Last week, we suggested that looking at a past protest movement, why it was born, how demonstrators mobilised and according to which space-time pattern, could help us understanding better what is happening nowadays in many countries. As the current protest movements spread, multiply and recur, it is most likely that we are faced with escalating situations. Understanding how political authorities, in the past, managed to stabilize a protest movement could shed light on the political decisions taken in the present. This knowledge gives us tools and indicators to assess and monitor various contemporary situations and evaluate their future dynamics.
Blind first response: escalating a protest movement
Then, the political authorities initial feedback actions occurred as soon as the movement appeared, in November 1915. They were not stabilising but escalating, as they did not end the protest but, on the contrary, increased it. Indeed, the answers dealt with only one part (the 1915 prestations) of the multiple motivations for escalation (all the issues that created the rising inequalities, as well as the related resentment and feelings of injustice), and were built upon the complete lack of understanding of the situation. They incorporated the belief in a potential plot, rather than considering the real causes for grievances.
This underlines that stabilising actions must be related to the reasons for escalation, and adds that partial solutions are not stabilising. It thus emphasises the crucial importance of understanding and the difficulty to obtain a realistic analysis when one is prey to biases and when one does not have time to reflect but must act immediately.
Stabilisation phase 1: Listening and immediate feasible redress
The first phase of the stabilising actions was to increase the authority’s understanding of the ‘opposition’ and of the situation, while taking immediate measures to show protestors they had been heard and taken seriously. Throughout January 1916, the peaceful and mainly non-violent demonstrations in Phnom Penh on the one hand, the dual authority willingness to listen and understand, on the other, allowed for real communication (i.e. exchange and listening truly to others, not communication campaigns created by advertisers and spin doctors) and consequent understanding to arise, with the exception of the Prey Veng Resident caught up in his anti-German fears. The authorities took note of the various reasons for discontent and gave immediate satisfaction to the protestors on the feasible and most urgent points, such as the buy-back of prestations done by a 22 January 1916 Royal Ordinance. By 1st February, the number of demonstrators reaching Phnom Penh had decreased to a few hundred.
Nowadays, hardly anyone truly listens to demonstrators. At best, some quick anti-austerity, stimulus packages are constructed, according to old recipe, but demands and grievances are usually dismissed, when the protests are not completely ignored. The responses that are given are done according to the wishes of the most powerful actors and lobbyists, and following cognitive models that may not reflect anymore the entire reality.
Stabilisation phase 2: Rebuilding trust and asserting legitimate authority
The second phase was to increase the feeling of understanding and communication and to build trust to permit in-depth work towards reforms. The permanent commission of the council of ministers under leadership of the Résident Supérieur began to reflect on the peasants’ grievances. The King, after having condemned violence, abuse and the massive protests in Phnom Penh because they favoured unrest, issued a proclamation that detailed all grievances and announced that they would be seriously examined. Thus, by 10 February, the situation in Phnom Penh was judged normal.
A reassertion of the authority’s monopoly of violence through selective and just use of force accompanied these two phases. In the provinces, as the authorities had understood the three phases of the movement, it had the possibility to discriminate between different kinds of leaders and to know where and how violence originated. Thus, the state could reassert its monopoly of violence in a selective and proper way. The central authority struggled against any provincial authorities’ unjustified use of violence and against excessive and unfair punishment (all intrinsically escalating) and penalised them when they happened.
Thus, the means of violence remained in the hands of the authorities, which prevented the perception of a waning authority that would have led to more escalation. For example, towards the end of the movement, the villagers helped the authorities to suppress agitation and arrest agitating leaders.
The fundamental beliefs of the population and the specific structure of religious institutions and practices were understood and considered. Escalating ways to take advantage of the latter were prevented: in agreement with the heads of the two Buddhist branches (Mohanikay and Thommayut), all travels by monks to Siam were suspended and all pagodas informed of this measure to prevent rebellious leaders using Buddhist robes and Pagodas networks to escape the authorities.
In the meantime, from the second part of February 1916 onwards, the King and the ministers, representing respectively the symbolic and acting parts of the Kampuchean authority, toured the most agitated provinces, explaining the proclamation, and the reforms on the one hand, scolding villagers for their behaviour, on the other. These tours first reinforced the feeling of communication and understanding and second lent legitimacy to the authorities’ actions and declaration of future actions. Third, they contributed to ensure that potentially remaining demonstrators would not travel to Phnom Penh and that they would not drag along other villagers, thus decreasing opportunities for violence. Residents similarly toured the less agitated provinces.
Compared with our present, the difference is that, in many countries, even if national, regional and international political authorities travel frequently, they do so without the first phase of stabilisation having taken place, without grievances having being heard and without true communication. The shell, the appearance of communication has been kept but is the substance still there?
Disregard for historically constructed beliefs and norms, including fundamental respect for others (see below the video produced by the Greek Omikron Project struggling against constant slights), as not only religious ideas must be considered, also have the potential for transforming what should have been stabilising in escalating actions, witness, for example, Mrs Lagarde outraging comment on Greek citizens, or, more recently, Mrs Merkel’s trip to Greece and Ireland. Even if reactions are not – or not yet – mainstream and widely shared, the fact that they already exist collectively is a signal that something is amiss, as the master work of political scientist James Scott emphasises.
The means of violence definitely remain in the hand of the political authorities, but is their use perceived as just and legitimate, considering the fact that the other stabilising elements tend, so far, to be lacking?
Then, symbolic and coercive power interacted, mutually reinforced each other and lent legitimacy to the authority-system. Now, they do not.
Stabilisation phase 3: in-depth reforms
In Cambodia, the third phase, in-depth reforms, could now begin, as promises had been made with the King’s proclamation that had to be held. The Résident Supérieur took immediate measures aimed at reducing abusive or erroneous practices in tax collection, prestations and requisitions. For example, he recommended that Residents get closer to the population by multiplying tours to ensure effective control of the lower levels of the Kampuchean administrative apparatus, while posters were put up in all villages to explain to the inhabitants which taxes were owed by whom. Meanwhile, the dual authority had to examine the validity of the other complaints and to propose reforms, that were studied, discussed, enacted and applied by the end of 1917.
Thus, we can see first that communication and pooling of resources at all levels of the politico-administrative apparatus in a bottom-up and horizontal fashion were necessary to permit stabilising actions. The authority worked in a dual fashion and, even if final decision-making power remained vested in the French, it still reflected joint work, as the Resident did not discard the suggestions of the Assembly, but incorporated most of them into the final decisions.
Second, the speed with which actions were taken and the visibility of the first phase of actions that compensated for those that had to be delayed probably strongly contributed to the stabilisation.
Finally, this case confirms the necessity of multi-dimensional actions truly addressing the grievances of the protestors, selective and fair use of force and the importance of sustained and persistent efforts. The dual authority had taken the measure of the discontent and consequent risks, persisted in its stabilising efforts, and thus stabilised the situation for the next twenty years.
Why is it not happening today?
Many factors come to mind. Among the most obvious, first, we must recall that the 1915-1916 Cambodian protests movement was very large, relatively, and thus the shock for and risk to the political authorities was important. Most movements nowadays do not meet this criteria (see previous post). The incentives to truly consider protestors’ grievances and to actively endeavour the various phases necessary for a stabilisation thus lack. Furthermore, many of the countries where the protests take place are liberal democracies. In the shallow understanding of Democracy (contrasted with what Kant’s political writings taught us and that Doyle reminds us), the election process mainly, or even only, is understood as granting legitimacy to citizens’ representatives and the resulting government. The latter may thus believe it is enough to be elected or re-elected to be fully legitimate. As hypothesized earlier, the type of political regime into which protests take place may affect the credibility of the movement and its dynamics.
Second, the Cambodian peasants showed their willingness to use violence. Currently, save, so far, for Syria and Libya, and for short outbursts of violence elsewhere, most of the movements are not only peaceful but also underline this aspect as one of their ideals. In terms of political dynamics, this begs the question of the possibility of successful completely peaceful political actions. To take an example further away from revolutions and escalation towards civil war, unions’ movements and actions involved much violence. The success of Gandhi non-violent movement springs to mind here, but it took place against the backdrop of other very violent actions, while the overall situation was largely different.
Last but not least, we are probably in an overall escalating phase, where the various institutions that have been built in the past are not anymore fully adequate to deal with the reality of a transformed present, of a potential paradigm shift, of the multiple pressures that we must face while having largely contributed to create them. It is thus hardly surprising that actions grounded in the past lack a stabilizing character, as everything, from capacities to understanding and beliefs, must be adapted, transformed, sometimes created if we want to properly handle changes and be ready for the future. In this framework, protest movements are a constructive and crucial component of ours societies’ evolutions as it is only through the interactions they prompt, through the change they impose that a new better adapted system may hope to emerge.
See previous post for archival references.
Kant, Immanuel, Political Writings edited by Hans Reiss, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991).
Doyle, Michael W. 1983. “Kant, Liberal Legacies and Foreign Affairs,” Part 1 and 2, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 12, nos. 3-4 (Summer and Fall).
Scott, James, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press, 1985.