Theses Doctoral

From Guns to Roses: Explaining Rebel Use of Nonviolent Action

Keller, Nora Johanna

As rebel organizations are associated with violence and war, the term “rebel use of nonviolent action” seems paradoxical at first glance. Yet, some rebel organizations — after pursuing their aims through militant means unsuccessfully — do start to use mass-based nonviolent action, mobilizing and organizing the population to participate in large-scale mass protests, demonstrations, or boycotts. Sometimes, as evidenced by the cases of Timor- Leste’s Maubere Council for National Resistance or the Nepalese Maoists, this strategic shift can bring them considerably closer to their ultimate goal. This study addresses the following question: Why do some rebel organizations strategically use nonviolent mass popular action in a civil war?
The aims of this dissertation are two-fold: First, I explore, conceptualize and define “rebel use of nonviolent action”. Second, I build a theory to explain to explain whether or not rebel groups will seize on an opportunity for using strategic nonviolent action that builds on the rebel group’s internal organizational processes. Precisely because mass based nonviolent action is unexpected and very difficult to organize, there can be significant strategic benefits for rebel organizations who successfully launch a nonviolent campaign. First, they demonstrate the breadth and depth of their popular support by mobilizing the people to actively and en masse put themselves at risk as protesters. Second, the use of nonviolent action displays a high degree of movement resilience and control, as nonviolent events that are most effective in urban areas must be coordinated with a rebel leadership likely located in the periphery. Third, the rebel group can signal norms adherence, as nonviolent action is generally associated with democratic values. Fourth, nonviolent action can garner significant international attention, as masses of civilians peacefully protesting against a civil war backdrop create a powerful image.
The proposed theoretical framework takes an organizational approach to understanding rebel group behavior, which accounts for the role of civilians as potential group actors. The appropriateness of this framework is established through an in-depth theory-building case study of Timor-Leste’s violent/nonviolent independence struggle. Based on insights gleaned from this case and a conceptual exploration of nonviolent action as a rebel strategy, my theory is anchored on the insight that a rebel operational shift towards the use of nonviolent action constitutes a particularly disruptive instance of strategic innovation. The theory unfolds in two parts: First, I argue that consolidated political authority in a rebel organization is necessary for disruptive innovation in the form of nonviolent action. Second, I explore the operational requirements for actually carrying out nonviolent action, and argue that embedded organizational structures linking rural rebel strongholds with urban popular centers are necessary to allow for both popular mobilization for nonviolent action and control of individual events and the organization as a whole. The common organizational “theme” uniting these two complex features is an operational focus on functional task differentiation.
The Timorese theory-building case study analyzes findings from in-person interviews, first-person accounts and historiography of the conflict to trace and explore the relevant mechanisms leading from a violent (guerrilla) to a largely nonviolent conflict strategy. This case study also establishes that the decision to adopt nonviolent action as a strategy and the actual planning of nonviolent events can be directly linked to a rebel organization’s leadership. To test the plausibility of the theory and explore the scope, I present two additional medium-length case studies of the Nepali Maoists and the Salvadoran Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional.
In addition to providing the first comprehensive conceptualization of nonviolent action as a rebel strategy, this dissertation makes two key analytical and conceptual contributions: First, I provide a framework for studying rebel groups as organizations with internal frameworks and processes that come together in a dominant structure that can explain operational and strategic choices, options, and trajectories. A comprehensive understanding of a rebel group’s dominant structure requires careful over-time analysis. Second, the example of nonviolent action as a conflict strategy shows the necessity of studying the population — and its ties to the rebel organizations — as active resistance participants that must be included in a comprehensive organizational analysis of a rebel group.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Snyder, Jack Lewis
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 17, 2017