KI Media is starting a series on From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp whereby a chapter from this book in both English and Khmer is published every 2-day interval, with prior submissions listed in the menu bar for easy recall. The emphasis is that of KI Media. For its original complete text go to:
This book has been translated into KHMER and its full version is available at:
Be inspired! Be coordinated! And take action!
. . . . .
From Dictatorship to Democracy
Applying Political Defiance
In situations in which the population feels powerless and frightened, it is important that initial tasks for the public be low-risk, confidence-building actions. These types of actions — such as wearing one’s clothes in an unusual way — may publicly register a dissenting opinion and provide an opportunity for the public to participate significantly in acts of dissent. In other cases a relatively minor (on the surface) nonpolitical issue (such as securing a safe water supply) might be made the focus for group action. Strategists should choose an issue the merits of which will be widely recognized and difficult to reject. Success in such limited campaigns could not only correct specific grievances but also convince the population that it indeed has power potential.
Most of the strategies of campaigns in the long-term struggle should not [author's emphasis] aim for the immediate complete downfall of the dictatorship, but instead for gaining limited objectives. Nor does every campaign require the participation of all sections of the population.
In contemplating a series of specific campaigns to implement the grand strategy, the defiance strategists need to consider how the campaigns at the beginning, the middle, and near the conclusion of the long-term struggle will differ from each other.
In the initial stages of the struggle, separate campaigns with different specific objectives can be very useful. Such selective campaigns may follow one after the other. Occasionally, two or three might overlap in time.
In planning a strategy for “selective resistance” it is necessary to identify specific limited issues or grievances that symbolize the general oppression of the dictatorship. Such issues may be the appropriate targets for conducting campaigns to gain intermediary strategic objectives within the overall grand strategy.
These intermediary strategic objectives need to be attainable by the current or projected power capacity of the democratic forces. This helps to ensure a series of victories, which are good for morale, and also contribute to advantageous incremental shifts in power relations for the long-term struggle.
Selective resistance strategies should concentrate primarily on specific social, economic, or political issues. These may be chosen in order to keep some part of the social and political system out of the dictators’ control, to regain control of some part currently controlled by the dictators, or to deny the dictators a particular objective. If possible, the campaign of selective resistance should also strike at one weakness or more of the dictatorship, as already discussed. Thereby, democrats can make the greatest possible impact with their available power capacity.
Very early the strategists need to plan at least the strategy for the first campaign. What are to be its limited objectives? How will it help fulfill the chosen grand strategy? If possible, it is wise to formulate at least the general outlines of strategies for a second and possibly a third campaign. All such strategies will need to implement the chosen grand strategy and operate within its general guidelines.
At the beginning of a new campaign to undermine the dictatorship, the first more specifically political actions may be limited in scope. They should be designed in part to test and influence the mood of the population, and to prepare them for continuing struggle through noncooperation and political defiance.
The initial action is likely to take the form of symbolic protest or may be a symbolic act of limited or temporary noncooperation. If the number of persons willing to act is small, then the initial act might, for example, involve placing flowers at a place of symbolic importance. On the other hand, if the number of persons willing to act is very large, then a five minute halt to all activities or several minutes of silence might be used. In other situations, a few individuals might undertake a hunger strike, a vigil at a place of symbolic importance, a brief student boycott of classes, or a temporary sit-in at an important office. Under a dictatorship these more aggressive actions would most likely be met with harsh repression.
Certain symbolic acts, such as a physical occupation in front of the dictator’s palace or political police headquarters may involve high risk and are therefore not advisable for initiating a campaign.
Initial symbolic protest actions have at times aroused major national and international attention — as the mass street demonstrations in Burma in 1988 or the student occupation and hunger strike in Tiananman Square in Beijing in 1989. The high casualties of demonstrators in both of these cases points to the great care strategists must exercise in planning campaigns. Although having a tremendous moral and psychological impact, such actions by themselves are unlikely to bring down a dictatorship, for they remain largely symbolic and do not alter the power position of the dictatorship.
It usually is not possible to sever the availability of the sources of power to the dictators completely and rapidly at the beginning of a struggle. That would require virtually the whole population and almost all the institutions of the society — which had previously been largely submissive — to reject absolutely the regime and suddenly defy it by massive and strong noncooperation. That has not yet occurred and would be most difficult to achieve. In most cases, therefore, a quick campaign of full noncooperation and defiance is an unrealistic strategy for an early campaign against the dictatorship.
During a selective resistance campaign the brunt of the struggle is for a time usually borne by one section or more of the population. In a later campaign with a different objective, the burden of the struggle would be shifted to other population groups. For example, students might conduct strikes on an educational issue, religious leaders and believers might concentrate on a freedom of religion issue, rail workers might meticulously obey safety regulations so as to slow down the rail transport system, journalists might challenge censorship by publishing papers with blank spaces in which prohibited articles would have appeared, or police might repeatedly fail to locate and arrest wanted members of the democratic opposition. Phasing resistance campaigns by issue and population group will allow certain segments of the population to rest while resistance continues.
Selective resistance is especially important to defend [author's emphasis] the existence and autonomy of independent social, economic, and political groups and institutions outside the control of the dictatorship, which were briefly discussed earlier. These centers of power provide the institutional bases from which the population can exert pressure or can resist dictatorial controls. In the struggle, they are likely to be among the first targets of the dictatorship.
Aiming at the dictators’ power
As the long-term struggle develops beyond the initial strategies into more ambitious and advanced phases, the strategists will need to calculate how the dictators’ sources of power can be further restricted. The aim would be to use popular noncooperation to create a new more advantageous strategic situation for the democratic forces.
As the democratic resistance forces gained strength, strategists would plot more ambitious noncooperation and defiance to sever the dictatorships’ sources of power, with the goal of producing increasing political paralysis, and in the end the disintegration of the dictatorship itself.
It will be necessary to plan carefully how the democratic forces can weaken the support that people and groups have previously offered to the dictatorship. Will their support be weakened by revelations of the brutalities perpetrated by the regime, by exposure of the disastrous economic consequences of the dictators’ policies, or by a new understanding that the dictatorship can be ended? The dictators’ supporters should at least be induced to become “neutral” in their activities (“fence sitters”) or preferably to become active supporters of the movement for democracy.
During the planning and implementation of political defiance and noncooperation, it is highly important to pay close attention to all of the dictators’ main supporters and aides, including their inner clique, political party, police, and bureaucrats, but especially their army.
The degree of loyalty of the military forces, both soldiers and officers, to the dictatorship needs to be carefully assessed and a determination should be made as to whether the military is open to influence by the democratic forces. Might many of the ordinary soldiers be unhappy and frightened conscripts? Might many of the soldiers and officers be alienated from the regime for personal, family, or political reasons? What other factors might make soldiers and officers vulnerable to democratic subversion?
Early in the liberation struggle a special strategy should be developed to communicate with the dictators’ troops and functionaries. By words, symbols, and actions, the democratic forces can inform the troops that the liberation struggle will be vigorous, determined, and persistent. Troops should learn that the struggle will be of a special character, designed to undermine the dictatorship but not to threaten their lives. Such efforts would aim ultimately to undermine the morale of the dictators’ troops and finally to subvert their loyalty and obedience in favor of the democratic movement. Similar strategies could be aimed at the police and civil servants. The attempt to garner sympathy from and, eventually, induce disobedience among the dictators’ forces ought not to be interpreted, however, to mean encouragement of the military forces to make a quick end to the current dictatorship through military action. Such a scenario is not likely to install a working democracy, for (as we have discussed) a coup d’état does little to redress the imbalance of power relations between the populace and the rulers. Therefore, it will be necessary to plan how sympathetic military officers can be brought to understand that neither a military coup nor a civil war against the dictatorship is required or desirable.
Sympathetic officers can play vital roles in the democratic struggle, such as spreading disaffection and noncooperation in the military forces, encouraging deliberate inefficiencies and the quiet ignoring of orders, and supporting the refusal to carry out repression. Military personnel may also offer various modes of positive nonviolent assistance to the democracy movement, including safe passage, information, food, medical supplies, and the like.
The army is one of the most important sources of the power of dictators because it can use its disciplined military units and weaponry directly to attack and to punish the disobedient population. Defiance strategists should remember that it will be exceptionally difficult, or impossible, to disintegrate the dictatorship if the police, bureaucrats, and military forces remain fully supportive of the dictatorship and obedient in carrying out its commands [author's emphasis]. Strategies aimed at subverting the loyalty of the dictators’ forces should therefore be given a high priority by democratic strategists.
The democratic forces should remember that disaffection and disobedience among the military forces and police can be highly dangerous for the members of those groups. Soldiers and police could expect severe penalties for any act of disobedience and execution for acts of mutiny. The democratic forces should not ask the soldiers and officers that they immediately mutiny. Instead, where communication is possible, it should be made clear that there are a multitude of relatively safe forms of “disguised disobedience” that they can take initially. For example, police and troops can carry out instructions for repression inefficiently, fail to locate wanted persons, warn resisters of impending repression, arrests, or deportations, and fail to report important information to their superior officers. Disaffected officers in turn can neglect to relay commands for repression down the chain of command. Soldiers may shoot over the heads of demonstrators. Similarly, for their part, civil servants can lose files and instructions, work inefficiently, and become “ill” so that they need to stay home until they “recover.”
Shifts in strategy
The political defiance strategists will need constantly to assess how the grand strategy and the specific campaign strategies are being implemented. It is possible, for example, that the struggle may not go as well as expected. In that case it will be necessary to calculate what shifts in strategy might be required. What can be done to increase the movement’s strength and regain the initiative? In such a situation, it will be necessary to identify the problem, make a strategic reassessment, possibly shift struggle responsibilities to a different population group, mobilize additional sources of power, and develop alternative courses of action. When that is done, the new plan should be implemented immediately.
Conversely, if the struggle has gone much better than expected and the dictatorship is collapsing earlier than previously calculated, how can the democratic forces capitalize on unexpected gains and move toward paralyzing the dictatorship? We will explore this question in the following chapter.