Thursday, August 2, 2007

Non-violent protest, They shall overcome—but perhaps not always

IT SEEMS a very long way from the grimy neo-classical buildings of downtown Belgrade to the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago best known as an attractive holiday destination.

But for campaigners against Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has ruled the 1,200 islets for nearly 30 years, the distance is not as great as it seems. Mr Gayoom's critics say they have taken heart from Serbia's October 2000 uprising, in which hundreds of thousands of people converged on the centre of the capital and forced Slobodan Milosevic to admit electoral defeat. “Comparisons can be drawn between Milosevic's Serbia and the current political situation in the Maldives.” That, at any rate, is the eager claim of an anti-Gayoom activist on an opposition website. He argues that in both cases, harsh, unaccountable rule led to miserable living standards.

The contrasts are also obvious: Milosevic was a globally infamous warmonger, whereas the politics of the islands are little known. Then take logistics: the Serbs who rose up against their leader could simply walk or drive to Belgrade; in the Maldives, many would-be rebels have to sail to their capital, Male.

For a growing community of activists and experts on the technique of non-violent action, the differences are secondary. The point, they say, is this: any authoritarian power can be shamed, discomfited, made to change course and ultimately overthrown if “people power” and shrewd tactics are combined. If this idea has had one big success, it is the “orange revolution” in Ukraine, where protests (see above) continue to be colourful.

In an electronic age, it is easy for opposition movements around the world to compare notes without help from others. But if protesters of many hues are meeting and cross-fertilising, that is in large part thanks to two groups based in Washington, DC, which help and publicise the work of non-violent campaigners. [Read more in Economist]

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