Ten years ago this week, the new world was born

February 27, 1996|By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON -- Looking back, it is clear that the world started to change not in 1989, but in 1986. And the change did not begin in Europe, but in Asia.

It's exactly ten years since Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines' long-ruling dictator, was overthrown by the ''People Power'' revolution.

Even at the time it was an extraordinary event, and for days the whole world was riveted to television, watching the tense but nonviolent confrontation between civilians and soldiers in the streets of Manila.

But nobody realized that this would be the precursor and model for other nonviolent revolutions in Seoul and Bangkok, in Dhaka and East Berlin, in Moscow and Johannesburg.

It's only now, with the benefit of hindsight, that we can see that this was the time and place where the tide finally turned against tyranny.

Revolutions are easy

Revolutions are easy; people have been making them for more than 200 years. But they were usually bloody affairs, and more than half the time they just delivered you into the hands of a new bunch of tyrants. Indeed, it was because they were such a bloody business that they usually ended up in the wrong hands.

In 1986, something new happened. Unarmed people in the Philippines, using purely moral force, shamed an army into laying down its weapons. In the end, nobody would kill for Marcos. So 10 years ago yesterday, he and his wife had to climb into a helicopter and depart, leaving behind only thousands of shoes.

What the Filipinos had discovered, almost by accident, was that a changing moral climate plus global mass media had made nonviolence usable in situations where it used to be useless.

The old rule was that nonviolence worked only against the oppressor with a guilty conscience.

Gandhi used it to great effect against the British in India, but they were democrats at home and secretly knew they had no right to rule India, so they were mostly deterred from answering nonviolent protest with massacre.

Martin Luther King Jr. employed nonviolent tactics in the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, adding a whole battery of new techniques for exploiting the now ubiquitous mass media. But his opponents were fellow Americans formally committed to democracy, so like Gandhi he had them over a barrel morally.

But nonviolence would not have worked against Hitler or Stalin, and everyone believed that it would not work against the lesser tyrants of the post-1945 era either. If dictators were not self-deterred by the knowledge that their position was morally indefensible (and why would they be?), then they would just order their troops to open fire, and that would be the end of that.

Manila 10 years ago was where that was first proved wrong. Troops are human beings, too, and they simply would not open fire. Neither would their officers take responsibility for giving the order to shoot -- not if they had to do it before the television cameras, and have the awful consequences of shooting into unarmed crowds seen by television audiences around the world.

Spread like wildfire

Once the new efficacy of nonviolent revolution was clear, the technique spread like wildfire. Most of the earliest successes were in Asia -- in Thailand, South Korea and Bangladesh -- and so were the two worst failures. In Myanmar, the military regime, having virtually no ties or exposure to the rest of the world, simply shot the protesters down in 1988. And in China, the pro- democracy movement was drowned in blood on Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

But consider what actually happened in Beijing. It took the toughest totalitarian regime on the planet three weeks to find troops whom it could trust to obey the order to open fire.

In the end, they had to clear the existing garrison out of Beijing, bring in fresh troops who had had no contact with the protesters -- and then send them in shooting in the middle of the night.

Several of the organizers of the Tiananmen protest have told me subsequently that they had carefully studied the tactics of Gandhi and King, and that Manila in 1986 was what gave them the hope that nonviolence could work against their own regime.

They were wrong about China -- maybe because they were still dealing with the original revolutionary generation in Beijing, men who had waded through blood to power 40 years before and had no compunction about shedding a little more. But they were right so far as other communist regimes were concerned.

Marching to Pretoria

Within five months, young East Germans were using the same tactics in the streets of Berlin, and winning. Then Prague and Bucharest and Moscow -- and by 1994 it was South Africa's turn.

The Cold War is over, and the number of people living in more or less democratic countries has practically doubled in a decade. There will be another round in Beijing, and in Rangoon too, and next time nonviolence will probably win.

In 10 years the world has changed profoundly, and almost entirely for the better. We owe the people of the Philippines much more than we know.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and historian whose columns appear in 30 counties.

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