covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, October 23, 2016

Gene Sharp: Why Burmese Resistance Has Failed So Far

By SIMON ROUGHNEEN Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Gene Sharp, 83, is known for writing about nonviolence. (Photo: AP)

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.

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PB Publico Wrote:
I see no usefulness of talking about the past to fingerpoint at and blame personalities for the failure of freedom and peace in Burma.

What Mr Gene Sharp discussed appeals to reason. He may not be right in all that he said, but what is with us?

That is the point. Those who criticise Sharp and try to belittle the leadership of Daw Suu have no better alternative. Have they? Remember we are what, who, where and how we are. It is our task, a challenge, to see through our problems, think in proper perspectives, plan and go ahead to gain what we want done.

And that includes taming of the Burma military.

Moe Aung Wrote:
Funny how an American who rejects the epithet 'political messiah' preaches 'peaceful revolution' very likely leading on to popular uprisings and violent state repression.

There are of course two sides to this equation, more importantly what kind of regime people are taking on. Ours believe in the motto, " don't talk, just shoot the commies". Not someone to tango with. So why it failed in Burma is no mystery inside Burma, no need for a mathematical model or an in depth analysis.

"If you get someone else to come and help you, they will come with their interests, and potentially turn your country into a battlefield. Even if they help defeat the oppressor, it will not result in empowerment. People will not be ready to fight the next oppressor who tries to take over the country."

This we must be mindful of. The West (or the rest) have their own agenda, their own plans for wherever they intervene as investors/stakeholders. Or it gets hijacked by one group like the mullahs in Iran 1979.

Tettoe Aung Wrote:
When the mentality of the people in general is bordering on 'opportunism' and 'betrayal' not even the best way to liberation can work in Burma. Neither 'non-violence', 'armed struggle, 'civil disobedience' and so on. Those who called themselves 'the 88 generation' identified themselves as belonging to the group when they are either seeking funds or some attention upon themselves. They have never reached out to help their colleagues who are languishing in prisons all over the country nor help the families of their colleagues. As for those who were in the service most of them seems to willingly swallow their spit rather than lose their jobs. For some 'betrayal' becomes the art for survival and sold out most of their colleagues. How can any people with that sort of mentality brought about social and political change in any country? Just look at the 'open letters' posted on the Net among those who said they are struggling to bring democratic change in Burma.

LSL Wrote:
may be we need a hand for air power from NATO to established no flight zone and all ethic group must invade Nay Pyi Daw at the same time. Done!


kokopoliticalanalyzer Wrote:
Daw Aung San Su Kyi, is like Gene Sharp said probably not the best strategist. However, Burma remains under military dictatorship. Only because its own army has repeated betrayed its own people. They did it in 1958, 1962,1988 and 2007. The difference from Egypt is the Egyptian army refused to shoot its own innocent people. As long as the army keeps doing that what can we do?
Our strategy should be to divide the army or weaken the army. Than Shwe knew where his strength is the army's arms are far reaching everywhere. deeply involved in economy. Current higher ranked officer in the army would go down in Burmese history as traitors. May be 50 or 100 years later.
Non-violence alone never worked against dictatorship. Remember it was not Gandhi alone who worked for India independence and also the world order was changing at the time. The British were weakened by the war. The saying that "Political power comes out of a gun barrel" remains true. Look carefully into every power it is true.

Maung Maung Wrote:
Burmese are too passive and too afraid. Junta have taught good lessons to the people and they've learned it well. Anybody who think he/she can use non-violent ways only to topple the government is a dreamer. The only hope to change the country is to wish Than Shwe to pass away and something good happen to the country after that. Nothing last forever.

Oo Maung gyi Wrote:
From the begining of '88 up rising in Burma, all the parties involved had to support U Nu
from whom General Ne Win took over state power. But majority peoples does not supported that idea, therefore it was failed and allowed military junta to take over again.

Second mistake was, in 1990 as soon NLD won the election, NLD should declare cabinet line up, and there by NLD could had get supper powers and EU including some of Asean countries support will get, at that time Tatmadaw could not get chance to take over, and the military leader the then General Saw Maung had to hand over power immediately to NLD with out hesitation. It was the NLD leadership mistake.

Terry Evans Wrote:
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do.

Why Egypt and Tunisia situations are better than Libya? Because, some of those armies, that are fed up with the governments, cooperate with the activists. These protests started with the people’s discontent with the status quo in addition to the food crisis. The internet and the modern technology are nothing just but the sparks to ignite the situation. Do these people know if they are going to win it or not? Of course not. The piece of the puzzle is the military whether it would cooperate with the government or not. Beside, the army goes by the chain of command. It requires order. Than Shwe still is in charge of the army, not like Egypt and Tunisia though.

In fact, none of these uprisings had a leader, like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to call for uprising either. But, in case of “chaos”, she could be useful for both domestically and internationally to calm the situation down. Isn’t it wonderful for us to have her?

Gene Sharp knows how long does it take for Gandhi to get there.

Danu Maung Wrote:
My opinion is that violence is necessary. Uprisings in Burma failed because of Buddhist principles that call for passive resistance rather than pragmatic observation of real situation that is happening on the ground. Revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia were bloody, ugly and violent. They were much more disorganized than our 1988 uprising. Revolutions should not rule out violence - its a means, not an end. Repression, instability and violence by the State resulted whether you demonstrate peacefully or not. So Opposition should choose other avenues rather than non-violence.

Eric Johnston Wrote:
I disagree with Gene Sharp but the interview is instructive and he makes some valid points. His book is added to my wanted list.

Gandhi could be more flexible than some suppose. Early in WW2 he hinted that he would support the British war effort - as he had done in WW1 - upon certain conditions. But the Viceroy ignored him and Congress was not prepared to follow.

The fault is not with DASSK. She could be an invaluable factor in an equation. But the other factors have been ignored, so there is no equation. Instead the regime uses her.

The fault lies with the many who expect her single-handedly to deliver democracy. No one has amulets against bullets.

Norway was liberated by extreme violence which took place elsewhere. However such means are not available to topple the Than Shwe regime. Therefore, use non-violent methods to reach a 'tipping-point'. Then see what is possible.

Yes, Burmese democrats must learn to plan, co-operate and co-ordinate.

tocharian Wrote:
A non-violent revolution is a Fata-Morgana. Gandhi is overrated anyway. India's independence has a lot more to do with global geo-political upheavals in that period of time than Gandhi wearing a dhoti and preaching non-violence. I find it amusing that Sharp criticizes Suu Kyi for exactly what he is preaching! In my opinion, Suu Kyi "studies" too much instead of "doing" politics. It's easy to be an arm-chair revolutionary (I can be one!), but igniting a revolution is a different matter. How you measure "success" of a revolution is another issue, but first people have to rise up spontaneously if you want change. Many popular uprisings, like the French revolution or even the recent ones in Tunisia and Egypt had no clear leaders.
The only way I see a "sudden change" in Burma is either through a split in the Army or a recognition of a common external danger (from a big neighboring country!) Of course, it's not clear who would win and what the outcome would be if that happens.

Myanmar Patriots Wrote:
A theory about one country does not work on other countries. Then, it is not a theory as it has no universal validity.

sandra tin Wrote:
Yet another woolly-headed white do-gooder blabbering on about other people's blood-soaked attempts to liberate themselves.

Talk of nonviolence uninformed by political economy of oppression, Fascist nature of the Burmese regime and geopolitics is stupid.

The doctrinaire non-violence faithfuls are incapable of seeing the Ying and Yang of violence and non-violence in human history.

People use means they deem most suitable for
their own circumstances.

Dr Sharp sounds not too sharp when it comes to historical understanding of how bloody and violent social change can be, and is in many cases.

Was there any chance of the good Germans, the Communists, the French Resistance, Churchill-led British defeating the Nazis in the 1940s, without the American involvement and the USSR's Red Army? Did it not take 2 atomic bombs to bring Japan's Fascist system down? What about the American slavery which would not have ended were it not for the Civil War which killed nearly 150,000 Americans?

Bill Wrote:
Excellent interview - well done, Irrawaddy.

Soe Thane Wrote:
"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"

Absolutely right. ASSK is no Gandhi Think of it: 20 years ago she had everything going for her - her party won landslide elections, the US, the Europeans, Japan, Thailand, even India supported the opposition, millions of people at home supported her, the SLORC was broke, fighting multiple insurgencies, and STILL - she was unable to get anywhere other than house arrest. Than Shwe and co. are not brilliant, had zero education, didn't know the outside world, but they ran circles around her.

But the cult of ASSK today is unassailable. Anyone who dares criticize is hunted down and condemned. What was a revolutionary movement became a pro-democracy party calling for sanctions, and is now a cult around a single woman.

Poor Burma.

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