Training Pro-Democracy Movements: A Conversation with Colonel Robert Helvey

Robert Helvey has worked with Gene Sharp's Albert Einstein Institution, teaching people in various parts of the world, including Burma and Serbia, effective ways of opposing dictators nonviolently.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2008-01-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: I don't know many military officers who have become committed to nonviolence, as you have. Tell me about your own history.

ROBERT HELVEY: I spent thirty years in the US Army. They sent me to graduate school to study political science. Much later they sent me to the Harvard Center for International Affairs.

SPENCER: Really! I used to work there, back in the sixties when it was Kissinger's and Huntington's outfit.

HELVEY: Huntington was still there during my year there -- 1987-88. That's where I met Gene Sharp. I attended a meeting of his Program for Nonviolent Sanctions group and afterward went up to ask him some questions. We met for coffee and for lunch, and our conversations kept expanding because there's so much overlap. If you think strategically about nonviolent conflict, you use some tools also used by the military. You think about the environment in which the conflict is waged. About the rules of engagement. About problem-solving methodologies. About strategic estimates. About operational planning. After I retired from the military I continued my interest in nonviolent conflict and began teaching and consulting.

SPENCER: You had come directly to Harvard from Burma?

HELVEY: Not directly but after a year back in the US. Burma has a special place in my heart. I lived there in 1983-85 as the US military attaché. Things were not going well for the Burmese. Inflation, systemic corruption, and arbitrary sentencing of those suspected of desiring democratic change were driving the people into desperate straits. Ne Win and the BSPP (Burmese Socialist Program Party) were still governing. Ne Win had been a postal clerk in the '30s, and was one of the "Thirty Comrades" who went to Japan for military training prior to World War II. They thought they were going to lead the revolutionary war for independence against the Brits.

SPENCER: Did that group include General Aung San?

HELVEY: Yes, Aung San was a leader of the Burmese Communist Party, I think in '36 or so. He, his brother, and the whole cabinet were assassinated in 1947, just before independence, which was January 4, 1948.

Ne Win became chief of staff of the army. Under the Brits, the chief of staff of the army had been a minority Karen but when independence came the new leaders started pushing the ethnic minority people out of the sensitive positions because they considered them more loyal to the Brits than to the ethnic Burmans.

SPENCER: The new leaders doing this "pushing" were those who had been affiliated with the Thirty Comrades?

HELVEY: Yes. The Thirty Comrades had led the independence movement as allies of the Japanese and against the Brits during World War II. But when it appeared that the allies were going to win the war, Aung San shifted support to the Western Allies so he would be in a stronger bargaining position for Burmese independence.

General Ne Win was part of that independence group and in 1962 he led a coup and brought in the military regime which in 1974 became the "Burmese Socialist Program Party." It was the same group of generals, but wearing civilian clothes. They nationalized everything.

SPENCER: What was Aung San's legacy in this saga?

HELVEY: Today's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her brother were the children of General Aung San, whose widow was appointed Ambassador to India, where Aung San Suu Kyi grew up. India should be proud of her love of democracy, for it was instilled in her as a child in India. And in 1988, she would become a leader in the democratic struggle against the military regime in Rangoon.

SPENCER: You were there before the uprising of 1988?

HELVEY: Yes, and I could sense that Burmese society was like a pressure cooker. As I mentioned, the economy was failing. There was systemic corruption. The education system was faltering and the poor were getting poorer. I was not surprised by the movement of 1988. It started over economics. The demonetization policy, implemented in September 1987, ruined the college students. Their families had given them enough money to go to school and all of a sudden they had no money. The business community was trying to survive in a black market economy. So in 1988 there was an uprising and the military regime cracked down.

The uprising failed because, since Day One, the Burmese have lacked unity. The governments have been able to keep the people divided, particularly along ethnic and religious lines. People were never able to come together to oppose the regime effectively.

The military rulers institutionalized racial discrimination since Independence. An example is the Burma Citizenship law, passed in 1982, which limits full citizenship to only those members of ethnic groups that settled in Burma prior to 1823. That was one year prior to the outbreak of the First Anglo-Burmese War. The Brits had brought in many Chinese and people from India to help administer the colony and had given them protected status. The Muslim and Chinese business community had been living there for 100 years and had controlled the economy, yet when everything was nationalized, they lost their property and money; then they lost the right of full citizenship.

SPENCER: So Burma hadn't been dominated by the Burmans?

HELVEY: No. That's what motivated them after independence to get control of their land. These other people were not considered part of Burma. For example, the men in Rangoon never wore the longi, but western dress. It was a foreign city. So there was a rightful sense of nationalism to get Burma back to the Burmans. But they took extreme measures. There are ways to nationalize. You pay people some compensation. You don't just take over the factory and tell the owner to get lost.

Anyway, in Burma I was learning about all this. One thing they lacked was "a vision of tomorrow." If you want to bring about change, first you need to know what you want the society to look like after the change. I don't think that was done. The Burmese political leaders were each just saying what they were against.

SPENCER: So when you went to Harvard you were already thinking about how to help the Burmese.

HELVEY: Yes. I had met Tin Maung Win, a student leader from the 1964 period who had immigrated to the United States. He had established the "Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma" with a colleague, Ye Kyaw Thu. In December 1987, I invited them up to Boston, and they spent several days with Gene, who gave them another way of thinking about how to achieve democracy in Burma. Later they went back to the Thai-Burma border, taking that information with them, and explained it to representatives from several opposition groups of the National Democratic Front and to General Bo Mya, the chief of the Karen army and president of the Karen National Union. I was asked to go talk to General Bo Mya on this subject.

I got over there for the meeting. I went into his office and gave him a short pitch - the sources of power, and how the focus of the strategic nonviolent conflict is to undermine the organizations and institutions that hold up the government. I had a little plate in my hand and I held it up by three fingers. I said, "My fingers are the pillars of support. Look what happens to the plate when I undermine my pillars." It dropped. Then I explained how with that theoretical understanding you could purposely undermine these pillars of support and train people to resist and defy.

There was a big grunt and he just turned around and walked away. No thank you, no nothing. So I went next door to an intellectual guy I had met and told him I must have pissed off General Bo Mya, for he had just walked off. He asked, "What did you tell him?"

I explained it to him and he said, "That's exactly what he needs to hear. Go give the same briefing again. But do not use the word `nonviolence.'"

So we came up with the term "political defiance" instead of "nonviolence." It sounded more courageous. I gave him the same briefing, Metta, saying `political defiance' instead of `nonviolence.' He gave another grunt but it was a more pleasant-sounding grunt. So that night the vice-president of the Karen National Union told me they wanted me to come back and run a pilot program course.

I went home and raised the money to go back and spend a month or more giving courses. It would be hosted by the Karens but attended by other organizations -- Kachin, Karenni, Mon, and whatever, plus a few from the All-Burma Student Democratic Front.

SPENCER: The 1988 movement.

HELVEY: Yes. Bo Mya sent us up to the mountains to the commando training ground. Michael Beer was my assistant. I had planned it as a four-week course. After the second week, word came, "Bo Mya wants the course ended today." We went back to Manerplaw and I went to see General Bo Mya, who said, "I want you to give a three- or four-day course to everybody in my area." They were Karens, students, Mons; everybody receiving General Bo Mya's hospitality had to send people to this introduction. So we did that and I asked Gene to come over to evaluate the training. He came twice and gave us his blessings.

SPENCER: By then, was General Bo Mya on side?

HELVEY: No, he never converted. He felt that people who participated in nonviolent actions were probably cowards, but he was pleased that Gene and I were able to provide opportunities for cowards to participate in the struggle! He and I became friends. He had been a soldier since he was twelve years old. He was not an educated commander but a strong leader who saw something in this form of struggle that could benefit the people. Rather than just dismiss it, he allowed it within the Karen National Union.

SPENCER: Did his misgivings make your students less receptive?

HELVEY: Once the students grasped the idea, they were excited. But they also recognized their fundamental problem: resources. It's much more expensive to maintain a military force than a nonviolent force, but it does require some funding. You need radios and the ability to produce and distribute information. You need to be able to train. You need to provide the activists with some income to take care of their families. When people get arrested you need to take food to them in prison or the hospital. As long as you have a military force, the nonviolent force will have financial problems. That's where the constraint was.

SPENCER: So all of these trainings were taking place after the 1988 crackdown. I have the impression that after that massacre, many people lost hope and quit trying.

HELVEY: You're right. Things had moved much, much faster at first, exceeding planning by leaps and bounds. The uprising began in September 1987 with the first demonetization. The students began marching in April. Then institutions weakened -- not by plan but just because the momentum was knocking organizations and institutions down. In August 1988, the military was beginning to crack, the education institutions all favored political change, the merchants were in favor of change. Everything was in their favor. Now was the time for leaders to build on the movement the students had accomplished.

So Aung San Suu Kyi, U Nu, General Aung Gi, and a couple of others got together. They couldn't decide who should take the lead. In my opinion, anybody could have taken the lead if the other three had supported him. But while they were unable to reach a decision, the momentum of the movement stopped. That gave the military a breathing space. Then the crackdown occurred and morale went to pieces. At first everybody had been in the streets. You had the movement but no vision of tomorrow. And when the leaders were arguing among themselves, the military cracked down, thousands of people were slaughtered and there was no contingency plan.

This brings us to the demonstrations this year. What was the plan? We know from 1962, 1974, 1988, that the military sits back and watches, identifies leadership at every level, and then they swoop in at 2:00 am, arrest the leaders -- and the next day they crack down. So you've got all these people wandering around and the leadership's gone. It happened this time too. So my question is, did we just forget that the military will crack down? How are we going to plan around that? I don't know whether they did or not.

SPENCER: I've been trying to find out through the grapevine whether there was any strategic planning but I have not succeeded -- except for an article about a young monk named Ashin Kovida who had been a leader and who escaped to Thailand. He said they'd seen videos of Otpor's uprising against Milosevic, and that for a week, he met with other organizers in the morning and led marches at noon. He had heard on the BBC radio of other monks who had organized too, but he had never met them. After the crackdown, he bleached his hair, hid, and fled. I wonder about their training and planning. My guess is that they had only a primitive approximation of the strategy that you would have been able to help them develop, had you been there with them in their preparations.

HELVEY: That's one of the things that we need to find out: What type of planning tools did they use? And were there people there who were veterans of 1988 who could explain? Have they conducted detailed studies of what happened, day by day by day, so they have a record for their own people to analyze before they try this again?

Another thing about this year: They seemed to have a hard time breaking beyond the monks and students. Was there any other organization that could have been added to the pillars of support for the movement? Monks and students can get out in front but they can only stay there for a short time and they don't have power. When you're only one or two percent of the population, you're not going to win. Where was the business community? Where were the workers? Where were the farmers? Where were the schoolteachers? These were the questions. We need those organizations to give the horsepower to the movement. God knows that those leaders were courageous, but they could only be effective for a few days and they needed that reinforcement, which didn't come.

SPENCER: One thing that fascinates me is the unity of the military. Even though they are largely Buddhist, they didn't crack.

HELVEY: I'm not so sure. It may have held together with glue - fear and greed. There may have been some cracks that could have been exploited if we'd done a real good study. A strategic estimate is important. It asks: Who is in the military? Some of them are college-educated people. So where did they go to college? Where are their families? What are their children doing? There are also poor folks in the military -- the trigger-pullers. Well, who supervised the trigger-pullers? The lieutenants and the sergeants. What's the background of these people? What's their interest? What do they want out of life? Why are they obeying? Primarily fear drives most of it, and greed in the officer corps. Once you get past the greed and the fear, now you've got something to work with. You may see how to convince them to overcome the fear that holds them in the ranks or causes them to pull the trigger. We can do that. It's been done time after time.

SPENCER: When you did the trainings earlier, you must have had such conversations. What was the picture then?

HELVEY: In dealing with the military or civil servants you have to understand that they usually will not change sides openly until it becomes clear that the democratic movement is going to succeed. A lot of effort has to go into cultivating grounds why they would want to change. You articulate a vision of tomorrow to the military in the language they understand. And you articulate that same vision of tomorrow so that the teachers, truck drivers, or civil servants can see an end of this struggle when their lives will be better. They think: "While I may not be able to change sides now, I understand. I know that if you win, life will be better for all of us. I've become neutralized. I hope you win but I can't come and join your side this week."

SPENCER: How about such things as shooting over the protesters' heads?

HELVEY: That's one thing you can tell them to do. In your messages to the soldiers you tell them, "I empathize with you. I understand where you're coming from. But only you know where that bullet is going to go. You're the one who pulls the trigger. You don't have to kill somebody in front of you. You can fire just over their heads. I understand! And if we win there's going to be a place for you in a professional army. You're going to do what every army in the world is supposed to do: serve and protect the people."

In Serbia, in Ukraine, the soldiers really didn't want to kill their own people. You just keep pounding that message in. What you're doing is providing an alternative reference point. People look at a situation with the reference point that others have told them. The purpose of censorship is to make sure they only have the government's reference point. The opposition provides another reference point.

SPENCER: You were asked to train the Otpor movement in Serbia, who then liberated their country from Milosevic.

HELVEY: Yeah, I went over and reviewed for them some ideas that they might be able to use. I introduced them to Gene Sharp's From Dictatorship to Democracy. They had the organization and some prior knowledge about nonviolent conflict. What they were doing was pretty good. They worked on the vision of tomorrow, so that everybody sees himself at the end of the struggle. Then recruiting was able to take on a little different context about why people were in the struggle. And we spent some time on propaganda.

SPENCER: When compared to Burma, Otpor had more freedom and more money, didn't they?

HELVEY: Yes. My God, the United States gave them about $25 million! That much was never forthcoming for the Burmese movement.

SPENCER: Did the Burmese get money from NED [National Endowment for Democracy]?

HELVEY: I think the Burmese were getting some from NED this time. The Norwegians and Swedes were very helpful in the past -- the Olof Palme International Centre in Sweden helped. And the Norwegian-Burma Council hosted the Democratic Voice of Burma radio station in Oslo.

SPENCER: I've read some interesting sociological articles about how dictatorships are aware of how dangerous these color revolutions are to them. They are learning to make them harder to organize by controlling the Internet and monitoring communication within the country. That's happening in China and Russia. Putin knows how to prevent a color revolution.

HELVEY: This is nonviolent warfare. As in all conflict, it evolves. Pretty soon your opponent will develop counter-measures against your advantages. For example, new aircraft are always being developed to counter the latest models of the opponent. Communications are the same way. You've got an Internet on which you're talking with all these people and then the next thing you know, Yahoo sees they can make money by selling that information about your group to send Chinese dissidents to prison. They are disgusting people and should be boycotted. I don't care if it's Yahoo or anybody else. It's the same with our defence contractors. When they sell things to people who can sink our ships or destroy our satellites, you can't say much good about such people. But we ourselves must share the blame because as stockholders we demand higher dividends, and if that means selling the rope that somebody will hang us with, that's what we'll do. We should figure out ways to want less instead of being so acquisitive.

SPENCER: What a fiery moral spokesman you are! I'm awed, but I have to contrast you to the younger Gene Sharp whom I first met in Dubrovnik in 1983. It was a conference on nonviolence. Most of the speakers had been trained by Martin Luther King or were Gandhians. They considered nonviolent struggle as a moral or spiritual struggle. But Gene was saying, "No, you don't have to be a saint to fight nonviolently. It's a matter of tactics and strategy." But here you are, Bob, giving the game away! You sound like a spiritual leader, saying that greed is our sin.

HELVEY: Well, greed doesn't help. You can be ambitious, but an awful lot of people are injured when people become so acquisitive that the question of right or wrong is never asked--only if it is legal or illegal. If it is illegal, then they'll pay to have the laws amended. Nonviolent conflict is a good way to ameliorate the inequities that most working people have to endure. But anyway, yes, with the Internet and other forms of communication being intercepted and controlled, waging a nonviolent struggle is becoming increasingly difficult. Authoritarian rulers are paying close attention to how strategic nonviolent conflict is waged. They are reading Gene Sharp's books. They are reading the memoirs of people who have participated in these struggles. While I agree with Gene that one does not have to be a saint to wage nonviolent conflict, standing on the moral high ground is a big advantage. And let's be honest; if authoritarian regimes oppose nonviolent movements with a sound strategy, using the resources available to them, if the Opposition does not control the moral high ground, it will likely be defeated. If we worked as hard as the regime did, we might be able to stay ahead of them.

SPENCER: Another problem is the ambivalence, right among my friends and maybe some of yours, about whether we have any business trying to help people in other countries win democracy. The whole notion of helping pro-democracy campaigns has come under fire. Even people who enjoy the blessings of democracy themselves often doubt whether it is legitimate to help other people win it. Promoting democracy has come to be regarded as a right wing cause.

HELVEY: I've heard that. And sometimes I've been labeled an agent for some kind of hidden force that promotes democracy. They say, "You can't promote democracy!" Well, we can make information available to those who want democracy. If some Burmese, Serbs, Tibetans or whoever want to free themselves from the slavery that the dictatorship has imposed upon them, we cannot ignore them. Am I my brother's keeper? Yes, I think I am. If I have information about waging a nonviolent struggle for democratic change that might be helpful, I have an obligation, if I am asked, to provide it to them. I'm not making the change in Burma. Maybe I ought to spend more time promoting changes here in the United States because we're going in a direction that doesn't look good for democracy in our own country. I think it was Ben Franklin who said something to the effect that those who would give up their freedoms for security deserve neither. But that's for another conversation.

SPENCER: Many people with misgivings about whether, say, Canada should fund political defiance in Burma are people who have come from a Marxist background, where democracy was never admired anyway.

HELVEY: Whether information about nonviolent conflict is given or withheld will not determine whether or not there's going to be a conflict. Now if there's going to be a conflict, the people will have to make a decision: Are we going to have to make this change through violence? If they have only a hammer in their toolbox then everything is going to look like a nail. But if they also understand how to wage nonviolent conflict, to bring about change without killing a lot of people, then that's a plus. Now we are giving an option to the people who want change. They can decide to use this tool or that one, because now they have the knowledge base to do either.

SPENCER: Beautiful. I can't imagine anybody objecting to that morality.

HELVEY: Lives are too precious to lose due to ignorance about nonviolent alternative means of struggle. People who have experienced war probably understand this better than most. That is why I am inclined to think that rather than send our people over to fight other people's war, uninvited, let's provide them the knowledge and skills of nonviolent war and say: "You all sort it out among yourselves!"

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2008

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2008, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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