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Co-Existence, Co-Ordination, and Crowding Out: Examining the Interrelation Between Nonviolent and Armed Resistance Movements
As evidenced by the Arab Spring nonviolent or mass civilian resistance led revolutions, recent history has seen a resurgence in nonviolent means of resisting oppressive regimes. However, there is no sign that nonviolent movements will fully displace armed resistance as a means for removing oppressive or corrupt regimes. While nonviolent (or civil) resistance is playing an increasing role in popular efforts to achieve equitable governance, armed resistance movements remain a feature of uprisings as well. In many cases, it seems inevitable that both will play a role in future conflicts; however, it appears little research has been conducted on how the two forms of resistance may interact with one another. Given the likely importance of both means of resistance is likely to be, such an understanding would be of great value, both to policy makers and to actors on the ground.
Nonviolent and armed resistance movements have often occurred concurrently. This has been the case in the ongoing (at the time of this writing) resistance movements in Syria and Burma. In the former, there was relatively close coordination between the nonviolent and armed resistance organizations, while in the latter case they have acted predominately independently of each other. Similarly, independent nonviolent and violent resistance movements also developed in the East Timor and Philippines resistances. Even in the South African struggle to remove the Apartheid regime, which is viewed as largely a nonviolent resistance movement, there was an armed element to the resistance that supported the objectives of the nonviolent movement. Further, in the case of Northern Ireland’s resistance to British authorities, there was a transformation from a nonviolent movement to an armed one, which came to overshadow nonviolent approaches. These cases[i] are examined briefly below.
Nonviolent and armed strategies and the groups pursuing them need not be viewed as ‘either/or.’ Rather, as the cases below highlight, nonviolent and violent oppositions can complement one another and provide alternative options for continued resistance. However, this is not to say that the tandem approach is recommended, merely that they can and do exist simultaneously. This paper examines how they have interacted in the past, and draws conclusions about the challenges, benefits, and means through which they can be synchronized in the future. Ideally, this could help ensure that they achieve maximum effect in advancing their collective opposition rather than undermine each other.
It should be noted that any resistance movement poses great risks and often a substantial human toll.[ii] Nonviolent and mass civilian resistance movements against oppressive regimes always carry serious risks. In fact, some civil-resistance authors have cited the real risk of injury or death as necessary for the legitimacy of mass resistance movements.
Since 1962, Burma has been ruled by a military or a military-backed government. Burma’s pro-democracy movement traces its contemporary origins to the student-led protests of 1962. Large-scale protests erupted in 1962, 1974, 1988, and 2007, led by students, workers, and monks; each ending in violent reassertion of control by the government. Numerous opposition groups currently exist. These include the publically active and relatively well known pro-democracy political party, the National League for Democracy, headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Additionally, other organizations the government declared illegal, such as the All Burma Federation of Students Union, operate underground (Beatty 2011, p 7).
Armed resistance groups also challenge Burma’s government. Several armed anti-state insurgencies have been fighting the central government for over 50 years. Motivations have varied among groups. Communist groups have sought to remove the central government, other movements have fought for independence or autonomy for their ethnic groups, and still others have formed to control profitable illegal markets and trade activities. By September 1988, there were 25 insurgent organizations, roughly ‘divided into two major blocks, one headed by the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and the other by the National Democratic Front (NDF)’ (Smith (1991: 10), in Beatty 2011, p 8). Today, despite the increased presence and control of most of the country’s territory by the government, various armed insurgents groups continue their fight (Beatty 2011, pp 7-8).
Just as the Egyptian revolt erupted against their government in early 2011, Syrians also began protesting high unemployment rates, declining standards of living, human rights abuses, and nearly 50 years of emergency rule that had severely restricted political freedoms. The Syrian state, which is solely controlled by the Baath Party and headed by President Bashar al-Assad, had kept a lid on protest through its emergency measures. However, on January 26, a Syrian citizen set himself on fire, imitating the immolation that sparked the Tunisian uprising. Subsequently, opposition organizers called upon citizens to attend a “Day of Rage” protest. Over the next several weeks, small demonstrations took place but were quickly crushed by the military. However, unrest continued to spread, and by late March 2011, hundreds of thousands protested in cities across the country.
With expanded resistance came expanded repression; the military used tanks and snipers to clear the demonstrations. Disturbed by orders to attack unarmed civilians, troops soon began defecting during the summer of 2011. These defecting soldiers, combined with outside volunteers, announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July 2011.[iii] Though the FSA is the largest and most well known of the Syrian armed opposition groups, the violent resistance movement is largely seen as fractured. Further, the violent resistance attracted extremist Sunni Islamist groups motivated to join the largely Sunni Muslim opposition against the Alawite (and Shia Islam aligned) regime. This armed struggle soon came to dominate the conflict in Syria, which at the time of this writing continues to this day and is estimated to have claimed in excess of 70,000 lives (Ahmed and Abedine 2013).
The Troubles (Irish: Na Trioblóidí) was a period of ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland that spilled over - at various times - into England, the Republic of Ireland, and mainland Europe. The duration of the “Troubles” conventionally dates from the late 1960’s and is considered by many to have ended with the Belfast "Good Friday" Agreement of 1998.
The resistance began as civil disobedience and popular protests, including hunger strikes by Irish republican prisoners. These were often focused on civil rights protests, mass demonstrations, and marches. The resistance was initially nonviolent: in fact, by as late as 1967 there were no deaths associated with the resistance. However increasing violence was fueled by escalating clashes between the resistance movement and state security forces and appearance of pro-state paramilitary organizations which conducted attacks on the resistance movement. By 1972, 497 people had been killed, including the ‘Bloody Sunday’ incident in which 14 unarmed civilians were shot by the British Army and 13 more wounded (Lodge 2009, pp 213-214). Armed movements soon developed on both sides of the conflict, including the Ulster Defense Force and Irish Republican Army. Moreover, the escalation of violence and apparent lack of results led to the withering of support for the nonviolent opposition movement. Despite the Good Friday Accords sporadic violence has continued to the present day, raising concern about the long-term stability of the Agreement.
The resistance movement in South Africa was largely known through the political and civil resistance activities of the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC initially began its civil disobedience campaign in 1950. This later led the Defiance Campaign in the 1950s, a mass movement of resistance to apartheid.
Lesser known was the armed resistance counterpart to the civil resistance movement. Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), translated "Spear of the Nation," was the armed wing of the ANC, which fought against the South African apartheid government. The MK carried out numerous bombings of civilian, military, industrial, and infrastructural sites. Its tactics were initially geared solely toward sabotage, but eventually expanded to include urban guerrilla warfare. Notable among MK’s activities were the 8 January 1982 attack on the Koeberg nuclear power plant near Cape Town, which coincided with the 70th anniversary of the formation of the ANC, as well as the Church Street bombing on 20 May 1983, which killed 19. The violence continued in June 1986 with a car-bomb that killed 3 people and injured 73. The total number of people killed or injured in the 30 years of MK's campaigns is not known. Although the MK alone was not a military threat to the apartheid state, the ANC leadership saw MK as the armed component of a strategy of "people's war" that was primarily geared toward mobilizing mass political support. MK suspended operations on 1 August 1990 in preparation for the dismantling of apartheid, and it was finally integrated into the South African National Defence Force by 1994.[iv]
East Timor was conquered by Indonesia in 1979, and a resistance movement developed and continued until independence in 1999. Violent resistance was initially led by the armed wing of the popular political party the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, known as FRETILIN by its Portuguese acronym. The armed wing was known as the Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor, or FALANTIL by its Portuguese acronym. FALANTIL conducted both conventional and guerilla attacks against the Indonesian regime centered in the mountainous jungle regions of the country. In the early 1980’s, the resistance movement evolved into National Council of Maubere Resistance (CNRM), which included both an armed wing and nonviolent resistance movement. The armed wing eventually incorporated the FALANTIL armed movement. Armed resistance against the Indonesian regime continued until independence, with limited results.
Though originally envisioned as means of supporting the armed resistance, which had been weekend by the conflict, the nonviolent resistance movement soon became the driving force of the resistance. It broadened popular participation in the movement, with activities such as protests centered in urban areas and targeting international supporters of the Indonesian regime. Popular protests escalated during the 1980’s, and international pressure on the Indonesian regime increased substantially after a 1991 massacre was documented and broadcast widely by the international media. In 1998 the Indonesian government fell, and the new government offered East Timor independence. In May 1999 an independence agreement was signed, paving the way for East Timorese sovereignty (Stephan and Chenoweth 2008, pp 32-37).
The Marcos regime in the Philippines faced both an armed insurgency, and later a popular uprising. The armed opposition was led by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its New People’s Army (NPA). The NPA began steadily gaining strength in the late 70’s. Popular protests against the Marcos regime were ignited by the assassination of Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino in 1983. This uprising arose independently of an ongoing violent communist insurgency. Popular resistance came to a head in 1985, when over 2 million Filipinos protested patently false electoral victory claims by the Marcos regime. This was accompanied by a widespread general strike and other acts of civil disobedience. This widespread protest, well covered by the international media, led the United States, the chief international supporter of the Marcos regime, to switch its support to the opposition movement. By 1986, Marcos fled the Philippines and the nonviolent opposition, led by Benigo Aquino’s daughter, Corazan, assumed control of the government (Stephan and Chenoweth 2008, pp 25-32).
The Power of Nonviolence
As seen in these examples, nonviolent resistances operating in tandem with violent movements have played key roles in furthering the goals of the broader opposition movement. Moreover, in some cases they even overshadowed the armed resistance elements. Understanding these contributions is the first step toward a deeper understanding of how nonviolent and armed resistance movements can reinforce one another. There are several ways in which nonviolent movements have contributed in mixed peaceful and violent opposition environments:
In the recent Arab Spring uprisings (Nepstad 2011), civil resistances have played a number of roles. This includes creating national crises with nonviolent disruption (sit-ins, demonstrations, etc...), which forced the military to choose sides, thus tipping the balance of power against a regime. Nonviolent resisters increased the likelihood that troops would defect by countering the regime’s view that these were radical terrorists. And the fact that most civil resisters were nonviolent made it difficult for the regime to justify the use of force. A Syrian example highlights this point: a Syrian defector stated that he had been told by the regime that they were fighting heavily armed terrorists who were supported by foreign interests. When he realized that the protesters were unarmed civilians and fellow citizens, he felt the regime had deceived him and he could not bring himself to shoot reasonable people who cited reasonable demands (Georg 2013).
Civil resistances in the Arab Spring uprisings also sowed doubt about a regime’s sustainability among its own security forces, even splitting their ranks, by winning the contest of legitimacy and coming to represent the society’s apparent future. This type of effect that violent action cannot achieve because it tends to harden the ranks of power-holders’ forces rather than undermine them (Georg 2013). They further increased the potential political costs for military support of violent attacks on civil resistors, by use of technology and social media (or citizen journalism) to focus global governmental and public attention on the movement. With the international public attention focused on the conflict, sometimes referred to internationalization of the conflict, a violent crackdown would elicit rapid international condemnation and potentially severe repercussions. These could include the potential end to diplomatic relations, trade agreements, and aid (Nepstad 2011). Civil resistors, especially in Egypt, were seen as effective in this.[v]
In South Africa, a major element of the nonviolent campaign that successfully supported the armed resistance was that of nonviolent sabotage, meaning here the destruction of material or property without loss of life (Lodge 2009, pp 214-215). However, this strategy alone did not garner the support of the broader populace, which was required for real progress.
In the Burma case, it can be seen that the longevity of the overall resistance effort can be increased if violent and nonviolent movements have strong communications and shared goals. This can result when the two movements are able to attract support from a broader range of people. Once recruited, people are likely to travel between either movement based on changing sentiment or political context. This flux prevented the greater resistance from losing momentum (Beatty 2011, p 23).
Challenges of Simultaneous Violent and Nonviolent Resistance
Despite the demonstrated success of combined nonviolent and violent resistance movements, the coordination of the two forms of resistance is not without its difficulties. A number of considerations should be taken into account when thinking about coexisting nonviolent and armed resistances:
Dominance of armed resistance. In past cases, the dialogue of armed resistance has crowded out that of nonviolent resistance. For example, in the case of North Ireland (English 2009 pp. 85-86), violent government crack downs laid the ground work for an abandonment of nonviolent action in favor of violent struggle. This was fueled by an apparent lack of success of nonviolent strategies and a ready ‘narrative’ of violent resistance. The violent resistance narrative provided a theory of success for the resistance movement, and facilitated the change in direction. Moreover, it seems as if the opposition movement in Syria is at risk of this scenario too, as counter regime military activity appears to dominate the environment. Moving to a fully armed resistance can undermine the credibility and perceptions of broad popular support which can be garnered through demonstrations and other nonviolent means of mass resistance.
Mixing in violence in a nonviolent movement undermines strategy. If even a few participants in a peaceful protest become violent, this can easily change the public or media perception of the protest, with observers incorrectly inferring that protesters are pursuing destruction rather than social change (Martin 2009, pp. 435-436). Use of violence within nonviolent movements tends to reduce popular participation in struggles and lower the chances of causing splits in the oppressor's loyalty structure. The media often focus on a few incidents of violence, ignoring the rest of what may be transpiring. For example, this effect has can be seen clearly in an examination of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict where deaths or violence was more likely to feature in headlines compared to civil protests (Munayyer 2011). Minor protester violence can provide police with justification for their own violence, often much more severe.
Nonviolent social movements must distinguish themselves from violent movements. Nonviolent movements must make clear that they are separate from violent movements (Beer 1999 pp. 174-184). Numerous cases, such as Burma, Sought Africa, and North Ireland, have shown that one party should choose either a strategy of violence or nonviolence to be effective.
Though distinct, violent and nonviolent movements should be coordinated. In the cases of East Timor and the Philippines, armed resistance was focused in the countryside while nonviolent resistance occurred in urban areas (Martin 2009, pp. 435-436). Moreover in Burma’s case, researchers found that armed participants were not in contact with or coordinating their activities with nonviolent resisters, and vice-versa (Beatty 2011, p 21). Lack of coordination between these movements undermined their chances for success. In the Syria case, coordination between respective movements allowed both to reinforce each other. This took the form of organizing popular protests in a way that had the effect of forcing regime security forces to cover a greater area, and even potentially diverting security forces away from areas under armed threat. In turn, the armed wing was reportedly engaged in protecting civilian protestors from the threat of regime violence.[vi]
Don’t exclude or overlook minorities. In Syria, it has been noted that the mass protest movement may have been weakened by being seen as predominately Sunni Muslim in composition, without including important minority groups such as Christians, Kurds, or Alawites. Moreover, the rise of the armed resistance has been cited as a contributing factor in alienating or sidelining potential opposition supporters. Weather accurate or not, the regime has been able to exploit the perceived lack of inclusiveness to maintain support or at least prevent broad support for the resistance within minority communities in Syria. A counter-example of this can be seen in the (strictly) nonviolent movements (Beissinger 1999)[vii] in the Baltic States, which increased the chances for the reform they sought by engaging minority groups who were loosely affiliated with Moscow. This weakened counter-movements and increased the power and legitimacy of the reform movement.
Lessons for Future Movements
As illustrated, nonviolent resistance movements have tremendous potential to further the aims of any resistance movement as a whole. As such, they should be maintained and developed as a strategic asset of the movement at large, under the auspices of civilian authorities. Civilian control is important, as it will enhance the legitimacy of the civilian authorities convening the nonviolent resistance efforts. The demonstrated and concrete gains to the larger movement through the nonviolent resistance could improve groups’ positions in terms of their legitimacy and popular support vis-a-vis armed opposition groups. This, in turn, would help guarantee their place at the head of successor governments that replace the opposing regime.
Further, nonviolent resistance and mass demonstrations can be employed for strategic effects. They can counter regime narratives that the resistance is an extremist or foreign terrorist led effort, and that the uprising is sectarian or targeting minorities (as seen in the Syrian case). They can be instrumental in attracting international media attention and rallying international support (most recently seen in the Arab Spring and South Africa movements). With regard to regime security forces, nonviolent resistance can serve as a forcing function with military units, likely prompting or accelerating defections of the security services and the government (as seen in the Syrian case). Moreover, the can stretch the security capabilities of the opposing regime, and directing resources away from countering any existing armed resistance (as seen in the early stages of the Syrian case).
To achieve this, based on this review, opposition groups operating in an environment of both violent and nonviolent opposition efforts should consider a number of factors. They should consider operating robust civil nonviolent resistance efforts, under the authority of civilian leadership. They should maintain narratives of success that involve nonviolent resistance while countering (regime or other group) narratives that don’t. Opposition movements should deliberately and consistently employ nonviolent resistance events as venues to reinforce a message of sectarian unity and respect for minorities. Hand in hand with this, broad national participation in the nonviolent movement should be fostered, and groups should make a deliberate and consistent effort to communicate with and to incorporate minority groups.
Further, leaders of both nonviolent and armed resistance groups should gain understanding and maintain awareness of how each other’s movement can reinforce or undermine the other. This can involve coordinating and mutually reinforcing each other across nonviolent and armed resistance lines of activity. However, nonviolent and armed resistance efforts should be kept distinct and, importantly, nonviolent demonstrations should not be allowed to turn violent, which could prompt a change in the narrative on nonviolent resistance. Opposition groups can even explore ways in which nonviolent resistors can materially assist the armed resistance, in terms of destroying/diverting regime supplies, sabotage, or other disruption.
This analysis is a beginning step in examining how they may be employed together to achieve greater success, as well as how they can avoid the pitfalls that have arisen in prior cases. Though not widely well known, nonviolent and violent means of opposition have coexisted in numerous cases. In places such as South Africa, Northern Ireland, Syria, Burma, and others, the existence of both forms of resistance creates both unique opportunities and challenges for resistance movements overall. Given the increasing role of internal conflict and the rising influence of social media and citizen journalism, it is likely that both nonviolent and armed resistance movements will not only continue to coexist in future conflicts, but their conjunction will play an increasing important role in them.
Ideally this review can provide a springboard for greater appreciation of how nonviolent means may be channeled, even when faced by dominating armed resistance elements. This can be important in many respects. Well-coordinated nonviolent and armed resistances can synergistically further resistance against oppressive regimes. Beyond that, the continuing nonviolent resistance can help potentially minimize the violence of a conflict by providing other channels to exert pressure on the target regime. And further, civilian-controlled mass resistances can help set the stage by legitimizing civilian leadership and the eventual transfer of power to a new civilian regime. Clearly the coordination of nonviolent movements and armed resistances have clear policy impacts, which merits further examination.
A Ahmed and Abedine, “What next in Syria? Death toll continues to rise,” CNN available from http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/23/world/meast/syria-civil-war/, accessed on February 26, 2013.
L M Beatty, Interrelation of Violent and Non-Violent Resistance in Burma, Presented at American Political Science Association Conference Seattle, Washington September 2011 Unpublished conference paper, Social Science Research Network, 2011 available from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1900480, accessed on Mar 21, 2013.
M A Beer, “Violent and Nonviolent Struggle in Burma: Is a Unified Strategy Workable?” in: S Zunes et al eds., Nonviolent Social Movements. Massachusetts and Oxford: Blackwell, 1999 pp 174-184.
M R Beissinger, “The Intersection of Ethnic Nationalism and People Power Tactics in the Baltic States, 1987-91,” in Roberts A and Ash T G eds., 2009 Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 231-246.
Robert English, “The Interplay of Non-violent and Violent Action in Northern Ireland, 1967-72,” in A Roberts and T G Ash eds., Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 75-90.
Georg, “Syria – or how to prepare people for peace instead of war… No More War,” 13 March 2012, available at http://www.no-more-war.net/2012/03/13/syria-or-how-to-prepare-people-for-peace-instead-of-war/, last accessed Mar 20, 2013.
T Lodge, “The Interplay of Non-violent and Violent Action in the Movement against Apartheid in South Africa, 1983-94,” in A Roberts and T G Ash eds., Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp 213-214.
B Martin “Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence,” Gandhi Marg, Vol. 31, No. 3, October-December 2009, available at http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/09gm.html, last accessed
Y Munayyer, “Palestine's Hidden History of Nonviolence,” Foreign Policy, May 18, 2011, available at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/05/18/palestines_hidden_history_of_nonviolence?page=0,1, last accessed Mar 18, 2013.
S E Nepstad, “Nonviolent Resistance in the Arab Spring,” Swiss Political Science Review, 4 Nov 2011, available at http://www.ocnus.net/artman2/publish/Analyses_12/Nonviolent-Resistance-in-the-Arab-Spring.shtml, last accessed Mar 20, 2013.
M Stephan and E S Chenoweth, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1 , 2008, pp. 7–44.
S Zunes, R K Lester, and B A Sarah eds., Nonviolent Social Movements. Massachusetts and Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
[i] While well known as a popular resistance movement, the Palestinian resistance movement against Israel has rarely had a distinctly nonviolent element. Even in the well known First Intifada of 1987-1993, protests quickly became deliberately violent, and co-opted as part of the overall violent resistance. Since 2002 non-violent resistance tactics have been expanding in the conflict, most notably the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident. However, no widely organized non-violent resistance movement yet exists. This may change in the future though, as Palestinian leaders are reportedly increasingly aware of the strategic value of expressly non-violent resistance approaches: "When we use violence, we help Israel win international support," said Aziz Dweik, a leading Hamas lawmaker in the West Bank. "The Gaza flotilla has done more for Gaza than 10,000 rockets." – Charles Levinson, “Israel's Foes Embrace New Resistance Tactics” The Wall Street Journal (2 July 2010) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704638504575318390063707222.html accessed 19 Mar 2013
[ii] This review is historical and academic in nature, and as a result should not be taken as an endorsement of any future resistance movements or specific courses of action undertaken by them.
[iv] For further information, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umkhonto_we_Sizwe
[v] One example of this would be the international condemnation and pressure that resulted from the Israeli military action against civilian resistors, resulting in 9 fatalities, during the 2010 “Freedom Flotilla” incident. The resulting public and diplomatic pressure is credited with forcing Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza.
[vi] However, it cannot be assumed that the armed resistance movement can fully protect civilians from regime violent.
[vii] Although the resistance movements in the Baltic states were strictly a non-violent ones this lesson still seems applicable here.