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New Data on Bandhs in Nepal

2 Nov

Bandhs are politically-motivated strikes, ranging from the closing of stores to nationwide strikes. Today Kristine Eck sent me this link to an extremely detailed and comprehensive online database of bandhs in Nepal. Worth checking out for those interested in data or strikes as a tactic.

Red Team, Blue Team: Simulating a Successful Nonviolent Resistance

12 Sep

If you are an activist in an authoritarian regime today, you need a plan–and a good one. With regimes threatening to drive pro-democracy resistance movements underground, it would be useful for opposition leaders to know their options, the different risk profiles of those options, and the variety of potentially effective methods they could use to avoid repression while keeping the momentum of the movement going.

Back in the days when I worked in emergency medical services (a long time ago), I participated in mass casualty-incident scenarios to learn how to effectively deploy our resources, anticipate and deal with curveballs (since nothing ever goes according to plan), and figure out how to save the most lives when real incidents occurred. Although simulations almost never go the way you plan, they give you opportunities to respond to unplanned events, which turns out to be as important as having a good plan in the first place. Moreover, lots of creative thinking can emerge out of these types of sessions. Well-designed red team/blue team exercises can help people to experience and prepare for a number of different scenarios without having to experience any of the adverse consequences of making mistakes in real life.

Military, marketing, and IT personnel often spend considerable time and energy on red team/blue team “games,” or “battlefield scenarios” that they use to map out strategy and to anticipate and respond to unforeseen events in constructive ways. The “red team” is often the one hatching up a plot to engage the opponent (e.g., a terrorist attack against a the US), and the “blue team” is given limited information with which to stop the red team within a given time frame (e.g., a way to thwart the attack). Red team/blue team exercises allow officers and strategists to develop a skill that is crucial for a successful nonviolent resistance: the ability to outmaneuver the opponent under adverse conditions.

Militaries and corporations often have massive resources and personnel to devote to simulations. They sometimes fly in “subject experts” to help design and implement the scenarios. Now, most civilians in most countries don’t have backgrounds in conducting red team/blue team exercises, nor are they in a position to “practice” nonviolent resistance in the streets or to fly in experienced activists to help them develop these skills. But when the stakes are high, as they are in Syria and many other places today, a few big strategic mistakes could end the movement.

How can nonviolent resistance movements strategize without subjecting themselves to detection or repression?

One way do so is by playing People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance. Developed by York Zimmerman and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, this game allows people to develop a scenario where their opponent in the game approximates their opponent in real life. The site says:

People Power is about politics, about strategy and about social change. As a leader of a popular movement you fight against tough adversaries who control the police, the army and bureaucracy, even the media. The only weapon in your hand is your strategic skill and ingenuity.

The game can be used by activists to develop strategic skills and experience in facing a militarily superior adversary. Part of the idea is to allow people to get used to making strategic mistakes (like choosing the same, predictable method over and over again, or failing to communicate the campaign’s message to a wider audience) against brutal opponents without winding up in prison.

It’s $10, but they will make exceptions.

Now, importantly, I wouldn’t suggest that playing a video game (if they could even access it in the first place) is going to improve oppositions’ chances against brutal dictators. That would be an especially arrogant and irritating claim.

But in the long term, I do think that strategic planning (and strategic thinking) is a crucial element to a successful nonviolent resistance. If activists today can improve those skills by playing a game, they should. If they don’t find a tool like this useful, they should invest some time in figuring out another way to do it. As Winston Churchill said, “Those who plan do better than those who do not plan even though they rarely stick to their plan.” He would know.

Must-Reads for Rational Insurgents

27 Aug

In my various travels, people have asked me outright how they can overthrow their respective governments (I’m not naming names). My answer is always the same: I have no idea how they might go about this, and I have some pretty strong ethical reasons for not wanting to make suggestions either. However, I’d be happy to recommend some readings.

Here is my current top-ten list of must-reads for those wanting to become rational insurgents:

On War, Carl von Clausewitz.

The quintessential guide to strategy, and origin of the famed dictum: “War is politics by other means.” Nonviolent resistance is politics by other means too, and, although Clausewitz doesn’t really go there, lots of the same principles apply.

From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp.

This is the handbook for how to proceed with a nonviolent campaign. Sharp explains the fundamentals of power, strategy, and tactical choice; details the hundreds of methods of nonviolent action available to ordinary civilians; and describes lessons learned from previous conflicts.

A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall.

The authors explore how twelve historical campaigns  — from Nashville to the Ruhr Valley to Burma — have employed nonviolent methods to separate regimes from their main sources of power. Easy-to-read, and full of useful details, this book’s descriptions of the various conflicts are highly instructive. For those tired of reading, there is also a documentary film. See also Bringing Down a Dictator and Orange Revolution.

Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies, Kurt Schock.

An accessible primer on why some nonviolent uprisings succeed whereas others fail. Schock finds that successful campaigns are more resilient and tactically innovative, and he describes various case studies of how campaigns that shifted between concentrated and dispersed methods were able to avoid regime repression.

The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism, Clifford Bob.

While not exactly a handbook for insurgents, this book explains the reasons by some rebels get international support while others don’t. Bottom line: framing and marketing are key.

The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Evgeny Morozov.

A sobering account of the ways that authoritarian regimes can exploit the internet to crack down on pro-democracy uprisings. A must-read, given how generally optimistic people are about the potential for social media to be a “game-changer.”

Justice Ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire, Brian Martin.

Martin looks at why government repression sometimes backfires and other times doesn’t. Very instructive.

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Resistance, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.

I don’t care if it’s tacky to list my own book. Sometimes nonviolent campaigns need a little encouragement — and a good reason to avoid using violence. This book will give hope (and ammunition) to people relying on civil resistance to get what they want. We find that compelling evidence that while nonviolent resistance doesn’t always succeed, it has a much better chance at succeeding than violence.

“Spoiling Inside and Out: Internal Political Contestation and the Middle East Peace Process,” Wendy Pearlman.

In this article, Pearlman details one of the major shortcomings of many resistance campaigns: the failure to achieve unity. The article contains lessons from the Palestinian conflict on why social movement organizations should avoid fragmentation.

Why Terrorism Does Not Work, Max Abrahms.

A cautionary tale for why adopting terrorism as a strategy will be counterproductive. The main point: people misinterpret the violence. Instead of hearing you say “I want political change,” they hear “I want to kill you.” Not the best way to convince people you have an attractive vision for their future.

What are your favorite readings on strategy? Feel free to post below.


For more information, see Carter, Clark, and Randle’s online bibliography of nonviolent conflict. See also the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict’s website and the the online video game People Power, which helps activists plan, implement, and reflect on their strategic choices against hypothetical dictators. You know these sites are worth checking out, because they are blocked in China.

Regimes Can Exploit Social Media Too

5 Aug

Lots of people have been talking about how social media created unprecedented opportunities for activists in the Middle East to organize and mobilize the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Although its publication preceded these protests, Philip Howard’s The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, released in 2010 by Oxford University Press, is perhaps the best book on the subject of how and under what conditions social media can change the political status quo. (For those interested in looking at applications and cases of digital activism, see the Meta-Activism Project. iRevolution is also a good resource).

I’ve been less convinced about the causal role that social media have played. I see Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and other digital media as characteristics of the recent uprisings, not necessarily causes. In fact, I’d argue that activists who rely solely on digital media to coordinate a revolution are quite vulnerable. Here is the reason why: oppressive regimes can (and do) use social media too. In fact, they caught on pretty quickly that a smarter response to activist digital media was not to shut down the internet (like Mubarak did), but rather to use these same tools to organize their own henchmen, or to track and trap activists.

This article on the failed uprising in Bahrain gives some good accounts of this phenomenon. In this case, the Bahrain regime used Facebook to organize counter-protests and intimidation tactics by loyalists. Patrick Meier reports that similar events occurred in Sudan, which used Facebook to create loyalists squads in remote areas to “defend” the regime. In some cases, the Sudanese regime even set up mock protest pages to trap the opposition. In one case, he writes:

Thousands of activists promptly subscribed to this group. The government then deliberately changed the time of the protests on the day of to create confusion and stationed police at the rendez-vous point where they promptly arrested several dozen protestors in one swoop. There are also credible reports that many of those arrested were then tortured to reveal their Facebook (and email) password.

Authoritarian regimes are crafty. They have lots of resources at their disposal, and they think strategically about the best way to use those resources to restore “calm” (read: maintain power).

What are activists to do? They should take a strategic approach, which involves switching up sources of communication; thinking like the opponent; and anticipating problems and planning for how to respond to them. A strategic approach would see social media as tools that, if captured by the other side, can be used against the opposition–just like any other weapon. As in battle, opposition strategists should always have back-up plans for how to communicate and coordinate with other activists once their main sources of communication are dismantled or intercepted. This may involve the printing of paper pamphlets and other materials for in-person distribution–a tool that Egyptian activists deployed in their struggle, and other more basic methods. And there should also be a plan C–a covert way to continue communicating and coordinating among relevant opposition groups if the distribution of such literature also becomes impossible.

The bottom line: over-reliance on any one tool makes a nonviolent uprising predictable. And predictability means vulnerability, whether on the battlefield or on the streets.