What Matters

Weakening the political strength of dictatorship is key for nonviolent mass movement

By ISP Admin | April 6, 2021

What matters No. 11

(This article is a translation of the Burmese language version that ISP-Myanmar posted on its Facebook page on March 24, 2021.) 

∎ Key findings in brief  

There have been questions of what kind of capacity and tools are indispensable for the people to topple dictatorships in a non-violent way. Gene Sharp, a political scientist, encourages people to take a political approach, rather than a violent one. He suggests that when a dictator overthrows a democratically elected government, it lacks the right to rule the country. 

A successful coup d’état means the coup plotters must have full control over and properly run the administrative system and gain the acceptance and recognition from the business sector, civil society organizations and influential leaders. This social support as well as political strength is crucial for overcoming the challenges for administering a state.  

In regard to whether the dictators have the needed political strength or not, Gene Sharp suggests to look at the six sources of political power:  

  1. authority, the belief among the people that the regime is legitimate, and that they have a moral duty to obey it; 
  1. human resources, the number and importance of the persons and groups which are obeying, cooperating, or providing assistance to the rulers; 
  1. skills and knowledge, the expertise needed by the regime to perform specific actions and supplied by the cooperating persons and groups; 
  1. material resources, the degree to which the rulers control or have access to property, natural resources, financial resources, the economic system, and means of communication and transportation; 
  1. intangible factors, psychological and ideological factors that may induce people to obey and assist the rulers; and  
  1. sanctions and punishments, threatened or applied, for disobedience and non-cooperation for the submission and cooperation needed for a regime to exist and carry out its policies. (Sharp, 2010, p. 18-19)   

Sharp suggests that the public can weaken the political power of the dictator by eliminating these six sources of political power and undermine the dictator’s ability to exercise authority.   

∎ Why does it matter? 

While the methods used by nonviolent mass movements vary, they have successfully weakened the political strength of dictators by gradually destroying their sources of authority and making them lose their grip on power. In the recent anti-authoritarian mass movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Ukraine, people weakened the political strength of the coup regimes by applying persistent, varied forms of pressure and, eventually, achieved the outcome demanded by the people. In their efforts to prevent the dictatorship’s consolidation of control, people refused to cooperate with the dictators. They boycotted businesses and products linked to the dictatorship and stopped paying taxes. Many public servants refused to go to work. The erosion of theses six sources of power by non-violent movements is conducive to overthrowing dictators by encouraging some leaders among the coup regime to switch sides and support the people and international mediation. Therefore, studying how the six sources of power can be destroyed is important. 

∎ Is it relevant to Myanmar? 

Sharp’s study is relevant to Myanmar because it helps identify the capacities that the unarmed public requires to topple an authoritarian regime. Currently, the people of Myanmar have succeeded in weakening the first four sources of power.  

  1. Since the February coup, the Myanmar people have adopted various forms of struggle to prevent the coup council from consolidating its rule. Nonviolent movements involve participation by civil servants in a civil disobedient movement (CDM), the popular rejection of officials appointed by the coup council to administer villages and towns, and the non-payment of taxes and electricity fees as part of their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the coup council.   
  1. The appointment of administrative officials by the junta are not merit based. Rather, the junta selects people, who have disagreed with the former government leaders and who would likely be loyal to the junta, for positions in the ruling State Administration Council (SAC). In protest to the coup, many leaders refuse to participate in the new government. At the same time, fearing the anti-coup movement’s widespread use of social punishment, people have also declined invitations to work as administrative officials for the military government. As many professionals, such as health workers and civil servants, no longer turn up for work and, instead, participate in the non-violent mass movements, the human resources for the public sector have been severely constrained and, consequently, impaired effective administration. 
  1. While violently repressing the protesters, the military dictatorship has not taken into account the weakness in their supporters’ skills and knowledge. Due to the lack of essential skills and cooperation from intellectuals and professionals, the governing mechanism will not function properly and, as a result, the junta’s political strength has weakened.  
  1. The anti-coup movement has challenged the junta’s control over the material resources by blocking the operation of private banks and other businesses.  

Regarding Sharp’s fifth and sixth sources of power, the junta has used various forms of repression to garner public support. Moreover, the military council has also tried to resurrect and consolidate its political authority by threatening citizens with severe measures for failure to obey. Furthermore, the military council has also cracked down on protests, attempted to distort the nonviolent protesters by labelling them as terrorists, and ordered troops onto residential streets at nighttime where they have detonated stun grenades and sound bombs. The junta has attempted to gain people’s acceptance by creating fear through their use of profanity and intimidation, such as firing guns on residential streets as well as looting and destroying private property (such as stores, vehicles, and food). While claiming that the National League for Democracy (NLD) backs the protests, the junta has also tried to discredit elected NLD leaders by trying them on charges of making defamatory allegations. Notably, the junta has charged members and supporters of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), civil servants involved in CDM, and supporters of CDM. Those who have become a threat to the legitimacy of the SAC now stand accused of serious crimes such as treason. These moves aim to consolidate the junta’s political authority. 

For an anti-military dictatorship mass movement to be successful, not only must the first, second, third and fourth sources of power be weakened, but the fifth and sixth need to be demolished so that the public will not fall prey to the dictatorship’s use of intimidation to rebuild their political strength. Without people to be governed or to be ruleda military regime cannot consolidate authority by staging a coup d’état. A non-violent mass movement is the most powerful tool for the eventual overthrow of a dictatorship. Gene Sharp’s study about the six sources of power through which dictators exercise power offers insights for undermining their authority.

∎ Further Readings 

Gene, S. 2010. From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. The Albert Einstein Institution. The United States.  

Chenoweth, E., & Stephan, M. J. 2014. Drop your weapons: When and why civil resistance works. Foreign Affair, 93, 94. 

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