Robert Helvey's Expert Political Defiance

By John Bacher | 2003-04-01 12:00:00

You know the names of plenty of military leaders (Eisenhower and Mountbatten, for example) who vanquished dictators - but I'll bet you never heard of Robert Helvey. You should. He's a rugged, retired US colonel whose adventures could make a terrific Hollywood epic. Moreover, he offers an answer to the main problem that we are all confronting - how to help the Iraqi people get rid of a dictator without violence.

Helvey is experienced and credible. Most recently he has given preliminary training to 50 leaders of a democratic Iraqi opposition organization called "No to Saddam," which is committed to dissolving the dictatorship through such means of resistance as massive strikes. And for several years before, he was training democratic opposition movements in Burma and in Serbia. His work was crucial in OTPOR's overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic. I will describe his work in all three countries: Burma, Serbia, and Iraq.


From 1983 until 1985 Helvey was a US military attaché at the American Embassy in Rangoon, where he was dismayed by the futility of armed resistance to the brutal dictatorship of Burma. An armed struggle had continued without success for over two decades. The democratic protesters were outgunned by Burma's military rulers, whose 400,000 troops were well-supplied by Communist China, and who had profits from the narcotics trade and foreign corporations involved in logging, mining, and petroleum development.

Helvey could see no way of resisting the junta, and that fact haunted him throughout his last year of military service, which he spent as a fellow at Harvard's Center for International Affairs. One day he saw a poster advertising a talk on nonviolent sanctions, to be given a few hours later by the leading theorist of nonviolent resistance, Gene Sharp. Greatly impressed by Sharp's analysis of how to acquire political power without war, Helvey immediately recognized the value of such methods for Burma's democrats, who were being slaughtered.

From conversations with Sharp and like-minded colleagues at the Albert Einstein Institution, Helvey learned a systematic strategy of resistance. For example, he learned to avoid exposed situations that could lead to heavy casualties such as the protest in 1988 when 3,000 unarmed students were massacred in Rangoon. He came to see that even greater pressure could be applied to the regime with less risky tactics, such as having people simply stay at home during a general strike.

After retiring from the army in 1991, Helvey gave a speech in Washington, using Sharp's insights and adding his own. A member of the audience later offered to pay his way to Burma to spread his message. With this funding, from 1992 to 1998, he made 15 trips to the Thai-Burmese border to meet with more than 500 members of the National Council Union of Burma, a pro-democracy umbrella group. On eight occasions, Helvey taught a six-week course, seeking to build confidence, identify the dictatorship's major weaknesses, and form pressure groups. This is hard to do in Burma, where unauthorized meetings of more than five people are banned. He stressed that nonviolent struggle, "like military struggle, is both an art and a science. To be effective, it must be studied and carried out with skill and discipline." His students prepared strategic plans for facing certain dangerous situations. Helvey bought air time on Radio Norway's shortwave broadcasts, and cassettes of his resistance message were distributed underground in Burma.

Many of those attending Helvey's course had been officers in armed resistance groups for many years and were skeptical about nonviolence. For example, Auun Nang Oo, who is now a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Nonviolence, was astonished that a career soldier could hold such views. Another unbeliever was General Bo Mya, the leader of the Karens, the biggest national minority. At first he would just grumble and grunt that he "wasn't interested in doing the work of cowards." To change such attitudes, Helvey coined the more militant-sounding phrase, "political defiance," which won Bo over and caused him to ask Helvey to train more Karen leaders.

Gene Sharp joined Helvey at the request of the American Friends of Democracy in Burma. Both men met students who had faced ghastly experiences, including imprisonment, solitary confinement, torture, dangers to family, and executions of relatives and friends. Yet none of them seemed hardened and hateful, but all "seemed determined to bring an end to this massive oppression, hopefully by political defiance rather than a continuation of a long war."

Helvey's training was to have a noticeable impact on the Burmese opposition. In 1997, the All-Burma Students Democratic Front ended its support for armed struggle and endorsed the strategies of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Su Kyi. She had been elected president of Burma in 1990 in an election nullified by the country's military rulers. Now new tactics were employed, such as lightning-quick street protests, sit-ins, and the distribution of leaflets before troops could arrive.

Helvey stayed in touch with Burma's opposition even after his main work shifted to the training of youthful democrats in the former Yugoslavia. Until the spring of 2001, difficulties in Burma were compounding because Aung San Su Kyi was kept under house arrest. As he explained to me, "Politics in Burma have always been personalized and Aung San Su Kyi is the symbol of the entire pro-democracy movement. Without her, the movement has not demonstrated the ability to take on strategic struggle."

Because her release was so important, it became a condition for the ending of many restrictions on foreign aid to Burma. Helvey explained that

"Aung San Su Kyi's release was in response to international pressure, especially Japan's forgiving some of the country's extensive debt. The rulers showed they kept their part of the bargain by allowing her to move around the country to open the offices of her party, the National League for Democracy. In doing so, she spoke to large demonstrations, which showed her popularity to be stronger than ever. I think that these visits are a sign of what is to come in the future."

Helvey sees one hopeful sign in an incident of December, 2002 in the state of Arakan, 535 km west of Rangoon. A line of fire trucks had been sent to disperse a crowd of 20,000 people who had gathered to welcome Aung San Su Kyi. Faced with this threat, she suddenly leapt out of her car and jumped onto a fire truck. From here she berated the security forces, telling them that their real job is not to bully the people of Burma but to serve them. The people applauded and faced the fire trucks and police, who backed off.


Helvey's success with OTPOR, the youthful democratic opposition in Serbia, benefited from a temporary consistency and coherence in American foreign policy during the Clinton presidency, which actually pursued the strategies advocated by Gene Sharp. That policy was clearly and openly articulated in a memorandum to the US Congress, written by Daniel Server, director of the Balkan Initiative of the US Institute for Peace. This organization, founded in 1984 and funded by the US Congress, promotes a variety of perspectives favoring peace and human rights. It focuses on civil society, humanitarian assistance, and intercultural dialogue.

Server made his request for funding in an open document available freely on the Internet. Eventually Congress approved around $45 million. In order to make its objectives appear sinister, Milosevic's secret police slightly falsified his policy document, replacing the US Institute for Peace letterhead with that of the CIA and marking it as TOP SECRET. Helvey recalls that such ploys were based on the correct understanding that "the easiest way to destroy a movement is for the CIA to taint it."

Many elements in a nonviolent Yugoslav democratization strategy, such as radio broadcasting and aid to democratic groups, were already in place before Server formed the clear, coherent new policy. One benefit of this clarity was to counter the conspiracy theory that accused the US of wanting to keep Milosevic in power. Server employed every element of Sharp's nonviolent strategy for destroying a dictatorship, with the full support of President Bill Clinton's administration. Sanctions were applied in a more targeted fashion. For example, they were not applied to municipalities that voted to support opposition politicians. The National Democratic Institute commissioned polls for Serbian political parties that found that 70 percent of the country viewed Milosevic unfavorably. A series of radio transmitters, called the "Ring Around Serbia," were constructed in neighboring countries to beam in the BBC, the Agence France-Presse, and Voice of America.

The US Treasury Department was able to trace the movement of Milosevic's funds. Billions of dollars were being laundered through two major Cyprus banks. Cyprus agreed to freeze these assets.

With the US policy toward Yugoslavia then being written on the basis of Sharp's nonviolent strategies, it was logical that one of his leading colleagues, Robert Helvey, would be assigned the role of building the skills of the nonviolent opposition. The National Republican Institute asked Helvey to undertake the training of OTPOR. He began this project in the Budapest Hilton Hotel, with an original core group of only 12 people. Helvey was not paid for his efforts, though his expenses were covered. He began his course by discussing the basics of strategic nonviolent struggle. Srdja Popovic, one of the students, recalls having memorized many of his lectures - especially the opening words, "Removing the authority of the ruler is the most important element in nonviolent struggle."

Helvey asked OTPOR's leaders to analyze the "pillars of support" that sustained the regime, such as control of the media and the country's security forces. The training sessions strategized on how to develop support from a wide spectrum of Serbian citizens, including people within government itself.

In his lectures, Helvey called violent incidents "contaminants to nonviolent struggle," using the metaphor of a car's gas tank contaminated by moisture so that eventually the engine may not run at all. Violence causes "a lot of people who joined your movement because it was nonviolent … to start backing away."

Another objective of the training was to overcome fear. Though his students were courageous, Helvey's challenge was to persuade more ordinary Serbs to join in. To handle fear, marchers would touch each other after frightening events, such as the clicking of bayonets, or the beating of batons. Chanting and making noise, he explained, can drown out threatening sounds. Similar impacts are gained from holding banners, which divert attention from threatening soldiers.

Giving demonstrators minute tasks is another way to overcome fear. Some were employed in keeping protest lines straight. Sign holders were instructed to keep their signs at particular angles. Others were assigned to give warnings of police attacks. Another task for marchers was to carry water.

Helvey also prepared his students for the real physical suffering many would experience from Yugoslav security forces. It was explained that protesters should prepare first aid and be ready for the first sight of blood after police attacks. Some lessons came from Martin Luther King's training in churches during the civil rights movement, which taught activists to fall down and cover their heads when being beaten.

Following Helvey's training, OTPOR launched a massive recruiting campaign. The regime retaliated, beating and arresting scores of activists within a few weeks. Many recalled Helvey's advice not to respond violently to these attacks. The sight of police abusing young nonviolent demonstrators helped to swell OTPOR's ranks into a movement of 70,000 activists. Prominent athletes, representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and even judges joined in. To move the elderly away from their support of Milosevic, OTPOR took up pensioners' causes. They sent flowers to the military on Army Day. Such tactics recruited sympathizers in numbers that would not be apparent until the final days of the regime, when soldiers and police stood by while massive crowds stormed the Serbian parliament.


Almost a year after the successful nonviolent Serbian Revolution of 2000, a seminar began planning to oust the Iraqi dictatorship through similar means. It was offered by the Center for Nonviolent Conflict, Freedom House, and the US Institute for Peace, and was followed by a session in Washington in May sponsored by the Iraqi Democratic Institute and Freedom House. Here Helvey's military experience helped persuade skeptical Iraqi exiles that nonviolence is a viable approach.

The Gulf War and the subsequent containment efforts against Iraq, says Helvey, "only dealt with a symptom of the problems posed by Saddam Hussein. It did not solve the problems of regional security, instability, genocide, and tyranny. Since the war ended, tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens have been killed. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent keeping Saddam's aggressive desires in check, and the regime remains unstable."

No to Saddam

Helvey's strongest supporter at the May strategy session was Ismael Zayer, whose campaign was called "No to Saddam." Zayer advocated a counter-referendum to match Saddam's planned October referendum. Unfortunately, his effort was not assisted by other countries and only thousands of Iraqis took part - far short of the millions he had hoped for. Zayer bravely continues working for the nonviolent defeat of the Iraqi dictatorship. He met with European human rights activists and parliamentarians, asking them to send election monitors to future Iraqi elections and to support nonviolent regime change in Iraq, in an approach called "The Third Choice."

In a phone interview from his home in the Netherlands, Zayer pleaded that, "To achieve the third choice, we need help. Not with armies or with money. We need help in the form of nonviolent training to protect ourselves from Saddam and his agents. We can do it, but we need help now."

Unfortunately, not many people are listening. Helvey has been unable to make much progress in training Iraqi exiles in "political defiance." The next step would be for them to sit down together and identify the key props to Saddam's dictatorship so they can be undermined.

In October, relatives of the disappeared did protest in Baghdad. Meanwhile, back in Washington Server was trying to get momentum going for a coherent strategy of nonviolent regime change. At the US Institute for Peace, he convened a meeting of experts on Iraq and those skilled in confronting dictatorships, and he published their findings. They suggested numerous new American initiatives, such as tracking down secret bank accounts, targeting sanctions more clearly to hit the powerful, and curbing the smuggling that pays for Iraqi weapons.

Though his nonviolent strategies are ignored by the Bush Administration, Helvey has emerged as one of the most persuasive critics of war against Iraq. He asks,

"What is the sense of urgency now for a war that wasn't there a year ago? What is the reason to go to war and not give nonviolence a try? If we have a commitment to democracy in this region, it would be better if the people did it themselves, through nonviolent methods, rather than its being imposed on them by the US military. We may be opening a Pandora's box by invading Iraq. After the victory there would be many extremist groups who would exploit the situation and use violence to foster their ends."

But few journalists contact Helvey at his home in West Virginia. His efforts to mobilize support for the Iraqi nonviolent opposition do not appear in the news and are ignored by most of the mainstream peace movement. And we get war instead.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2003

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2003, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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