The Global Spread of Active Nonviolence
by Richard Deats
In the last century Victor Hugo wrote, "An invasion of armies can
be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come." Looking back over
the twentieth century, especially since the movements Gandhi and King
led, we see the growing influence and impact of nonviolence all over the
Mohandas Gandhi pioneered in developing the philosophy and practice of
nonviolence. On the vast sub-continent of India, he led a colonial people
to freedom through satyagraha or soul force, defeating what was at the
time the greatest empire on earth, the British Raj. Not long after Gandhi's
death, Martin Luther King, Jr. found in the Mahatma's philosophy the key
he was searching for to move individualistic religion to a socially dynamic
religious philosophy that propelled the civil rights movement into a nonviolent
revolution that changed the course of U.S. history.
The Gandhian and Kingian movements have provided a seed bed for social
ferment and revolutionary change across the planet, providing a mighty
impetus for human and ecological transformation. Many, perhaps most, still
do not recognize the significance of this development and persist in thinking
that in the final analysis it is lethal force, or the threat of it, that
is the decisive arbiter of human affairs. Why else would the United States
continue to pour hundreds of billions into weapons even as non-military
foreign aid is cut, United Nations dues are not paid for years, and U.S.
armed forces are sent abroad on peacekeeping missions without being given
the kind of training that would creatively prepare them for the work of
Public awareness of the nonviolent breakthroughs that have been occurring
is still quite minimal. This alternative paradigm to the ancient belief
in marching armies and bloody warfare has made great headway "on
the ground" but it is still little understood and scarcely found
in our history books or in the media.
While "nonviolence is as old as the hills," as Gandhi said,
it is in our century in which the philosophy and practice of nonviolence
have grasped the human imagination. In an amazing and unexpected manner,
as individuals, groups, and movements have developed creative, life-affirming
ways to resolve conflict, overcome oppression, establish justice, protect
the earth, and build democracy.
More and more, active nonviolence is taking the center stage in the struggle
for liberation among oppressed peoples across the world. This is an alternative
history, one that most people are scarcely aware of. What follows, in
necessarily broad strokes, are some of the highlights of this alternative
In l986 millions of unarmed Filipinos surprised the world by nonviolently
overthrowing the brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who was known
at the time as "the Hitler of Southeast Asia." The movement
they called "people power" demonstrated in an astounding way
the power of active nonviolence.
Beginning with the assassination in l983 of the popular opposition leader,
Senator Benigno Aquino, the movement against Marcos grew rapidly. Inspired
by Aquino's strong advocacy of nonviolence, the people were opened to
the realization that armed rebellion was not the only way to overthrow
a dictator. Numerous workshops in active nonviolence, especially in the
churches, helped build a solid core of activists - including many key
leaders - ready for a showdown with the dictatorship.
In late l985, when Marcos called a snap election, the divided opposition
united behind Corazon Aquino, the widow of the slain senator. Despite
fraud, intimidation and violence employed by Marcos, the Aquino forces
brilliantly used a nonviolent strategy with marches, petitions, trained
poll watchers and an independent polling commission. When Marcos tried
to steal the election and thwart the people's will, the country came to
the brink of civil war. Cardinal Sin, head of the Catholic Church in the
islands, went on the radio and called the country to prayer and nonviolent
resistance; he instructed the contemplative orders of nuns to pray and
fast for the country's deliverance from tyranny. Thirty computer operators
tabulating the election results, at risk to their very lives, walked out
when they saw Marcos being falsely reported as winning. After first going
into hiding, they called on the international press and publicly denounced
the official counting, exposing the fraud to the world. Corazon ("Cory")
Aquino called for a nonviolent struggle of rallies, vigils and civil disobedience
to undermine the fraudulent claim of Marcos that he had won the election.
Church leaders fully backed her call; in fact, the Catholic bishops made
a historic decision to call upon the people to nonviolently oppose the
Marcos government. Crucial defections from the government by two key leaders
and a few hundred troops became the occasion for hundreds of thousands
of unarmed Filipinos to pour into the streets of Manila to protect the
defectors and demand the resignation of the discredited government. They
gathered along the circumferential highway around Manila which ran alongside
the camps where the rebel troops had gathered. The highway, Epifanio de
los Santos - the Epiphany of the Saints! -was popularly referred to as
EDSA. Troops sent to attack the rebels were met by citizens massed in
the streets, singing and praying, telling on the soldiers to join them
in what has since been called the EDSA Revolution. Clandestine radio broadcasts
gave instructions in nonviolent resistance. When fighter planes were sent
to bomb the rebel camp, the pilots saw it surrounded by the people and
defected. A military man said, "This is something new. Soldiers are
supposed to protect the civilians. In this particular case, you have civilians
protecting the soldiers." Facing the collapse of his support, Marcos
and his family fled the country. The dictatorship fell in four days.
Ending the dictatorship was only the first step in the long struggle for
freedom. Widespread poverty, unjust distribution of the land, and an unreformed
military remained, undercutting the completion of the revolution, Challenges
to the further development of an effective people power movement have
continued with a determined grass-roots movement working to transform
The dictatorships that characterized Latin America in the 1980s were ended
for the most part by the unarmed power of the people. Consider Chile,
for example. The Chileans, who like the Filipinos suffered under a brutal
dictatorship, gained inspiration from the people power movement of the
Philippines as they built their own movement of nonviolent resistance
to General Pinochet. To describe their efforts, they used the powerful
image of drops of water wearing away the stone of oppression.
In l986 leftist guerillas killed five bodyguards of Pinochet in an assassination
attempt on the general. In retaliation the military decided to take revenge
by arresting five critics of the regime. A human rights lawyer alerted
his neighbors to the danger of his being abducted and they made plans
to protect him. That night cars arrived in the early morning hours carrying
hooded men who tried to enter the house. Unable to break down reinforced
doors and locks, they tried the barred windows. The lawyer's family turned
on all the lights and banged pots and blew whistles, awakening the neighbors
who then did the same. The attackers, unexpectedly flustered by the prepared
and determined neighbors, fled the scene.
Other groups carefully studied where the government tortured people and
then, after prayer and reflection, found ways to expose the evil. For
example, they would padlock themselves to iron railings near the targeted
building; others would proceed to such a site during rush hour, then unfurl
a banner saying, "Here they torture people." Sometimes they
would disappear into the crowd; on other occasions they would wait until
they were arrested.
In October of l988, the government called on the people to vote "si"
or "no" on continued military rule. Despite widespread intimidation
against Pinochet's critics, the people were determined. Workshops were
held to help them overcome their fear and to work to influence the election.
Inspired and instructed by Filipino opposition to Marcos, voter registration
drives and the training of poll watchers proceeded all over the country.
The results exceeded their fondest expectations: 91% of all eligible voters
registered and the opposition won 54.7% of all votes cast. Afterwards
over a million people gathered in a Santiago park to celebrate their victory.
In the late l980s throughout Latin America dictatorships fell like dominos,
not through armed uprisings but through the determination of unarmed people
- students, mothers, workers, religious groups - persisting in their witness
against oppression and injustice, even in the face of torture and death.
In Brazil such nonviolent efforts for justice were called firmeza permamente
- relentless persistence. Base communities in the Brazilian countryside,
for example, became organizing centers of the landless struggling to regain
their land. In Argentina "mothers of the disappeared" were unceasing
in their vigils and agitation for an accounting of the desaparacidos -
the disappeared - of the military regime. In Montevideo, a fast in the
tiny office of Serpaj (Service for Justice & Peace) brought to the
fore the first public opposition to Uruguay's rapacious junta and elicited
widespread sympathy that turned the tide toward democracy.
Nowhere has the struggle for democracy been more difficult than in Haiti,
yet even there the people developed courageous and determined nonviolent
resistance against all odds. The people's movement is called lavalas,
the flood washing away oppression. Defying governmental prohibitions and
military abuse, the people demonstrated and marched and prayed. In l986,
Fr.Jean Bertrand Aristide was silenced by his religious order and directed
by the hierarchy to leave his parish and go to a church in a dangerous
area dominated by the military. However, students from his church in the
slums occupied the front rows of the national cathedral in Port-au-Prince.
Seven students fasted at the altar, persisting for six days until the
bishops backed down and allowed Aristide to continue working in his parish.
Then, in December l990, Aristide was elected to the presidency. Driven
from office and exiled abroad, he returned only after U.S. troops went
The long term building of a democratic society there faces enormous odds.
Even though the Haitian army has been abolished, a culture of violence
remains. It will require time and persistence and the strengthening of
the grassroots movement from which a civil society will emerge, as happened
in Costa Rica where the abolition of the army was part of a larger effort
to improve education, health care, work and living conditions. Costa Rica,
without a military, remained at peace during the 1980s while much of Central
America was in turmoil.
(continue to page 2)
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