Everyone is talking about the uprising in Tibet. A producer from the CBC called me to be a guest to discuss the subject on the early morning radio show “The Current.” He paired me up with an animal liberation activist, Jerry Vlasic, who was chosen specifically because he supports the use of violence. Maybe he wanted me to attack this guy, but I thought he defeated himself without any help from me.
Still, I was surprised at the initial question that the host, Anna Maria Tremonti, asked me: “Some of the critics of the Dalai Lama say that his tactics are not good enough — that nonviolence is not getting them anywhere.”
“I think you have to acknowledge, ” I replied, “that they haven’t made much progress. On the other hand, the use of violence is bound to be suicidal in that situation. In the long run they are going to be crushed. I wouldn’t say that the strategy that the Dalai Lama has used is the most promising. But he’s both a religious leader and a political leader. Mixing up politics and religion is problematic. He may be right when he says that he will step aside as a political leader – in fact, he says he’s semi-retired anyway from his role as a political leader.
“But they do have a prime minister and a parliament. The Tibetans in exile do have a democratic government that they could be using. That’s where I think there could be more leadership. There hasn’t been the kind of leadership that could be done if they had really good strategic planning. That’s what’s going wrong now because there had not been any effort to organize a strategic nonviolent campaign.
“You have to think of it as equivalent to a war. It’s a long-term effort to accomplish certain goals. If you go about it in a very strategic way — deciding what your goals are, and identifying the sources of power that the Chinese regime depends upon so as to hold other people in place (for example, the military, but there are other sources of power that they use too), identify the places where changes might be made to overcome those sources of power, then you have the possibility, over a long term, of making a real difference.
Anna Maria asked: “You’re talking about strategic actions, but still nonviolent?”
“Absolutely nonviolent,” I said. “What is going on now in Tibet is an expresssive outburst. It’s not coordinated. It’s not organized. Nobody’s in charge. People are simply fed up and they’re going out an doing random activities that kind of get their tension out of the way, express their feelings, but that’ not useful. In the long term what you need is carefully developed strategy, which would require people to get together and discuss what their goals are – and it’s quite possible that right now they would need to change their goals. Originally the goal was for independence, then autonomy...”
At that point Ms Tremonti brought Vlasic into the conversation, asking him whether he thinks it’s time to bring violence into this. He replied that there has never been a successful nonviolent movement, for the oppressor never gives up his power. He insisted that we love violence: the bludgeoning of baby seals proves that people are willing to use violence. “But,” he said, “there can be no moral objection to the use of violence for self-defence or for the defence of children, animals, or peoples such as the Tibetans or Palestinians. Violence is a necessary strategy in every successful liberation movement. There’s always a Malcolm X behind every Martin Luther King. In the case of Mahatma Gandhi, there was plenty of violence going on in the background in the struggle for Indian independence. Every one of these liberation movements has required the use of violence in self-defence. The Chinese are using massive amounts of violence. The Israelis are using massive amounts of violence against Palestinians.”
“Let’s talk about that,” interrupted Anna Maria. “because I don’t see an Israeli-Palestinian solution coming from the violence on either side. Metta Spencer, do you agree that there has been absolutely no place where nonviolence has worked?”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “There are lots of places. The point is that lots of times nonviolence is taken up by people in situations just because they can see that they have no opportunity to use violence. It’s not necessarily an ethical decision. It’s based on the fact that they don’t have any weapons or something of that kind, so they have to resort to nonviolence. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Anna Maria asked, “Can you give us some examples of where it has worked?”
“Take 1989,” I replied. “All around the world Communist governments simply walked away. They said, ‘Here are the keys. You take over!’ Sometimes there wasn’t a drop of blood shed. In that case, these were street demonstrations, which spread around the world. We could watch it in one country one night and then the next night people in the next country would imitate it. It went like dominoes toppling over.
“So, yeah. Lots of times nonviolent methods are used in situation where violence absolutely would not work. And they vary in effectiveness. I think the main thing to realize is that an expressive action – just going to the streets and setting fires or standing in front of a tank — that’s really a rare thing, to stop a tank. Mostly the tanks will run over you. So to plan a real resistance, a real revolution from the people, you have to coordinate them.
“And sometimes it would be smarter instead of going out and having a demonstration, to tell people to stay home that day. They are much less likely to get killed and it will make a big impact. People will see that there’s nobody on the streets that day.”
That’s as far as the conversation got. Anna Maria ended it before I had a chance to give any examples. I had meant to talk about the way certain strategists had planned their movements astutely — such as in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Long before the people gathered in the city square to protest against the rigged elections, the organizers had been calculating ways of undermining the sources of power on which the authoritarian regime depended.
The main tactic was to talk the army into supporting the opposition movement instead of the government. There were two especially brilliant innovations that Anika Binnendijk described in her study of the movement. First, the “Pora” organizers approached some former military officers who had been discharged. One respected admiral, in particular, was disgusted with Kuchma’s regime. He was glad to join the opposition movement, and to recruit his old colleagues who were still in the military.
Second, a year or two before the rebellion, the organizers went to the wives and mothers of the officers and persuaded them that their cause was just. Then, when the people were summoned to the square to protest against the fraudulent election, these women came and joined them. During the first week, those women were there, serving tea pleasantly to everyone. No wonder their husbands and sons were unwilling to obey orders and fire on the crowd!
That’s strategic planning! Probably the Tibetans cannot copy these particular tactics. For one thing, they would not succeed with a nonviolent protest in a city square. There will have to be other methods — probably mostly symbolic ones at first. For example, under the Communist regime, the Polish Solidarity movement did such things as create their own postage stamps to put on letters. And they organized “flying university classes” in private homes, which met in a different home each week to keep from being attacked. Sometimes they would have people put a candle in their front window on a given night, just to show each other how numerous they were. On one occasion, they commandeered the electric scoreboard of a soccer stadium and during the game flashed their own message in bright lights to the people. They did not pit themselves against the military, but they showed the Soviet bosses that the regime was not considered legitimate. Eventually the unnerved Communists gave up power without a struggle.
And to accomplish any kind of progress, The Tibetans need to analyze the vulnerabilities of the Chinese and the resources that are available. A nonviolent movement, like a violent one, needs the leadership of a brilliant strategist. A revolution is not an amateur sport. You need a good coach. I hope they find one.