Assessing civil resistance: social movements' instrumentalisation of nonviolent tactics in Thailand and beyond

Nonviolent civil resistance is not immune to perpetuating existing structural and cultural violence unless nonviolence activists and researchers learn to develop strategies for identifying 'negative nonviolence' acts which support oppression. 

Janjira Sombatpoonsiri
13 September 2014
A Thai women sits peacefully in a chair in a street during a protest in Bangkok

Bangkok Protests, January 28, 2014. Flickr / Johan Fantenberg. Some rights reserved.

Nonviolence for what? This was one of the main questions raised by Iain Atack, an Irish nonviolence scholar and practitioner, during the 24th International Peace Research Association (IPRA) recently held in Istanbul. The question was in fact timely as scholarly debates on nonviolent activism or civil resistance have, over the past few decades, been trapped between the binary opposition of principled and strategic nonviolence. On the one hand, practices of nonviolence are rooted in religious teachings. On the other, due to religious origins, modern and secular social scientists have struggled to popularise the idea of nonviolence as a political action which aims at changing the ‘power relationship’.

The discourse of pragmatic nonviolence was invented to accommodate the secularised knowledge and practices of nonviolence. This invention is ideological. North American scholars, in particular, saw nonviolent activism as the most effective and legitimate tool to achieve a just and democratic society. Cases of nonviolent uprising have been collected, qualified, and quantified so as to bring to light the effectiveness of nonviolent strategies. This wave of nonviolence scholarship has been well-received, as exemplified in the seminal work Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. Many post-2000 movements have adopted nonviolent strategies, but the discussion concerning the question, ‘nonviolence for what?’ has been somewhat absent – despite scholars’ emphasis on a just and democratic society as desired goals of using nonviolence.

In his paper ‘The Color of Nonviolent Alternatives: Rethinking Nonviolence in the 21st Century’, presented for the Nonviolence Commission at the IPRA Conference, Chaiwat Satha-Anand (Thammasat University) asserts that ethical characteristics of nonviolent actions observed at the dawn of the 21st century have become hazy. He offers examples of throwing shoes, faeces, and blood at a movement's opponents which can be uncomfortably identified as forms of nonviolent action. His argument is that the controversial nature of these actions could propel us to think of the colour of nonviolent alternatives as grey. When nonviolence has become a popular tool for those engaging in a political struggle, it is normalised. In a popular struggle, justifying the use of arms is harder than the employment of nonviolent methods.

Chaiwat’s argument is possibly in line with that largely advocated by pragmatic nonviolence scholars who do not evaluate the quality of nonviolent actions through an ethical lens or in the Gandhian sense. (Or else the act of throwing faeces would definitely be considered to be violent). This broadening of nonviolent options in a conflict situation results in blurring the line drawn between symbolic violence and nonviolent activism. Nevertheless, Chaiwat's analysis diverges from pragmatic nonviolence proponents when he contends that agents of a not-violent act differ from those of a nonviolent action in that the former is likely to instrumentalise their mobilised supporters to their end. Although their methods of mobilisation and resistance are not violent, the result of this instrumentalisation of humans to achieve one’s own political ambition is dehumanising, and thereby categorically violent.  

In addition, what has become unclear is the cohesion between the means and ends of a proclaimed nonviolent movement, which has challenged nonviolence scholars’ generalisation of a movement’s success. Recently witnessed were waves of mass and, to a certain degree, nonviolent demonstrations overthrowing popularly elected governments in Ukraine, Egypt, and Thailand.

These movements’ claim to opposition is typically the corrupt and nepotistic nature of their governments. Even though their claim might have been deemed legitimate, the combination of vandalism and disruptive nonviolent actions (such as occupation of a government complex, road blockades, and obstruction of basic infrastructure to function) set the stage for military coups, and then the return of conservative politics. Regardless of the movements’ intention, military intervention is a by-product of their employment of nonviolent methods. Unfortunately, this took place in an authoritarian context with economic disparity (or 'structural violence') in which the emergence of ostensible chaos caused by disruptive nonviolent actions has invited traditional elites to step in and restore ‘law and order’.

In some cases--such as Thailand’s 2013-14 protests--the movements' leadership belongs to the circle of these traditional elites, making it clear that their overthrow of an elected government is meant to preserve a status quo and values that can violate basic human rights. Their agenda is likely to attract urban and middle class masses that are skeptical of rapid economic and social changes that tend to improve the livelihood of the rural underdog. Class aside, such movements were ready to utilise nationalist and xenophobic propaganda to accelerate mass mobilisation, thereby reinforcing 'cultural violence' (a set of norms and beliefs that justify the use of violence against groups seen as sub-human or non-human).

These backdrops give rise to a critical dilemma for nonviolence scholars. If nonviolent means and ends can be assessed disjointedly, would a movement using nonviolent methods in achieving an end that sustains structural and cultural violence be defined as a nonviolent movement? What would be our role in this critical dilemma? If we encourage such a movement’s use of nonviolence, which consequently enables its achievement of a structually and culturally violent goal, would we contribute to sustaining undesired structural and cultural violence at the expense of popularising nonviolent activism?

By way of responding to these heartache inquiries, I would propose that we should continue documenting and recognising collective nonviolent actions, regardless of their stated goals, so as to broaden the options of nonviolent struggle.

That being said, an additional step should be taken: we need to encourage ‘positive nonviolence’, and at the same time marginalise ‘negative nonviolence’. This distinction is different from that offered by Johan Galtung in his debate with Gene Sharp in 1965. Deconstructing this positive-negative dichotomy, I would suggest that positive nonviolence refers to methods of nonviolent action that help realise activists’ vision of a society immune from structural and cultural violence. Negative nonviolence would imply movements’ instrumentalisation of nonviolent methods which perpetuate cultural violence through a dehumanising propaganda of xenophobia, machismo, and nationalism, and structural violence through systemic economic deprivation and centralisation of natural resources.

However, these conceptions should not be dichotomised, but rather discerned as the two ends of a spectrum. Accordingly, the key role of nonviolence researchers is first to identify groups’ nonviolent initiatives regardless of their ideological undertones or stated goals. It is to say ‘yes, they are staging forms of nonviolent action’. Our further role is, however, to direct them towards a set of goals aimed at building a society unharmed by structural and cultural violence. If this attempt shows signs of failure, we should consider ceasing our recognition of their legitimacy. To continue our full-fledged recognition is to participate in perpetuating structural and cultural violence. In other words, it is to say ‘yes, their means of struggle are nonviolent’, but ‘no, their goals are not’. This strategy to marginalise potentially conservative movements should be followed by our promotion or engagement in activism that offers nonviolent alternatives revealing a nonviolent goal.

Indeed, it has become increasingly challenging to assess the colour of nonviolent alternatives, and consequently we should be aware of judging what is and is not nonviolent. Nevertheless, I argue that an additional step should be taken. As nonviolence is not merely a philosophical inquiry, but also visionary activism, nonviolence scholars should be able to criticise and marginalise movements utilising nonviolent methods that possibly contribute to existing structural and cultural violence.

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