Lessons for toppling dictators

Posted by: | Posted on: January 11, 2012

Lessons for toppling dictators

 Jan. 11, 2012

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth
PACIFIC DAILY NEWS

Popovic tells us we need analytical skills in “unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline” to succeed in a revolution. He tells us of the working of the dynamics of enthusiasm and humor vs. fear and apathy: As enthusiasm and humor go up, fear and apathy go down, and vice versa. And he tells us to select strategy and tactics: Start small and pick the battle one can win.

I ended 2011 with a column on Lord Buddha’s teachings from 2,500 years ago about man as an activist, an “actionist,” and a maker of the world. As 95 percent of Cambodia’s 14 million people identify themselves as Buddhist, I deduced that Cambodians are activists and “actionists” who can transform autocratic Cambodia into a Buddhist country of civil rights, justice, and compassion.
The people profess to want those changes. Yet change has not happened.
After my column, I received an email from a former Khmer monk, Bouawat Sithi, a graduate of Thailand’s Djittabhawan College, which was founded to provide opportunities to students from poor families to pursue higher education. He affirmed that my interpretation of Buddhism is what he learned as a monk and still practices daily — that Buddha never taught man to believe in fate, but “to believe in our own action (karma).” He lamented Buddhism is not taught or understood correctly and “egoism, anger, greed, delusion, desire, craving, hate and aversion” overwhelm many Cambodians.
Heng Sreang, Royal University of Phnom Penh professor, sent an article, “The Scope and Limitations of Political Participation by Buddhist Monks,” that contains his belief that Khmer Buddhist monks “should play not only a legitimizing but also a critical role” as a “constructive force for the improvement and reconstruction of the social well-being and political life of the country.”
Sreang argued it would be to Cambodia’s great benefit “if monks were allowed to enjoy” their “rights and roles,” not limited to religious affairs and isolated from secular affairs. “By virtue of their religious status and leadership potential, they could be powerful instruments” to keep citizens informed socially, politically and economically, and to repair what another former monk, Monychenda, called a declining “moral order” through teaching the correct application of Buddhist dhamma to daily lives.
With 4,000-plus monasteries and 50,000-plus Buddhist monks in Cambodia, there is capacity to build the correct understanding and application of Buddha’s teachings among Khmers in order to bring positive change to Cambodia.

Toppling a dictator
Last month’s issue of Foreign Policy Magazine was devoted to those identified as the 100 top global thinkers. I was pleased to see the list included American political scientist Gene Sharp, now 83, and a onetime marine biology student turned Serbian revolutionary, Srdja Popovic, now 42, for writing the “how-to” manuals for the revolutions that occurred in 2011.
Sharp’s “The Politics of Nonviolent Action,” in three parts — “Power and Struggle”; “The Methods of Nonviolent Action, Political Jiu-Jitsu at Work”; and “The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action” — is a classic used by protesters from Burma to Zimbabwe, by those engaged in Europe’s “color revolutions” and by the April 6 Youth Movement, which helped end Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi influenced Sharp’s work on nonviolent action that has become a blueprint for the world’s activists, including Popovic and his resistance group Otpor (“Resistance” in Serbian), that helped bring down the dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
I would like to urge readers to spare a few minutes to view Popovic’s remarks at an independent event organized by Tedx in Krakow. The talk is available at Ted.com, the website of a nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing “ideas worth spreading.” Popovic’s remarks were “How to Topple a Dictator.” Popovic, a native of Belgrade, tells us that people power is a tool to change the world, that nonviolent struggle works, that people power is not new — Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Afghans have used people power successfully — and that what’s new is a set of “rules and skills which can be learned and taught.”
Popovic tells us we need analytical skills in “unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline” to succeed in a revolution. He tells us of the working of the dynamics of enthusiasm and humor vs. fear and apathy: As enthusiasm and humor go up, fear and apathy go down, and vice versa. And he tells us to select strategy and tactics: Start small and pick the battle one can win.
Popovic was 29 when he and friends from Belgrade University, influenced by Gandhi, King and Gene Sharp, formed “Otpor” in 1998 to mobilize the Serbian populace against Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian president (1989-1997) and Yugoslav president (1997-2000).
In October 2000, hundreds of thousands of Serbian protesters moved on the parliament and ended Milosevic’s rule. Though Popovic served in the National Assembly for one term, in 2003 he and his Otpor comrades moved on to create the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, or CANVAS, and to work with democracy activists in more than 50 countries, including the April 6 Movement.
The most important teaching materials used by CANVAS include a one-hour documentary, “Bringing Down a Dictator,” which features Otpor’s strategies to topple Milosevic, and a manual, available on the Internet, “Nonviolent Struggle, 50 Crucial Points,” which is available in 16 languages.
Popovic advises: “There are two things you need to avoid if you don’t want your movement to be doomed: One is violence; the other is taking advice from foreigners.”
Sharp and Popovic both offer lessons that Cambodians should heed.
A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam. Write him at peangmeth@yahoo.com.