He has been called the man who toppled Mubarak, a description he says demeans what he sees as a wholly Egyptian uprising against authoritarian rule. Before that, he was the victim of a whispering campaign in which his work was alleged to be a US front for regime change in the guise of citizen uprisings. He calls those allegations “a joke” and reminds that he went to prison in the US for civil disobedience there.
From Dictatorship to Democracy is perhaps his best-known and most-influential work. Renowned as a handbook for strategic non-violent protest around the world, it originated in Dr Sharp's work with Burmese opposition and ethnic groups in the early 1990s, and was intended as a blueprint for the liberation of the country from military rule.
With the army in control since 1962, and seemingly entrenched behind a parliamentary makeover, the challenges facing activists and opposition groups in Burma are among the most daunting anywhere. Now 83 years old, and with a CV that dates back to working with Norwegian opponents of Nazi/Quisling rule during World War II, Dr Gene Sharp shared his thoughts on the recent events in North Africa and the Middle East with Simon Roughneen, as well as outlining why he believes that resistance in Burma has failed to dislodge the military rulers of that country.
Question: Dr. Sharp, your interest in Burma and the pro-democracy movement there goes back a long way. Can you tell The Irrawaddy readers about the history of your engagement with Burma?
Answer: I was brought to Burma by Robert Helvey, a former US military attache in Rangoon, who became sympathetic to the groups opposing the regime, particularly the Karen. I was asked to write some articles for Khit Pyaing, a Burmese and English journal based in Bangkok, and run by the late U Tin Maung Win, and those eventually became part of the publication known as “From Dictatorship to Democracy.” I also visited Manerplaw a few times and met with Burmese exiles in Thailand.
Q: Why in your view has non-violent resistance failed, so far, to undermine military rule in Burma? What are the factors differentiating Burma from recent changes in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as older examples such as the Color Revolutions in the former Soviet bloc, Serbia in 2000 and the Philippines in 1986?
A: I think there are a few explanations for that. For a start, many of the opposition groups, the various nationality groups such as the Karen, Mon and others, they all had their armies and mini-armies, and they thought they would be weakened by departing from those and going over to non-violence, or “political defiance” as it was known in Burma. Other groups, such as the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), had their mini-army, and people in the camps, though temporarily agreeing to switch over to just political defiance, reversed that after a couple of years. All the various armed groups thought they could defeat the Army, but I think that was a foolish judgment on their part, as the Army was bigger and stronger and had more weapons.
The so-called National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, which isn't really a coalition government at all, with headquarters in Washington DC—not very close to Burma—they had their own ways, they thought, to get independence and defeat the government, but they didn't show much signs of learning something new.
And, Aung San Suu Kyi, for all her wonderful qualities, and her heroism and inspiration for those who believe in democratic rights and the rights of Burmese people—she is not a strategist, she is a moral leader. That is not sufficient to plan a strategy.
Although “From Dictatorship to Democracy” was written for Burmese, there were no Burmese groups who really took that analysis seriously or used at as a strategy for the liberation of Burma. People got arrested and sent to prison for carrying it, in Burmese and other languages, they could organize very powerful and brave demonstrations in Rangoon and elsewhere, but they did not plan a grand struggle. If you don't plan, if you don't have a bigger strategy, you're not going to win.