Gene Sharp: Why Burmese Resistance Has Failed So Far
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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)
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Q: Do you see any change in Burma since the elections last November and the convening of Parliament on Jan 31? Is there now a viable outlet for non-violent opposition to express itself in Burma, without having to take to the streets, without having recourse to some of the methods you have outlined over the years? 

A: I am not sufficiently up to date on the details of the situation to comment, I am sorry.

Q: Moving away from Burma, what do you say to conspiracy theorists who allege that your ideas are a convenient intellectual front for US or Western interference or intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states, a sort of power projection masquerading as locally motivated non-violent resistance?

A: It is a big joke. We have had no support from the US government or military or from intelligence agencies. Our office is very small. We have very little money to operate. Someone is trying to discredit the analysis we have offered, and that is all there is to it. Such charges are false.

Q: Some of the critiques of your work, by seeing an external or meddling hand in what might be local or nationally focused events, are themselves guilty of a sort of colonialism of the mind, implying that Burmese or Egyptians or whoever the case may be are incapable of taking action autonomously, or reacting themselves to the conditions in their own country, without a guiding hand from outside.

A: I think that is a good point, and a key thing to remember when people try to discredit the analysis I offer, which is based on work over decades in many countries, and contact with freedom-loving people in many parts of the world.

Often it is people who believe in violence who attack us, because they want to weaken peoples adherence to non-violence, and to the practical usefulness of a strategy of non-violence. Look at those people and ask what do they offer? Genuine criticism is always welcome, but proffering false charges is ridiculous.

For those who want to make such allegations, to say that I am a tool of the United States government, they should remember that I spent over 9 months of a two-year prison sentence for civil disobedience and for criticizing the policies of the US government.

Q: Your work has come back into public focus due to events in North Africa and the Middle East. One newspaper headline went as follows: “Gene Sharp, the 83 year old who toppled Egypt.” What is your take on that?

A: I may or may not have provided some analysis that fed into the actions taken by the people there, I have no confirmation of that, but the Egyptian people deserve the credit for toppling the Mubarak regime, not me.

Q: Since Tunisia and Egypt, the protests in the region have changed. Libya's uprising has become an armed revolt. Do you feel that—even with UN Security Council and Arab League support—it is right to intervene in Libya at this juncture?

A: It is not the course of action I would have chosen. I think the Libyan democrats did not do their homework in advance like the Egyptians did—in Egypt, they appeared to have a plan and studied quite some time in advance to develop a program of non-violence without fear, which brought them victory quite quickly. In Libya, this appears not to have been the case. The Libyans have gotten in over their heads, and should have expected the type of repression that Gaddafi is capable of.

People who are realistic about the power of political defiance know that if it is a threat, the regime will see it that way and will fight back. The regime will jail and beat and kill, and that is a sign that what you are doing is threatening the regime.

Dictators can beat you with violence, if you fight on those terms, and of course the rebels cannot defeat the Gaddafi regime on the level of armed force. So they are left to call in help from outside, which cannot give them the empowerment or victory they seek.

Q: Do you think that when legitimate peaceful protest—such as in Burma—is met with state violence, the protesters then have the right to self-defense? To fight back? To seek alliances with sympathizers in the country's police and army? To appeal for international military support, as the Libyan rebels have done?

A: I think it is an unfortunate choice that people make. It is predictable that your opponent will have the means of violence, the means of oppression. If you get someone else to come and help you, they will come with their interests, and potentially turn your country into a battlefield. Even if they help defeat the oppressor, it will not result in empowerment. People will not be ready to fight the next oppressor who tries to take over the country. In contrast, if the Egyptian military tries again to take control, the people know how to counter this, they have the sense of empowerment, of their own power.

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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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