Peace and Protest: Unarmed Insurrections in East Asia, 1946–2006 by Isak Svensson and Mathilda Lindgren, Uppsala University

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Whereas the discussion on East Asian Peace has primarily focused on armed conflicts, this article contributes by discussing unarmed conflicts in the East Asian region. The article presents the regional picture of the prevalence of these types of non-violent, popular uprisings and contends that these types of social conflicts are important to consider in order to get a better grasp of what kind of relative peacefulness that East Asia is experiencing.

East Asia has witnessed a quite remarkable declining trend in intensity and frequency of armed conflicts, a phenomenon that has been called the ‘East Asian Peace’ (Tønnesson 2009). The discussion on East Asian Peace has hitherto focused on the armed dynamics of social conflicts. Yet, not all conflicts are necessarily armed. What does the picture look like if we focus onunarmed upheavals in East Asia instead?

Unarmed insurrections are broad, popular-based protest movements that use non-violent methods to air their aspirations, such as street demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, etc. Using the term ‘non-violence’ could be misleading since these protest-movements do not necessarily pay strict adherence to the principles of non-violence in the spirit of famous proponents such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, it is empirically not uncommon that there are outbursts of violence on behalf of some protesters. Rather, many of these popular uprisings can be referred to as pragmatically guided unarmed insurrections with strategic behaviour and certain organisational structures that are distinctive in character from armed insurrections since they do not rely on force and military means.

 

Using data from a global dataset (Chenoweth and Stephan 2008), we can say that there have been quite a few unarmed insurrections in the region. In fact, there were 18 cases in East Asia over the course of fifty years since 1946. The first case during this period was China in 1956-57 and the last one Thailand in 2005-06. In terms of frequency, there was a peak around 1989, interestingly a parallel development to Eastern Europe, which also saw several unarmed insurrections around the end of the Cold War.

 

Some of the best-known examples of unarmed insurrections could be found in this part of the world. The non-violent insurrection in the Philippines in 1986 is sometimes lifted up as one of the prime examples of people power movements which successfully challenged the regime. On the other hand, the two unarmed mass-protests in Burma (1988 and 2007) were both brutally crushed by the military junta in the country.

 

Like armed conflicts, the incompatibility at stake can be distinguished between contest over the control of a specific territory and governmental power. The opposition forces in these unarmed insurrections aspire to either a change in the state-formation, demanding separation or territorial autonomy, or alternatively a change in government, its leadership or the ruling ideology. 

 

This distinction is pivotal and carries some significant explanatory power over the chance for success of unarmed insurrections. We have argued elsewhere (Svensson & Lindgren, forthcoming) that unarmed insurgents are more likely to be successful if they are able to mount a considerable challenge to the vertical legitimacy of the regime. Territorial conflicts – by their nature a horizontal divide in a society – have problems in launching successful campaigns questioning this vertical legitimacy, and should therefore be generally less likely to be successful. This proposition is supported by empirical evidence, drawn from global data.

 

Interesting in this regard is the fact that the majority of the unarmed campaigns in East Asia (such as the campaign in Thailand in 1973 or South Korea in 1987) have been fought over the control of government power. Only a minority of the unarmed insurrections concern a territorial incompatibility. Examples include Tibet in 1987-89 and East Timor in 1988-99. Another territorial conflict also stands out in terms of its longevity: the Papuan conflict in Indonesia started in 1964 and continued throughout the studied period (which ends in 2006). Mostly, the other campaigns are much shorter in their duration.

 

Overall campaign strategies of unarmed insurrections can vary. Building on Sharp’s (1973) critical distinction, there are three main strategies: protest, non-cooperation, and non-violent intervention. The East Asian region stands out in regard to strategies employed. A majority of the unarmed insurrections have relied on protest strategies. This form of strategy is generally considered to be one of the least comprehensive, yet most public form of strategy that unarmed insurgents can use.

 

An important point concerns how the regimes in power meet the challenge of the unarmed insurrections. In an overwhelming number of cases, the regimes have answered with repressive measures. This has implications for how to interpret the peace in East Asia. The presence of unarmed insurrections can be seen as a sign of healthy, vibrant and pluralistic societies where discontent can be aired. However, the prevalence of government repression as a counter-measure against such unarmed insurrections indicates that the peace in East Asia can be more authoritarian in nature.

 

Much remains to be understood and explained when it comes to unarmed insurrections and this calls for a systematic research endeavour as part of the East Asian Peace agenda.  For instance, why are some unarmed insurrections successful whereas others fail to reach their goal? Although some research has been done on this matter, it is striking how the attention towards armed conflicts in this matter clearly outbalances the focus on unarmed insurrections.

 

Moreover, the growth of unarmed insurrections in East Asia leads to the question whether we are witnessing a transformation in means utilised in social conflicts. Do conflicts previously fought with arms continue to exist but express themselves through more non-violent methods? This is an important avenue for future research in the context of the East Asian Peace.

 

Location

Objective

Start

End

China

Governmental

1956

1957

South Korea

Governmental

1960

1960

Indonesia (Papua)

Territorial

1964

2006

Thailand

Governmental

1973

1973

China

Governmental

1976

1979

Taiwan

Governmental

1979

1985

South Korea

Governmental

1979

1980

Philippines

Governmental

1986

1986

China (Tibet)

Territorial

1987

1989

South Korea

Governmental

1987

1987

Indonesia (East Timor)

Territorial

1988

1999

Burma/Myanmar

Governmental

1988

1988

China

Governmental

1989

1989

Mongolia

Governmental

1989

1990

Thailand

Governmental

1992

1992

Indonesia

Governmental

1997

1998

Philippines

Governmental

2001

2001

Thailand

Governmental

2005

2006

 

All cases come from NAVCO 1.0 (Chenoweth and Stephan) and the list is compiled by the authors.

 

 

Sources

 

Chenoweth, E. and M. J. Stephan (2008). ‘Why civil resistance works. The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict’. International Security 33(1): 744.

Sharp, G. (1973). The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston, Porter Sargent Publisher.

Tønnesson ,  S. (2009). ‘What is it that best explains the East Asian peace since 1979? A call for a research agenda’,  Asian Perspective 33(1), 111-136.

Svensson I. and M. Lindgren (forthcoming). ‘Community and consent, unarmed insurrections in non-democracies’. European Journal of International Relations.

 

 

Isak Svensson is Associate Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, and Visiting Research Fellow at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Otago University, New Zeeland.

Mathilda Lindgren is a Research Assistant at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.    

 

 

 

 

Peace and Protest: Unarmed Insurrections in East Asia, 1946–2006 by Isak Svensson and Mathilda Lindgren, Uppsala University
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