Ukraine and Thailand: They Are the Real Deal

By Erica Chenoweth 

Kiev protests on November 26, 2013. Photo by Flickr user Ryan Anderson.
Kiev protests on November 26, 2013. Photo by Flickr user Ryan Anderson.

In case you missed it, Viktor Yanukovich’s U-turn on European integration has incensed many Ukrainians, who began by demanding that the government resume its course toward EU integration and away from Russian domination. The protests have since escalated to call for Yanukovich’s resignation — in large part because of his government’s missteps in dealing with the demonstrations.

Also, since October, mass demonstrations have been raging in Thailand among protestors* demanding that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra step down amid accusations that her government is in cahoots with deposed leader Thaksin Shinawatra (in exile since 2008). The conflict is currently in something of a deadlock, with Ms. Yingluck saying she will talk with the opposition but not step down, and the demonstrators saying they will stay at it until she capitulates.

Jay Ulfelder is skeptical that mass movements like this can channel their influence into real political and institutional power. He is quite is right that such movements often fail to translate short-term strategic success into long-term political victories. It’s hard enough for them to turn even tactical effectiveness into strategic success, much less translate victory into real political change. I guess if it were easy, everyone would do it.

But here are three reasons why I think the mass uprisings underway in both places are “the real deal” as nonviolent mass campaigns go.

  1. Both campaigns have employed multiple methods of nonviolent action. I’ve often harped on this point, but mass movements that do more than just demonstrations show a level of strategic versatility and adaptation that helps them to outlast the repression coming down upon them. In both Thailand and Ukraine, in addition to mass demonstrations, activists have called for general strikes. Thai protestors are occupying the ministry of finance in Bangkok. In Ukraine there are calls to boycott Russian goods, nationally-dispersed demonstrations, and nonviolent occupations.
  2. The campaigns have elicited elite defections. Kiev’s chief of police has resigned in Ukraine, and there were early (as yet unconfirmed) reports that Yanukovich’s chief of staff also resigned. EU sanctions of Yanukovich’s crew might generate more of these. Indeed, we have seen activists using creative strategies — like talking to police, offering them chocolate, and praying in front of them — to promote this phenomenon. In my research with Maria Stephan, we found that when security forces (just one of many pillars of support) shift their loyalty, campaigns tended to succeed 60% more often. In Thailand, the major defection has been by formal opposition leaders whose no-confidence vote against Ms. Yingluck was unsuccessful. Time will tell whether more influential defections occur in that case.
  3. Participation is large. Reportedly, there are hundreds of thousands of people engaged in the campaigns in both places. That’s a lot. That said, participation seems to be growing in Ukraine and dwindling in Thailand.

Here are two reasons why the Ukraine case may have better odds of reaching its goals than the Thai case:

  1. Participation in Ukraine is diverse. In Ukraine, the political opposition to Yanukovich seems to include a broad base of participants that cross the political spectrum and are nationally dispersed. In Thailand, although the participants are demographically somewhat diverse, the polity is quite polarized between the pro-Thaksin groups and their opponents, as well as among other political groups. But the opposition protestors are essentially calling for a return to the monarchy, which is certainly controversial among democrats in the country who wish to maintain the electoral system. The polarization of the country also extends to ambivalence about a military coup, which some would welcome while others fear it would set the country back in a number of ways.
  2. In Ukraine, repression has backfired (so far). Last weekend, police in Ukraine used heavy-handed tactics in an attempt to suppress the growing popular movement and make people go home. The repression had the opposite effect. Instead, more people turned out to protest that violence while calling for EU sanctions against the government, and reportedly hundreds of thousands of people are now engaged in human blockades, nonviolent occupations of government buildings, demonstrations, and the like. In Thailand, on the other hand, the police have used rubber bullets against protestors in recent days, but overall the “restrained” nature of the police response has actually won Ms. Yingluck’s government some sympathy among the population.

So, which of these campaigns has the best chance of success?

Among the two cases, if I were the betting type, I’d bet on Ukraine.

* Correction: This piece originally misidentified the protestors demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation as “red shirts”.

  1. I’m a big fan of Chenoweth. I’m unable to agree with her analysis of the situation in Thailand, which is requires much more in-depth and knowledgeable analysis than this piece demonstrates. In fact, it is difficult to do solid analysis unless one is very knowledgeable about Thailand indeed. It’s difficult to get good, independent analysis, because self-censorship by media and academics is normalized in Thailand — no one may safely talk about the real issue because of certain criminal laws. (I am self-censoring in this post.) The anti-government side favors the status quo in terms of suppression of freedom of expression, and apparently so is the government.

    However, Dr. Chenoweth is correct in saying that the protest movement is primarily nonviolent. But so is the government response. There is virtually no evidence (and few claims) of violence by the government or by pro-government supporters (“redshirts”). I have seen no reports, including by human rights organizations, of any excessive use of force by police. In the cases of violence so far, the weight of evidence produced so far is that anti-government protest leaders or supporters have instigated it.

    While it’s correct that the anti-government demonstrations have resulted in a call for election, that was not the stated goal of the anti-government protest movement. They don’t want an election as there is little evidence they can win. They want a change of power now, with no election. They propose an appointed council instead — and not just an interim one. The call for an election was seen by many analysts as the government’s trump card. After the Prime Minister called an election, the anti-government movement continues to call for protest, which are now quite a bit smaller now that an election has been called.

    The anti-government protest movement has made a highly focused effort to get the military onside to support a “people’s coup” but at this point in time, they have not been successful in gaining military defection so far; things may change in the next few days. I was surprised to see Dr. Chenoveth describe the mass resignation of anti-government MPs as a “defection.” The MPs who resigned were always aligned with the anti-government group — they never changed allegiance at all, and their resignations did not affect the government’s majority in parliament. The situation is highly volatile. Whatever happens in the short term, the situation in Thailand will continue to be very unstable and possibly even violence prone for quite some time. I do not hold out a lot of confidence that either side is really committed to nonviolence. I hope I am wrong.

    A more interesting example of a potentially “real deal” nonviolent direction action movement is next door in Cambodia.

  2. I see the different between two protests: pro-Western in Ukraine and anti-Western in Thailand. Is that true? I should check…

  3. The Ukrainians think they are protesting for good. But no no no, they are lying everything. They only defend for Western benefits itself, forget the pro-American killers like Saudi and Uzbekistan. Want to explain?

  4. Dr, Chenoweth, do you have any word about the current situation in Venezuela? There are people following your thoughts and agreeing that the resistance must be successful while less violent. Some of us think that the student protests has become civil chaos because of the non-proportional use of violence from the government and the uncontrollable impetus from protesters (not all are students). How do you think we have to channel the energy of the protests to make it successful?.

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