperation with the military may have been a pragmatic effort to move Myanmar along the path to democracy, but Monday’s events show that the military’s commitments to democratic values are nil. 

How has Myanmar and the world reacted?

While many residents expected armed vehicles and protests in major cities, the situation on the ground in Myanmar has been eerily quiet. The most common reaction from ordinary citizens has been anger at the military for thwarting democratic rule in the country. The response in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, has been similarly subdued, with some supporters of the army waving flags in the streets. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the army’s actions a “serious blow to democratic reforms,” and the United Nations Security Council is preparing for an emergency meeting. The United States also condemned the coup, saying it “opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections.” European Union leaders have issued similar condemnations. China, which has been historically opposed to any outside intervention in Myanmar, urged all sides to “resolve differences.”

In order to better understand the situation, Canvas has contacted an activist on the ground in Myanmar. Even though experiencing a dangerous and unstable situation, the activist was able to provide an insight into the events taking place in the country right now. The following interview is edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: How are you? How do you feel about the events that have been taking place in Myanmar?

A: It’s hard to describe the feeling. People who are not activists do not really know what is happening. I, along with many other people, feel lost. I know of someone who has been arrested who is not even a member of N.L.D. [National League for Democracy]. I don’t support the military or the N.L.D., but I am against the coup because I do not want Myanmar to return to military rule. We are surprised and we are lost and we are suffering.

Q: Can you give a brief synopsis of what has taken place since yesterday based on the information you have been able to access?

A: Everything beforehand was normal, most people did not expect that the coup would take place. The military is facing international pressure because of the genocide against the Rohingya, and no one expected them [the military] to have the authority to launch a coup because of this international pressure. I, along with everyone else, was caught by surprise. The military has talked about seizing more power, but nothing had happened up until now. My understanding is that the N.L.D. leaders are under house arrest. According to the 2008 Constitution, there should be a meeting of the security council first, and then the President can approve a state of emergency. However, the President was detained and the military made the Vice President the new interim President so they could approve the state of emergency. 

Q: How are you currently speaking with us? There are reports that telephone and internet connections have been suspended across the country. How are people, including yourself, getting information?

A: It is true that some operators have made it so that you cannot access the internet. I am using one of the two telephone operators that are still working. After 8:00 PM tonight, the internet will be shut off entirely. Citizens in Myanmar already do not have access to many civil liberties, so I am worried that this will prove detrimental to our liberties in the future. I am worried that they will shut off the internet and social media entirely, so that people will not be able to communicate. 

Q: What are your biggest concerns right now?

A: I am concerned that life will go back to what it was like after the 1962 coup, or what it was like in 1988. The military already ruled the country for fifty years, the younger generation doesn’t want this because it is bad for the economy and it takes a toll on individuals and their families. 

Q: Do you think that the November election was fraudulent? Or do people think this is just an excuse for the military to return to power?

A: It is hard to say. Most activists know that the military already held the power because of the provisions outlined in the Constitution. Most of the public believes that the National League for Democracy holds power in the country, but it is actually the military who is in control. Most people are worried about the economy and what the return to military rule will mean for their families, but they are too afraid to go out into the streets. 

Q: A large number of people supposedly voted for the National League for Democracy. Do you expect protests? Who do you think will be at these protests?

A: Most of the NLD leaders have been detained, so it will likely be new faces that will fight for democracy, but it will be difficult for people to accept a new leader. Maybe 100 or 200 people will join a protest, but they will likely be crushed by police.

Q: What do you think are the next steps for the country? What will you do next?

A: Only international pressure will help us. I am going to work with international organizations and the international networks we are in. I will help to pressure the solidarity movement, that is what I am currently doing. 

Q: How do you think the Covid-19 Pandemic will affect the response to the coup, if at all?

A: People are not thinking about the Pandemic, only about the coup. I have no reason to believe that protests would be affected. 

What’s next?

At this time, the situation on the ground is still unfolding. There have been no reports of major violence, but the situation is fluid. The military has declared a one-year state of emergency, so it is likely the army will retain their hold on power for at least the remainder of 2021.  

Activists, such as the one interviewed by CANVAS, have highlighted the importance of international pressure as one of the crucial avenues for future progress towards democracy.

The high levels of fear, regarding the dominance of the military in Myanmar’s politics, will likely dampen any coordinated response by activists on the ground in the short-term. 

Regimes that rule through fear are unfortunately common in today’s world, but the people of Myanmar should look to other nations which have experienced military coups to formulate a strategy for the future. Sudan is an example of a state that was able to overcome military rule through political action. Activists there relied on tactics of non-cooperation and an international social media campaign, #BlueForSudan. As a part of the #BlueForSudan campaign, activists changed their Instagram profile pictures to a blue background, memorializing a 26-year-old protestor named Mohamed Hashim Mattar who was killed during crackdowns on the protests in Sudan; his favorite color was blue. Activists in Myanmar could use similar tactics, possibly including the color red as a symbol of the National League for Democracy. The tactic seemed to work, spreading awareness about the violence not only across Sudan, but across the entire world. Celebrities and public figures changed their profile pictures to Mattar’s blue and posted messages about the conditions in Sudan to large audiences. However, because #BlueForSudan lacked specific demands, calling only for solidarity and awareness, it is difficult to assess the actual impact of the movement. Activists in Myanmar could draw inspiration from tactics used by organizers in Sudan, while also learning from their mistakes. 

Fear of reprisal for speaking up is one of the main tactics the military has relied on in the past, to squash dissent and cement army control over the levers of power. However, activists have at hand a number of strategies to combat the fear instilled by the military government. Fear is an effective method of control because it relies on peoples’ anxiety about the future and what is to come. Thus, a remedy for counteracting a strategy of fear is a strategy of information. Pro-democracy movements should make their goals clear and identifiable, so that ordinary people understand the things for which activists are campaigning.

Pro-democracy campaigns should be truly grassroots in nature, as the people who witness oppression every day are the ones who know best what needs to be changed. It can also be productive to provide information about the tactics being used by the government, so that people can recognize that the goal of those in power is to terrify them into submission. The imprisonment of the National League for Democracy’s top leaders could be catastrophic for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar if leaders cannot find a way to communicate with the people, or if no new leaders arise from the chaos. The cultivation of a sense of trust and confidence in the leaders of a pro-democracy movement is essential to the cause. One way to instill this confidence is to place emphasis on preparation; if grassroots leaders are prepared and knowledgeable about the situation they face, then people will place more trust in them and feel more equipped to take on their fears.

Nonetheless, Monday’s coup is a significant step backwards on Myanmar’s journey towards becoming a functioning democracy. Overcoming fear should be the first step on the path to restoring democratic values in the country. 

CANVAS team

Despite the Authoritarian Wave, People Will Be Back

The source of the article: RealClear World

Every day, it seems a new brush stroke is added to the dystopian picture we call 2020. The canvas is the coronavirus pandemic that is disrupting civil society globally. As someone who spent the last two decades as a nonviolent movement leader, the pandemic has caused me no slight amount of worry. A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace outlined how lockdowns and physical distancing measures are confining people to their homes and upending their ability to meet, organize, and advocate. Social distancing measures effectively disabled some of the most popular forms of protests (rallies, marches, etc), and for a time, whenever you spoke to human rights and democracy defenders, you would hear that it has become very difficult to engage people in talk and action about democracy and human rights.

Not anymore.

George Floyd, whose name will forever be ingrained in protest history, died in Minneapolis on May 26, his neck under the knee of a policeman until he stopped breathing. The event was recorded on video, and then, everything changed. Within a week we saw mass protests, mostly nonviolent, shake over 80 U.S. cities and many capitals worldwide, calling for an end to police brutality and racial inequality.

Now is a good time to take stock of protest movements around the world, and how they have been impacted by the pandemic, and by the rising global tide of autocracy/

Why external threats and crises are an autocrat’s best friend

External threats, natural disasters, and epidemics were always fertile ground for seeds of authoritarianism and despotism. Throughout history, external threats have regularly been utilized by autocrats to limit freedoms and disrupt independent checks and balances to their power. I lived through the state of emergency proclaimed in Serbia in March 1999, after President Slobodan Milosevic’s confrontation with the West, and his ambitions for ethnic cleansing, brought 78 days of NATO bombing to my country. Happy to increase his wobbling grip on power, Milosevic proclaimed the state of emergency and relished it in much the same way my two kids would enjoy a candy store. He imposed absolute censorship on his critics, enforced the closure of independent radio and TV stations, thrived on arbitrary arrests, and led a propaganda witch-hunt. The state-sponsored assassination of Slavko Curuvija, editor and owner of Serbia’s largest opposition newspaper, caused some of us troublemakers to temporarily flee the country.

So, there is no wonder that illiberal leaders are taking advantage of the COVID 19-crisis, tightening their political grip by weakening checks and balances, imposing censorship, and expanding state surveillance — all at a time when civil society groups are less able to fight back.

Take a look at Thailand, where a vivid student movement has been challenging a military junta that recently achieved a slim majority through controlled elections. Only weeks after the pandemic started, on March 26, the government invoked the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations (2005). Under Article 9 of the decree, officials are empowered to censor or edit any information they deem to be false or distorted, with a possible penalty of up to two years in jail.

Looking elsewhere, Russia is using supposed “COVID tracking measures” to install surveillance-camera facial-recognition systems, which activists know will be used to monitor and crack down on dissent. Then there are at least three cases of healthcare workers who mysteriously died “falling from windows” after some of them criticized the government for the lack of protective equipment they had received.

Even in democracies such as Poland or Hungary, and hybrid democracies like my own country, Serbia, we see the extraordinary appetite of political leaders to sideline democratic institutions, concentrate power, and rule by decree.

But despite these depressing conditions, there are growing signs that movements are increasingly adapting to new circumstances.

Adapting to crisis

From Hong Kong to Bolivia, activists and peacebuilders are confronting the need to innovate tactically and adapt their strategies amid national lockdown orders, social distancing, and other measures intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The first action of many activists was to go online, turning to digital platforms to inform and educate citizens about COVID situations. Some of these activities have scaled up quickly. In Tunisia, for example, more than 100,000 people joined a Facebook group bringing together volunteers to help fight the virus. Some of these campaigns, like the one in Poland that pushed for postponement of presidential elections, are also combining what you do in a virtual space with real individual protest acts such as banners draped by activists from the windows of their homes, which are then uploaded on social media.

The second example of creative adaptation may be physical protests which include disciplined social distancing. Israeli protesters outraged with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s securing of a new term and possible avoidance of a corruption trial gathered in Tel Avivs main square on April 20. X marked a spot where someone could stand under Israel’s social distancing guidelines (2 meters away). Though protest organizers marked 2,800 spots for protesters to stand, twice as many people showed up to protest, with many people standing on the surrounding streets. Similarly, in one of most iconic videos of the latest racial-equality protest wave in the United States, Denver activists used a disciplined “lying on the ground while social distancing tactic” to mimic the last seconds of George Floyds torture, launching into the cry, “I Can’t Breathe.”

The third adaptation that we are increasingly seeing might be a shift toward creating disruption without mass gatherings. On April 14, Polish feminists made headlines by blocking traffic at Rondo Dmowskiego, the intersection of Warsaw’s two main boulevards. Responding to a call on social media, they paralyzed traffic at noon as they stopped their cars and bikes adorned with banners. This “our vehicles are broken” type of protest was used to address situations where the conservative government led by the PiS party is using the pandemic to push controversial laws banning all abortions — laws that had previously been stopped due to mass protests.

The last adaptation that we are seeing is that with limited options for large concentrations, activists increasingly resort to what we in CANVAS call “tactics of dispersion.” Faced with the world`s second-largest outbreak of coronavirus, and the epically incompetent response from the government, people in Brazil have expressed anger at President Jair Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the pandemic by banging pots and pans together on balconies. Croats used a similar tactic to protest the mayor of their capital, Zagreb. For more than 10 days in a row I personally enjoyed the “noise from the balcony protest” that lamented the situation in my own country, Serbia, with two of our kids contributing. They had a blast.

All of these adaptations show that despite the crisis, activism may be still around, alive and kicking. But protesting is so much more than strategic nonviolence. There is a deeper phenomenon transforming our societies for the better: civic resilience.

The lasting vaccine to the authoritarianism virus?

If we treat individuals’ tactical adaptations to pandemic restrictions as an immediate treatment to the autocracy virus, then a more strategic approach is civic resilience. We could see it as a long-lasting vaccine that will prevent the autocratic infection of our societies in the future.

In short: Societies with strong community bonds and a history of united action are more likely to contain any attempt of manipulation coming from either governments or non-state actors. So if civic resilience is, like some form of antibody, already spread in the population, developed through some form of civic engagement, can it make our societies more immune to crises like a global pandemic?

Many times in the history of social movements, human rights defenders, and even small NGOS, have operated with some acknowledgment of Albert Einstein’s quote that “within every crisis lies a great opportunity.”

Remember Burma in 2005? Using the fact that the military junta was completely unable to provide for victims of a devastating tsunami, civil society and NGOs stepped in as first responders. Civil society did what the military junta could not: It helped villagers bury their dead, prevent cholera outbreaks, and meet basic needs. As a result, civil society, which was at the time mostly underground, gained both prominence and legitimacy, recruiting thousands of volunteers — some of whom were crucial in voter mobilization in the years to come.

Another example of a political movement gaining from its strategic reaction in crisis is “Occupy Sandy,” an organized relief effort created to assist the victims of Hurricane Sandy in the northeastern United States. The effort has worked in partnership with many local community organizations.

When a forest fire struck the “lungs of the planet,” causing millions of acres of Amazonian forest in Brazil and Bolivia to burn, we witnessed how environmental groups quickly filled the vacuum left by an unresponsive government. They built a network of aid and volunteers to help immediate victims, won the hearts and souls of the local population as well as firefighters and doctors, and later leveraged that support into large anti-government protests. If it wasn’t for the Amazon, Evo Morales would probably still be ruling Bolivia.

The strategic advantage of these popular movements lies in the fact that they correctly recognized vacuums that appeared during crises. They seized the empty spaces created between the immediate need for support in the face of disaster and governments’ absolute inability to deliver, and then used their numbers and organization to help people in need. This allowed civil society to build new layers based on reputation, and to recruit thousands of supporters through community and humanitarian work.

Take a look at Hong Kong, where, with the government flailing, the city’s citizens decided to organize their own coronavirus response. Hong Kong Governor Carrie Lam dragged her feet in closing the city’s borders and never fully closed down the land border with China. The hospitals suffered from shortages of personal protective equipment. Lam wavered on masks, and even ordered civil servants not to wear them. There were shortages of crucial supplies and empty shelves in stores.

The civic resilience of Hong Kong stepped in. Thanks to a previous wave of protest, it seems that “civic resilience antibodies” were already within society. In response to the crisis, Hong Kongers spontaneously adopted near-universal masking on their own, defying the government’s ban on masks. In response to the mask shortage, the foot soldiers of the protest movement set up mask brigades. They acquired and distributed masks, especially to the poor and elderly, who may not be able to spend hours in lines on their own. An army of volunteers also spread among the intensely crowded buildings to install hand-sanitizer dispensers and keep them filled. During the protest movement, Hong Kongers developed shared digital maps that kept track of police blockades and clashes; now similar digital maps kept track of outbreaks and hand-sanitizer distribution.

So amid the government’s sloppy response, the people of Hong Kong took their defense into their own hands, effectively surviving the virus with minimal consequences. The secret ingredient of Hong Kong’s response was its civically resilient population and, crucially, the movement that engulfed the city in 2019.

Similar support networks, with pro-democracy activists turning their organization into societal hubs, are filling in gaps left by governments to provide essential services, spread information about the virus, and protect marginalized groups. In some places they are partnering with businesses and public authorities to support local communities strapped for economic relief. They are also forging new coalitions to hold their governments to account. We witness their growing role, numbers and reputation across the globe. We can take a look at dozens of examples in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.

Is there a new global protest wave ahead?

How can we explain the latest post-COVID wave of protests in the United States, and can we somehow predict the future of protesting at this dramatic moment?

History teaches us about a very interesting phenomenon called rallying around the flag. Even at the very dawn of humanity, we always had our disputes and quarrels — where to hunt, who would marry whom within the tribe. And we had complaints about leaders at that time as well. But then an external threat appears, and for a moment all quarrels cease. Instinctively societies rally around their leader, even a bad leader, until the outside threat passes. We haven’t changed much. Look at the ratings of world leaders in times of crisis: The classic example is George W. Bush, whose approval ratings skyrocketed in the days following 9/11.

But once the immediate external threat is out of picture, another phenomenon happens. People start asking questions. When the state of emergency was lifted after the NATO bombing of Serbia in June 1999, Milosevic seemed invincible, and our opposition was in disarray. Eighteen months later, in the autumn of 2000, the butcher of the Balkans was ousted in an electoral landslide amid million-strong protests.

So it is now. The sooner we see the normalization of life, the sooner people will start asking questions about how the crisis was handled. Take a look at Belgium, and the iconic video of healthcare workers silently turning their backs to the prime minister’s motorcade to protest her handling of the pandemic, which resulted in Europe’s highest death rate per-capita. Soon you will get an idea of what may be happening everywhere.

Expect first responders to be on the front lines of accountability campaigns, demanding checks and balances from their officials. Strikes and other noncooperation tactics are already erupting as labor unions try to defend essential workers who are forced to appear at work without enough protective gear, like in the case of the New York branch of Amazon. Very soon we may be witnessing a wave of protests targeting businesses who are trying to hastily reopen without necessary testing, or firing workers en-masse, like what’s happening in the French auto industry.

Others will follow. Though crises like the pandemic can resurrect the political prospects of some leaders, as 9/11 did for President Bush, and as the pandemic has done for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, they can also present a dire threat to other leaders — those less lucky, less skilled, less able to lead properly in times of disaster. People will be back. Many of them will be angry. Unfortunately, in many cases, they won’t have much to lose — they have already lost their loved ones, or jobs, or perspective. So they will be more willing to take risks. And they will have more time on their hands to do it.

Below the dystopian surface of a post-pandemic world hammered by health and economic crises, as well as by shrinking freedoms and vanishing human rights, peoples’ creativity and civic resilience may be resurging. Watch carefully and remember: Societies are as healthy and vital as are their citizens.

Srdja Popovic, co-founder, and Executive Director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions (CANVAS), has trained activists in over 50 countries to promote democracy, accountability, and human rights. He is also the author of “Blueprint for revolution”. Theodore Weiss is a former research analyst at CANVAS and a board member of Build A Movement, is based in Colorado. The views expressed are the authors’ own.