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The Global Spread of Active Nonviolence
by Richard Deats

(continued from page 1)


Stunning developments took place in China in the spring of l989. What began as a memorial march for a deceased leader quickly led into a mass expression of the pent-up longings of the Chinese people. With slogans such as "people power" and "we shall overcome," students - later joined by workers - called for democracy, an end to corruption, a free press, and other democratic reforms. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese joined the protesters in Tienanmen Square. Day after day, week after week, they peacefully called on their government to accede to their demands. First a few, then hundreds, joined in a fast. Growing numbers of citizens, including police, soldiers, even many generals, expressed sympathy for the movement. The first soldiers sent to stop the demonstrators were disarmed with gifts and goodwill, just as the Filipinos had done in Manila. The top leaders of the government, in an important concession, met in a televised session with the students. The movement spread, beyond control it seemed, to other cities. Finally, however, a confused and divided government replaced the troops in the capital with soldiers from North China who could be counted on to follow orders and use brute force. Thus, on June 4 the massacre of Tienanmen Square occurred, setting back for years the democracy movement in China.

This great tragedy was not necessarily the end of people power in China, however, any more than the Amritsar massacre of unarmed Indians by the British was the end of the Indian revolution nor the assassination of Benigno Aquino was the end of the people power movement in the Philippines. Both of those tragedies in fact, proved to be beginnings rather than endings. Martin Luther King reminded us that "unearned suffering is redemptive." This can be true for a people as well as for an individual, though years, even decades may be required to rekindle such a movement.

China has also brutally sought to destroy the democratic rights of the people of Tibet. The Tibetans' exiled leader and 1989 Nobel Prize laureate, the Dalai Lama, bravely persists in calling his people not to flag in their nonviolent efforts to gain their freedom. He believes that these efforts will resonate with China's democracy movement which was so brutally setback at Tienanmen Square. The Dalai Lama maintains that following the course of nonviolent resistance will in time bring political concessions from China that seem unimaginable at present.


Events remarkably parallel to China's occurred in Burma 1998. In Rangoon, the capital, a students' nonviolent movement was launched in the summer of l988 against the harshly repressive military rulers. Students began mass marches that in- creased week by week as professionals, middle class, and working people joined in.

During this tumultuous period Aung San Suu Kyi quickly rose to prominence. The daughter of Aung San, the father of modern Burma, she married an Oxford professor and moved to England. She had returned to Rangoon from abroad because of her mother's illness. Suu Kyi was drawn into the democracy movement and fearlessly spoke at mass rallies, once walking through a contingent of soldiers ready to fire on her. Finally, as would occur in China a year later, the threatened leaders ordered a bloody crackdown. Thousands of unarmed demonstrators were killed, with thousands more fleeing into the jungle. Nonetheless in the May l990 national elections, the people voted overwhelmingly for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, even though she and the other NLD leaders had been placed under house arrest months earlier. The government refused to recognize the results of the election and continued to govern, keeping Suu Kyi under house arrest five years. Meanwhile she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in l99l. In one of her essays, she wrote, "The wellspring of courage and endurance in the face of unbridled power is generally a firm belief in the sanctity of ethical principles, combined with a historical sense that despite all setbacks the condition of man is set on an ultimate course for both spiritual and material advancement." Her quiet determination and courage continues as a tower of strength to the Burmese in their quest for freedom.


"Engaged Buddhism" as articulated by the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Cambodian monk Maha Gosananda, and the Thai activist/intellectual Sulak Sivaraksa, has contributed to nonviolent struggles in many places in Asia. Thailand has evidenced ongoing nonviolent efforts against its military, including a successful student-led movement in 1973 that brought down the dictatorship. Recurring pro-democracy movements in the 1980s and 1990s have continued this long-term struggle. In the 1990s yearly Buddhist peace marches across the killing fields of a devastated Cambodia have promoted healing and the rebuilding of trust and hope among a war-weary people.

In Taiwan and South Korea pro-democracy efforts have won out over auth-oritarian regimes. The twentieth century ends with South Korea under the presidency of Kim Dae Jung, a human rights crusader who finally triumphed over those who tried repeatedly to kill him. His daunting effort to bring reconciliation between bitter;y divided North and South Korea has been a hallmark of his presidency.

Pro-democracy students in Indonesia have been unrelenting in their struggle against dictatorship, corruption, and military involvement in politics. Unceasing rallies and protests--a democracy in the streets--finally brought down the authoritar- ian Suharto in May 1998, leading to a duly elected president in October 1999.

At the same time, however, agitation for independence by East Timor, the former Portuguese colony taken over by Indonesia in 1975 was brutally crushed by Indonesian-backed paramilitaries in 1999. In 1996 Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta received the Nobel Peace Prize for their nonviolent leadership in the East Timor freedom movement. The situation demonstrates the tragic inability of central states such as Indonesia, China, Yugoslavia and Russia to deal fairly with challenges to their authority and the weakness of the UN and the world community in fostering just and peaceful resolution of such conflicts.


Prior to the start of the Peace Process in the Middle East, the predominant impression of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, fed by media images, was one of rock-throwing Palestinian young men fighting the Israeli soldiers. But beginning in l967 there were two parts of the Palestinian resistance movement, the paramilitary and the civil. The Intifada (Arabic for "to shake off") was from its inception a multi-dimensional movement containing many nonviolent aspects such as:

+ strikes by schools and businesses called to protest specific policies and actions of the occupying authorities
+ agricultural projects, e.g. the planting of victory gardens and trees planted on disputed lands
+ committees for visiting prisoners and families of those who have been killed.
+ boycotts of Israeli-made products
+ tax refusal, as in the Palestinian village of Beit Sahour where the VAT (value added tax) and income taxes were not paid
+ when villagers were unjustly arrested, other residents went to police stations asking to be arrested as a way of showing their solidarity
+ the establishment of alternative institutions to build Palestinian self-sufficiency

Commenting on such developments, Labor Party leader Schlomo Avineri observed, "An army can beat an army, but an army cannot beat a people. . . . Iron can smash iron, it cannot smash an unarmed fist." Nonetheless, the Palestinian resistance was met with brute force, from deliberately breaking the bones of demonstrators to demolishing the homes of suspects' families, from smashing the moveable goods of tax protestors to sealing off areas for months at a time, preventing people from going to their jobs or even going to the hospital.

The just demands and nonviolent actions of the Intifada strengthened the voices of Israelis working to find a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict. And, despite grave legal risks, covert meetings between Palestinians and Israelis slowly built growing areas of understanding. In March l989 the chairman of the Palestine National Council's political committee told a New York audience how secret friendships with Jewish leaders helped Palestinian leaders to publicly adopt a two-state solution. In the fall of l992 Norway began hosting fourteen secret meetings between Palestinians and Israelis out of which the Declaration of Principles was forged that provided the basis of the Israeli-PLO Accord signed on the White House lawn on September l3, l993.

The Accord was only a beginning on the long road to peace. Palestinian land was still being seized, settlements expanded and arbitrary policies imposed upon the Palestinian people. Israelis still lived in fear of terrorist attacks. Extremists on both sides were unrelenting in their efforts to undermine the Peace Process. The assassination of Prime Minister Rabin and the electoral defeat of his government were immense setbacks to the cause of peace. Time will tell if both sides can once again build on the foundation that showed so much promise and yet faces such enormous obstacles. To those who say this is impossible, Gandhi reminds us, "Think of all the things that were thought impossible until they happened."


Decades of resistance to apartheid and witness for a multiracial, democratic society slowly but surely wore away the stone of oppression in South Africa. The brutal policies of the government convinced many that apartheid would only end in a violent showdown and to that end the African National Congress had an active military wing. Nonetheless, the heart of the resistance movement was classic nonviolent resistance: education, vigils, rallies, marches, petitions, boycotts. prayers, fasts and civil disobedience. Governmental attempts to stop this resistance with massive detentions, bannings of organizations and individuals, intimidation and murder, as well as emergency rule could not, in the end, stop the movement.

In 1989, the churches responded to the draconian measures of emergency rule with a nationwide effort called "effective nonviolent action" that trained citizens for grassroots campaigns to break racial barriers in housing and transportation, defend conscientious objectors, visit prisoners across racial lines, etc. Emergency rule, rather than strengthening the government, exposed its desperation and moral bankruptcy.

An unexpected breakthrough came when President deKlerk began instituting reforms. He eventually legalized the African National Congress and released Nelson Mandela who had been in prison 29 years. The dramatic changes demonstrate a concept from the civil rights movement in the U. S., "top down/bottom up," i. e., pressure for change from the grassroots is met by reforms accepted by or initiated from the top, creating a dynamic tension that fosters change.

In the midst of these developments the government still carried out brutal policies. But the force for change was not to be denied. The first open elections in South Africa's history were held in an amazing manifestation of a whole nation peacefully voting for revolutionary change, moving from a white racist regime to multi-racial democratic rule under the presidency of Nelson Mandela. His passion for freedom and justice for all was expressed in a greatness of spirit that reached out to his former enemies. Though he never forswore the ANC's recourse to violence, his approach has been remarkably nonviolent and reconciling. In his inaugural address, he held before the people a unifying vision "in which all South Africans . . will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, sure of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world."


The same "top down/bottom up" process occurred in the unraveling of the Soviet bloc that followed the policies of glasnost, perestroika and democratsatsiya (openness, restructuring and democracy) instituted by President Mikhail Gorbachev. Pressure from below - relentless persistence - helped to create a climate ripe for change. This ferment was long in building. On the one hand there was a small but determined band of human rights advocates such as Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner who were unrelenting in their demand for the observance of universally accepted standards of human rights. Others - religious, peace and environmental groups, artists and poets - refused in varying ways to submit to totalitarian rule.

The crushing of Czechoslovakia's l968 experiment to create "socialism with a human face" strengthened the widely held assumption that communism was incapable of peaceful change and democratic openness, that nonviolence might "work" in India or the U.S. but never with the communist regimes. This added fuel to the Cold War and the nuclear arms race and the belief that World War III was a virtual certainty. Not many paid attention to those aspects of the Czech experiment that contained hints of the 'people power' revolutions that were to flower in the l980s, but they were highly significant.

The l968 invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies had been expected to crush all resistance in a few days. It took eight months. Czechoslovakia's large and well-trained army was ordered to stay in its barracks while the populace responded in unexpectedly creative, nonviolent ways. The Czech news agency refused to report the disinformation that said Czech leaders had requested the invasion. Highway and street signs were turned around to confuse the invading forces. Students sat in the path of incoming tanks; other climbed on the tanks and talked to the crews. While they did not physically fight the invaders, the people refused to cooperate with them. Clandestine radio messages kept up the morale of the people, passing on vital information and instructions, such as the calling of one hour general strikes. The Czech leaders were able to hold on to their offices and continue some of the reforms until the resistance finally began to erode, quite possibly through the work of agents provacateurs.

Twelve years later, in August, 1980, neighboring Poland took up the fallen nonviolent banner as the Gdansk shipyard workers went on strike and, with prayers and rallies, Solidarity was born. Using strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations, Solidarity gave laborers an independent voice and began a grassroots movement for change that spread rapidly across Poland. The government responded with swift imposition of martial law in December, l981. But instead of its destroying Solidarity, the people began the creation of an alternative society at the base, choosing to live "as if they were free." A new society was born in the shell of the old. When, finally, in l989, open elections were held, Solidarity won by a landslide.

The Polish elections were aided by the breathtaking changes occurring in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's reforms, beginning in l985, opened the floodgates of pent-up longings for change that were eventually to sweep away even Gorbachev and the Soviet system. One by one totalitarian rule in the nations of Eastern Europe was overturned by people armed with truth and courage. A critical mass had been reached through the power of growing numbers of people emboldened by such things as the writings of Vaclav Havel from a Czech prison and prayer meetings and discussion groups in Leipzig, East Germany. The symbol of the vast changes was the peaceful breeching of the Berlin Wall on November 9, l989, as the old order collapsed and its discredited regimes were swept aside with remarkably little violence orloss of life (the main exception to this being Romania).

The widespread assumption that totalitarian regimes could not be overturned by unarmed struggle was decisively shown to be wrong. Governments ultimately derive their strength from the consent - either passive or active - of the governed. Once that consent disappears and resistance spreads, governments find their power to rule weakened and, under the right circumstances, destroyed.

What happened in Eastern Europe happened in the USSR as well. The reforms speeded up the stirrings for change, as thousands of grassroots groups sprang up to deal with a whole spectrum of social, economic, political, environmental, and cultural issues. In July, l990, l00,000 coal miners went out on a strike in Siberia that spread westward to Ukraine. Strongly disciplined, the miners policed themselves, closed down mining town liquor stores, and gathered for massive rallies.

From the local to the national level, elections became more democratic, bringing about the election of reform candidates. In the spring of l989, two thousand persons, including Andrei Sakharov, were elected to the Congress of Peoples' Deputies in the freest election since the revolution. Popularly elected legislatures came into office throughout the USSR, breaking the monopoly of the Communist Party. The lead for these changes came from popular fronts established in republic after republic, beginning with Latvia (October l988), Ukraine (September l989) and in Lithuania where Sajudis won multi-party elections (February l990). Respect for the language, history, and traditions of the various nationalities challenged the Russification that had undergirded Soviet power and control.

On March 11, 1990, the Baltic state of Lithuania became the first of the Soviet republics to proclaim outright independence. This most repressed of the republics started a 'singing revolution," defying decades of cultural repression by reviving Lithuanian folk songs, festivals, religious practices, and traditions. The movie "Gandhi" was shown nationwide on television, enhancing the nonviolent resistance of the people. Trying to halt the dissolution of the Union, Moscow retaliated with a crippling blockade. The following January crack Red Army troops moved on the capital of Vilnius, killing fourteen unarmed demonstrators protecting the nation's TV tower. Instead of surrendering or issuing a call to arms, Lithuania called on the citizenry to "hold to principles of nonviolent insubordinate resistance and political and social noncooperation." The Lithuanians did just that, continuing their nonviolent and independent course. They protected their parliament with unarmed citizens and had nonviolence training for the volunteer militia they had established.

Then in August 1991, elements of the Communist Party, the KGB, and the Army tried to stage a coup in Moscow. Despite the arrest of Gorbachev and his family, resistance was widespread. People poured into the streets to protect the Russian parliament. Women and students called on the soldiers to join the people. Religious people knelt in the streets in prayer. People trained in nonviolence passed out writings on the methods of nonviolent struggle. Closed newspapers and radio stations quickly set up alternative media. The Mayor of Leningrad told the military there not to follow the orders of the plotters and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church threatened excommunication to those who followed the coup. Even some members of the KGB refused orders, risking death for their defiance. Eventually the coup attempt collapsed, opening the way for Lithuania and the other republics to begin an independent course.

The breakup of the Soviet empire will doubtless be followed by years of upheaval as its constituent parts find their place in a world reaching for democracy but often lacking the experience, patience, and vision to implement the hope. The collapse of Soviet-style communism was followed by a predatory capitalism that in many places left the people with the worst of both systems. At this point in history we have learned a great deal about nonviolent resistance to evil and bringing down oppressors. We still have far to go in knowing how to take the next steps in fostering the democratic evolution of society that includes justice and peace, freedom and order.

Democracy is the institutionalization of nonviolent problem-solving in society. Education, conflict resolution, the struggle for justice, organizing for special needs, voting on issues, adjudicating differences, framing laws for change and reform - these are all nonviolent in essence and help build what Martin Luther King, Jr. called "the beloved community." Democratic nations are truest to their values when they deal with other nation states nonviolently, through diplomacy, treaties, mutual respect and fairness.

The tragic warfare and ethnic cleansing that plagued the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia brought immense suffering to the region. Nonetheless a stubborn and substantial nonviolent movement in Serbia has continued to struggle against the autocratic rule of Slobodan Milosevic.Through most of the 1990s a powerful nonviolent movement in Kosova resisted Serbia's oppression of the majority Albanian population.Tragically Kosova was ignored until armed resistance started there against ethnic cleansing; then in 1999 NATO came in with a heavy bombing campaign against the Serbs. Violent assistance to armed fighters seemed natural; nonviolent assistance to a nonviolent movement was not even attempted by nations schooled in the ways of war.


Nonviolent movements in the United States have a long and significant history, from the abolitionist struggle against slavery; the women's movement; the labor movement; the environmental movement; the peace movement; the movements for the rights of African-Americans, gays and lesbians, as well as other minorities and oppressed groups. Peace studies in colleges, conflict resolution in schools and communities and similar developments in many areas of life give hope for the building of a culture of peace. Nonetheless, there is still far to go when one considers the degree of violence in the national life and in the foreign and domestic policies of the United States.


At the time of the Philippine overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship, a Filipino writer said that whereas the past one hundred years were dominated by Karl Marx and the armed revolutionary, the next hundred years would be shaped by Gandhi and the unarmed satyagrahi, the votary of Truth. Gandhi said that 'Truth is God' and that the Truth expressed in the unarmed struggle for justice, peace, and freedom is the greatest power in the world.

During Gandhi's lifetime, many looked on him with contempt. Churchill dismissed him as a "half-naked fakir." Communists and other advocates of violent revolution branded his nonviolence as bourgeois and reactionary. King was arrested twenty-nine times; he was despised by many who were infuriated by his witness for justice and peace. Yet most advances in the human race have faced long years of ridicule and opposition. New insights of truth are often considered heresy. Prophets are driven out, their followers persecuted. But the influence of Gandhi and King, the martyred prophets, continues to grow as nonviolent movements spread around the world.

If a global, democratic civilization is to come into being and endure, our challenge is to continue developing nonviolent alternatives to war and all forms of oppression, from individuals to groups, from nation states to the peoples of the world. We must continue to challenge the age-old assumptions about the necessity of violence in overcoming injustice, resisting oppression and establishing social well- being. In November, 1998, the UN General Assembly unanimously proclaimed the first decade of the twenty-first century to be a Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence, a prescient recognition of the future that must be built if humanity is to endure.

What if in 1980 someone would have predicted that unarmed Filipinos would overthrow the Marcos dictatorship in a four day uprising? That military regimes across Latin America would be toppled by the relentless persistance of their unarmed opponents? That apartheid would end peacefully and that in a massive and peaceful plebiscite all races of South Africa would elect Nelson Mandela to the presidency? That the Berlin Wall would be nonviolently brought down? Such a person would probably have been thought ridiculously naive and dismissed out of hand. And yet these things happened! Why do we so resist the potential of the not yet stirring in the present moment? The sociologist Elise Boulding reminds us how deadly pessimism can be, for it can undermine our determination to work for a better tomorrow. Hope, on the other hand, infused in an apparently hopeless situation can create an unexpected potential for change. This is the faith that sings, in the face of police dogs and water cannons, "We Shall Overcome." Or as Joan of Arc muses in Shaw's St. Joan, "Some people see things as they are and ask 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and ask, 'Why not?'"


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