Peaceful revolutions



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Peaceful revolutions


Successful political revolutions in the last three decades have been dominated by masses of unarmed people. They have challenged the present political establishment and refused to obey orders, often at central places in the capitals. Different from the traditional armed guerillas confronting the state army these movements have not used deadly means, not even when confronted with violent police and militaries. These cases are on crucial points different from the traditional revolutions like the French,, Russian, Chinese or Cuban ones. The understanding of these movements draws on research on social movements as well as revolutionary theories and the nonviolent tradition within peace research. The role of the nonviolent means by large groups has been vital but not sufficient for the successful outcomes.

A revolution is a social change that happens relatively fast and in which a society goes from one social system to another. It is distinguished from a “reform” by being carried out outside the established channels for societal changes (parliament, constitution etc) and can take place in any combination of the political, cultural or economic systems in a society. If all these three social systems are changed simultaneously we may talk of a social revolution. Most of the peaceful revolutions are limited to the political system, but with frequent unintended effect on the economical system as well.

Large peaceful masses are not the only feature these revolutions have in common. In addition most cases take place in connection with elections. Often a domestic coalition confronts the people in position and there are frequently external actors involved in one way or another. Almost everyone of these peaceful revolutions seems to have short or limited preparations; they take place when there is a “window of opportunity”. When they are successful and the old leadership falls, they often face serious problems both with internal cooperation and establishing a sustainable alternative. History proves it is easier to remove the old establishment than to create a new and better society for the majority. Almost every case has been forced to establish a neoliberal market economy and to privatize public services. The results have been growing economies but no systems to distribute the surplus. Growing gaps between poor and rich have left many unsatisfied. One frequent improvement is establishment of multiparty systems and more formal democracy.

These commonalities do not contradict the fact that each revolution is unique. The combination of contexts, actors, processes, and results makes each case complex and distinctive. With some exceptions the recent three decades of revolutions can be divided in four waves. There are some overlapping time wise and some exceptions The first wave include Iran 1979, Poland 1980-88, Bolivia 1982, Uruguay 1984, and Philippines 1986 and 2001. In all these cases trade unions were central in the protests and the Catholic Church played important roles. The next wave came as a consequence of the development in Poland and took place in former Warsaw Pact states 1989-1991. This wave includes some of the new states as a result of the collapse in Soviet Union. Communist dictatorships were replaced with more formal democracy and they ended the Cold War. Almost in the same period of time a wave of unarmed revolutions took place in Sub-Saharan Africa with main focus in the Francophone states. Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Malawi and Madagascar experienced massive protests against the one-party systems and changes took place. Celebrating the 200 years anniversary of the French Revolution and inspired by the students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing these African states organized protests, demanded National Conferences and forced the power holders to step down, call for free elections or share power with the opposition. The last wave started in Serbia in 2000 with the removal of Milosevic and spread to Georgia 2003, Ukraine 2004, Kyrgyzstan 2005 and Lebanon the same year. In this wave the revolutions were dominated by well organized youth groups that led protests with spectacular confrontations outside the parliaments. Partly financed by American foundations and trained by experienced foreign activists they were able to make use of modern marketing techniques and had good international media coverage.



Iran 1979

Iran does not have a long tradition of nonviolent movements, and few had predicted what happened in 1979. In a country where secularization had gone far beyond what was acceptable for the Shiite clergy, the decline in clerical students, mosque attendance, and donations to mosques formed a weak, divided, and nonrevolutionary country. The socioeconomic context, including a land reform program, created a number of conflicts and is important to understand in order to explain what followed.

When the shah of Iran was forced to leave the country in 1979, it was due to a surprising coalition with the clergy, liberal academics, trade unions, farmers, workers, and armed resistance groups The most extraordinary thing about the process was not the extremely short period from the start to the time that the old leadership gave up, but the means used by those who demanded a change. Against the modern army, the secret police (SAVAK), and the well-equipped ordinary police force, the opposition had tried for many years to challenge the secular state with armed resistance and guerrilla warfare. Around 1977 the opposition started to organize a resistance movement centered around the Ayatollah Khomeini, who lived in exile. Khomeini sent tapes of instructions from France; these were copied, distributed, and played in mosques and on buses around the country. He provided explicit instructions, calling for strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and noncooperation, all well-known nonviolent means used by other groups around the world, but not in a context like this nor with such rapid results. In the Iranian revolution, the overthrowing of the old regime happened relatively quickly, and with a short term result very close to the goals of most of those who demanded a change in the state system. The majority wanted a theocracy, and that was what they got. The others were happy that the shah was forced to give up.

The fact that the protests were met by violence and arms did not prevent the demonstrators from going on with their nonviolent actions. The number of persons killed by police and military units are not known, but most estimates are at least several thousand. This is therefore a somewhat special case of successful nonviolent revolution. Despite the bloodshed it is labeled nonviolent revolution because those who want a change did not use weapons. Those who wanted to get rid of the shah were mostly unarmed and used very pragmatic but effective nonviolent techniques. The few cases of armed struggle carried out by Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups did not pose a major obstacle for the shah. Unarmed masses confronting soldiers and police, even when shot at, made it in the long run impossible to uphold the discipline in the army, and massive desertion was the result. This undermined the power base for the shah and made it impossible for him to retain his power.



Poland 1980-1989

In many ways, the Iranian revolution set a new trend for successful revolutions in the years to come. The next actor on the scene was Solidarity in Poland. After two centuries of armed uprising, Polish workers tried to fight the regime in 1980 with unarmed means.

After the turmoil in 1956 in Poland and Hungary, the workers movement was just waiting for an opportunity to resurface. Jacek Kuron’s 1964 “Open Letter to the Members of the Polish United Workers Party” challenged the system and influenced underground discussions. In both December 1970 and June 1976, revolutionary attempts were made, but without the necessary momentum. The Committee in Defence of Workers (KOR) was one important result of the discussion following the letter and the imprisonment of its author. What has been called “Poland’s permanent revolution” changed strategy in 1980. After many discussions, a network of groups and organizations became better structured. The Catholic Church and the Polish pope played crucial roles in inspiring individuals in the years ahead. The visit by the Pope to Poland in June 1979 mobilized some of the largest gatherings ever in Poland. None doubted the Pope’s view on communism.

Solidarity was also famous for its use of symbols in its struggle. Not only the flag and the Catholic cross but also a number of monuments, historic dates, and well-known people were used to express Solidarity’s views in times of censorship. Kubik (1994) gives the reader an excellent and sophisticated cultural understanding of these nonviolent means.

On July 1, 1980, localized strikes broke out all over Poland due to a government decree that raised meat prices by almost 100 percent. One major reason for this price rise was the demand from Russia to send large quantities of meat to Moscow before the Olympics Games started. They wanted to prove “false rumors” from the West that there was a lack of meat in Russia. In August 1980, the Gdansk Strike Committee (MKS) formed and twenty-one demands were presented. By early September, agreements were signed in three cities giving workers the right to form trade unions and to strike. But it was also explicitly written that they had to acknowledge the directive role of the Communist Party.

On September 21, the first Sunday Mass was on national radio for the first time since World War II. This autumn strikes and court cases were mixed with dialogue. A nationwide one-hour warning strike was held on October 3. The Supreme Court officially registered Solidarity on November 10. On December 5, Warsaw Pact members met for a summit in Moscow; four days later, the Soviets initiated military exercises all around Poland, and many feared that an invasion like the one in Hungary in 1956 or Prague in 1968 was approaching. A week later, leading cultural, religious, governmental, and Solidarity figures attended a dedication of a memorial in Gdansk commemorating workers martyred in the 1970 strike. By early February 1981, General Jaruzelski was named prime minister, and he asked for a three-month “ceasefire.” Industrial and general strikes occurred throughout 1981 in several part of the country. Starting in the shipyards in Gdansk, the strikes spread to many sectors and cities. The scope of the protests and the lack of violence created a situation in which the government was forced to start negotiations with the newly formed free trade unions. By the end of the fall, close to 10 million people of a total population of 35 million had joined the protests. The unions created a multitude of diverse forums for free expression of opinions. An Independent Student Union was also recognized, and farmers began to form independent organizations. The whole of 1981 continued with strikes and recognition of more organizations. The peak came on December 13, when Jaruzelski declared a state of emergency, and a number of Solidarity leaders and activists were arrested. In the spring of 1982, Solidarity started to organize underground and formed a Temporary Coordinating Commission (TKK). The following twelve months, a number of demonstrations took place, but without large numbers of participants. In October a new law dissolved independent self-governing trade unions, and by January 1983, martial law was suspended. The visit by the Pope in June 1983 resulted in the lifting of martial law, and in October Lech Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The struggle continued, and Solidarity asked people to boycott the 1984 local government elections. In 1985, a major shift started in the Soviet Union with the election of Gorbachev as the General Secretary of the Communist Party. In 1989, Solidarity got 35 percent (the maximum agreed to in the round table discussions) of the seats in Sejm and 99 out of 100 seats in the new upper house, the Senate. It was without a doubt a good result after almost a decade of nonviolent action. That Walesa was elected president on December 9, 1989 can be seen as the end of the revolution, but hardly the end of problems in Poland.



Bolivia 1982

Bolivia’s nonviolent mobilization began in 1977, when three women from the mining districts started a hunger strike in La Paz. The well-known woman Domitila Barrios de Chungara joined them, and soon many activities followed around the country. Bolivia has a different political and cultural context, but is similar in some ways to Poland. Bolivia was well-known for military coups and dictatorships, a cocaine mafia, and a brutal government. The infamous general Luis Garcia Meza led a bloody coup in 1980. The Committee for Defence of Democracy (CONADE) was established in the spring of 1980 and mobilized the political opposition. The Bolivian trade union Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) joined them, and organized for strikes in the mines and later general strikes. Since most of the Bolivian population was farmers, the opposition got new strength when the farmers’ union joined it. After five general strikes with increasing participation and a growing number of farmers in demonstrations, the generals stepped down in 1982 and gave power to those who won the 1980 elections. Bolivia is not well-known for nonviolent resistance, but there are many interesting parallels to Poland. When Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize, he invited representatives from the trade union COB. There were obviously links between Solidarity and COB, although to what degree they cooperated with and inspired each other is unknown. In both cases, the workers’ organizations cooperated with the farmers’ unions, and generated a strong coalition that used nonviolence. The armed tradition from Che Guevara turned out to be less effective and popular than strikes, demonstrations, and boycotts.



Uruguay 1985

After the coups d’etat in June 1973, none challenged the military in Uruguay, which was regarded as one of the most totalitarian and brutal regimes in South America. All forms of opposition were met with torture, murder, and kidnapping.

In an effort to legitimize its power, the Uruguayan dictatorship in 1980 organized a referendum for a new constitution. The proposed constitution would have institutionalized military rule over the country, but it was rejected by 57 percent of the population.

In late August 1983, a small demonstration was organized in front of the small office of Servicio Paz y Justicia (Serpaj) in Montevideo. Inside three people had been fasting for fifteen days, and more and more people gathered outside in solidarity. The authorities cut off the office’s light, water, and telephones. One night a new from of protest was born, caceroleada: banging on pots and other kitchen equipment to make sounds of protest. The sound was soon heard everywhere in the city. The police and military could not do much as long as people were inside their houses, and the sounds traveled through open windows.

Serpaj was declared illegal by the government soon after the first large caceroleada but it quickly grew to a major national human rights movement through these actions.

Labor and student organizations demonstrated separately in Montevideo on several occasions that fall, with the main demand being new elections. In early 1984, labor and civil strikes pressed the military into negotiations with the major opposition parties. A result of these discussions was the military’s agreement to hold national elections in November, from which the opposition Colorado Party’s Julio Maria Sanguinetti emerged victorious. He took office in March 1985.



The Philippines 1986

Asia was the next continent to experience a successful nonviolent revolution. Corazon Cojuangco Aquino studied in the U.S. and returned to the Philippines in 1983 for her husband’s wake and funeral. Her father, Benigno Aquino, had been assassinated on orders from President Marcos. Corazon Aquino immediately becomes the leader of the opposition toward Marcos. In the years following her husband’s death, she led numerous demonstrations, and in 1986 she stood against Marcos in the election. In February that year, popular uprisings took place at military camps in Quezon City, outside Manila, Marcos’ first serious opposition after thirteen years of martial law. He felt confident that he would win, and announced presidential elections. Aquino ran against him under the banner LABAN, an acronym for Lakas ng Bayan (People Power). Marcos won fraudulently, and several of the government’s tabulators walked out in protest. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines issued a document that was read from pulpits throughout the nation, declaring that the people had a duty to resist, nonviolently. One million took part in demonstrations at Lueta Park on February 4. Two weeks later, more than two million demonstrated there. Later parts of the armed forces declared Aquino the true winner of the elections, and massive demonstrations in yellow t-shirts began in Manila to support her. Yellow was used by Aquino as the symbol of her movement; whenever she was seen in public, she dressed in yellow, which was why she was nicknamed “the canary.” By the end of February, Marcos had fled the country and Aquino took her place as the Philippines’ legally elected president.



Eastern Europe 1989

Eastern Europe saw a change in 1989. After the collapse of communism in Poland, much of the legitimacy for one-party systems disappeared. In country after country, people took to the streets and demanded regime changes. The most spectacular event was the fall of the Berlin wall, but quite a few other episodes worth mentioning took place in several countries east of the “Iron Curtain.” The following mentions just a few in order to show the trend of nonviolent revolutions that swept Eastern Europe. Michael Randle (1991) presents interviews with core people from these events.

By 1989, the communist regimes in five Eastern and Central Europe countries had been opposed by nonviolent movements that undermined their one-party system. During 1990, free multiparty elections were held throughout the region. Many similarities can be seen in these events. Popular movements used nonviolent means to put pressure on political leadership, and the Soviet Union hesitated to come to the aid of the communist governments. All of these governments found themselves in a difficult situation. The protesters’ lack of violence seems to have been something they had serious difficulty handling. They had trained their police and military troops to handle violent uprisings, but were not prepared for unarmed demonstrators. The “CNN-effect” had a great impact on their reluctance to use force. With international television cameras following almost every step, the political cost of hard repression became much higher than these governments could afford.

Hungary 1989

Having been one of the most politically open members of the Warsaw Pact, Hungary had a less-organized opposition movement than did Poland and Czechoslovakia. During the violent uprising in 1956, an estimated 20,000 were killed, and many of the most politically active Hungarians left the country and stayed abroad. Those who left maintained strong contact with their relatives who still lived in Hungary, and the “dream” of the West was very much present in the population that remained.

From the early 1980s, Hungary saw the emergence of a strong peace movement. In the same way as many other capitals around the world had protests against the deployment of middle-range nuclear missiles, thousands gathered in the streets of Budapest. This created a new awareness and resulted in positive links with peace activists and critical academics from Western Europe. Organizations and networks such as the John Lennon Peace Club tested nonviolent actions as ways to express their views. Joining the growing peace movement in Western Europe groups like these opened the way for the large scale public demonstrations to come.

New civic groups and independent labor unions were inspired by the development in Poland and perestroika and glasnost in Russia. People from the bureaucracy and intellectuals more and more openly demanded change. Young liberals formed the Federation of Young Democrats (Fidesz); a core from the so-called Democratic Opposition formed the Association of Free Democrats (SZDSZ); and the national opposition established the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). Civic activism intensified to a level not seen since the 1956 revolution.

Within the Hungarian Socialist Party, a split between reformers and hard-liners resulted in a dialogue with civic opposition groups in late 1988. National unity culminated in June 1989 when the country reburied the former Prime Minister Imre Nagy who was executed by the invaders 1956. Two years later a nationwide petition movement in favor of direct elections led to the collapse of the ruling order and its replacement with a multiparty democracy.

The GDR 1989

After the important changes in Poland, many opposition movements in other East European countries were energized and inspired in their struggles. East Germany was one of the first countries to see the opportunity for change. Opposition was not as well-known there as in other countries, there was a long tradition of opposition, although it was less organized than in countries like Czechoslovakia and Hungary. For the events in East Germany in 1989, Opp et al (1995) shows how they were well organized and spread from city to city. Most of the church was actively involved in the preparations and meetings were held in their buildings.

Many were involved in what happened in the fall of 1989 in East Germany, not all of them in public. Open files have made these events a little more transparent today, and the decisions to set up investigations and publicize material from these days have been important. The Enquete-Kommission (1999) has published internal discussions from many about how they reacted to the large-scale peaceful demonstrations. The collection of internal documents from Germany in 1989-1990 edited by Küsters and Hofmann (1998) is also important in order to understand how the leaders in the U.S. and the Soviet Union reacted when the Berlin wall was removed. For a good chronology of the background and events in East Germany, see Philipsen (1993) and Childs (2001).

When the first people managed to get permission to leave East Germany by train via Czechoslovakia in 1989, the communist leadership thought that it would get rid of the “troublemakers.” But more and more people took the opportunity to leave. At the same time, protests grew in several cities around the country. In Leipzig, protests and other actions in 1989 were led by the Protestant church.

It is important to emphasize that it would be a great misinterpretation of what happened to focus only on civil resistance and nonviolence. These are important and necessary elements, but they are not sufficient to explain what happened, although the means used had an important impact on the process as well as on the outcome of the revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe. The importance of budget deficit, less support from Moscow, international diplomatic pressure, inspirations from Solidarity in Poland and glasnost/perestroika in Soviet Union must not be underestimated. These elements contributed to give people reasons for their resistance to the present regime and hope about a better future. One main factor was that they saw the effect of large scale nonviolent demonstrations. These political tools give many more than young males the possibility to take part in the struggle and hence expanded the movement considerably.

Czechoslovakia 1989

After the removal of the Berlin wall, Czechoslovakians took to the streets, led by members of the old Charta-77 movement and university students. Large groups of activists came from the students’ section of the Democratic Initiative, the Movement for Civil Freedoms, and the Independent Peace Association. On November 17, more than 30,000 marched to Wenceslas Square in Central Prague. The date was not randomly chosen--it was the fiftieth anniversary of Jan Opletal’s death, and the same date that Hitler in 1939 unleashed his Special Action Prague, during which nine students were executed and 1200 university students were taken to a concentration camp. The march was met by such a brutal police force that it was later called “Black Friday.” In vain the protesters tried to show that they had peaceful intentions. They showed their empty hands, put candles on the ground, and sang songs. Despite giving flowers to the police, they were attacked, and several hundreds were wounded. The police arrested many, and authorities took a firm stand against the protesters. The Black Friday events are well documented and described by Wheaton and Kavan in their 1992 book The Velvet Revolution.

When the students went on strike and published political texts demanding freedom, they got support from actors, and theaters were used as meeting places for political debates.

Soon the opposition realized that it needed a new coordinating organization. The Civic Forum was the result, and the famous dissident and author Václav Havel was elected as spokesman. The first critique was against the brutal police forces that had attacked the peaceful protesters. Soon the opposition called for a general strike and demanded the resignation of some ministers.

When 200,000 met in Central Prague, and this time the police were ordered not to intervene. Every day the demonstrations grew in size, and the demands changed to free elections and democracy. The exiting days in Prague are described in an interview with Jan Kavan and others in Nonviolent Struggle and Social Defence (Anderson and Larmore, 1991, pp 36-42) and two chapters in A Carnival of Revolution (Kenny, 2002).

Before the end of the month, talks started between representatives from the Civic Forum and the government. From Slovakia, “People Against Violence” took part in the negotiations. Alexander Dubcek, a well-known leader from 1968, also took part in the demonstrations and spoke to the masses. People used their keys to make noise, and that action became a symbol for days to come. The message was clear: It was time for the communist dictatorship to end.

On November 27 1989, a two-hour general strike was added to the arsenal of nonviolent means. TV news covered the events without comment.

Prime Minister Adamec tried to calm the opposition by changing a significant part of his cabinet, but that was far from enough for the people in the streets. By the end of the month, Havel was named president, and Dubcek became the chairman of the Federal Assembly.


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