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Nonviolent Resistance, War Termination, and Conflict Transformation in Nepal

This analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 1 of the Peace Science Digest

As the field of nonviolent/civil resistance studies grows, scholars are gaining a more nuanced appreciation not only for the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance as a tool of political and social change but also for its usefulness as a tool of violence prevention and/or termination in wartime contexts. Typically, attention has focused on violence prevention in the form of civil resistance against armed groups, the creation of zones of peace, or the presence of unarmed civilian peacekeeping teams. The authors here, however, focus on the violence termination role that civil resistance can play. In particular, they investigate the case of Nepal—where Maoist insurgents (the CPNM) waged war against the monarchy from 1996 to 2006—to understand “how and whether nonviolent struggle in a context of armed conflict can function as a mechanism of conflict transformation.” More specifically, they ask both 1) why the primary actors opposed to the monarchy joined forces and turned to civil resistance, and 2) whether and how this turn to civil resistance facilitated an end to the armed conflict.

Through examining the history of the conflict in Nepal, the authors find that 1) the main political parties and the CPNM had strategic reasons for joining forces and turning to mass civil resistance, and 2) joint participation in civil resistance transformed the actors themselves, the issues central to the conflict, and ultimately structural conditions in Nepal, bringing about an end to the war. More specifically, after several years of armed conflict and a halting peace process between the CPNM and the government, the situation escalated in the early and mid-2000s, as the king made a series of authoritarian decisions regarding parliament and the country’s political parties. These moves had the effect of unifying the disparate political parties under the umbrella of their Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and galvanizing a joint mobilization between the SPA and the CPNM against the monarchy.

In addition to the outrage both the SPA and the CPNM shared in response to the king’s actions, the decision to come together to mobilize a nonviolent resistance movement was influenced by a few other considerations on both sides. For the CPNM, it had become clear that, although it could mount a military challenge to the government, it was not capable of achieving military victory; furthermore, it had lost some public support due to its use of violence, including the commission of abuses. The international context in the wake of the 9/11/2001 attacks in the U.S. and the advent of the “war on terror” made the CPNM’s use of violence into even more of a liability, as the group was identified as a terrorist organization. A turn to nonviolent resistance with the support of the SPA could bring the CPNM much greater legitimacy and support and could also provide a pathway for the group’s political participation once the armed struggle was over. The mainstream political parties, for their part, had become weakened by internal divisions and a loss of popular support in rural areas. The nonviolent struggle they had already initiated against the monarchy was largely limited to methods of protest and persuasion. Joining forces with the CPNM would broaden the support base for the movement, and diversifying their methods would have a greater chance of weakening the power of the monarchy. For these strategic reasons, then, the SPA and the CPNM initiated talks to begin collaboration on a nonviolent resistance movement, which took shape in early April 2006 in the form of a general strike and the blocking of “district headquarters and major highways.” The 19-day movement characterized by various forms of nonviolent non-cooperation, intervention, protest, and civil disobedience gained widespread support both nationally and internationally, ultimately “forc[ing] the King to step down, reinstate the Parliament that he had dissolved, and return state power to elected lawmakers” and leading to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in November 2006.

While the willingness to join together in nonviolent struggle marks a transformation in the primary actors themselves (the CPNM and the SPA), that collaboration in nonviolent struggle itself helped transform the issues that defined the conflict. The 12-point agreement signed by the CPNM and the SPA in November 2005 to establish their collaboration in the “April Uprising” also served as the basis for the subsequent peace agreement in 2006, where each party agreed to demands long made by the other. Structural transformations followed as well, including power-sharing between the CPNM and the SPA in the new parliament, the abolition of the monarchy, and the establishment of a republic. In short, this case illustrates how the joint adoption of nonviolent resistance by formerly antagonistic parties can enable the termination of civil war and the transformation of conflict—its parties, issues, and structural conditions.

Gene Sharp, the pre-eminent scholar of nonviolent action, defined methods of protest and persuasion as “mainly symbolic acts of peaceful opposition or of attempted persuasion, extending beyond verbal expressions but stopping short of noncooperation or nonviolent intervention.” In nonviolent non-cooperation, actors withdraw the usual forms and degree of their cooperation with the…regime with which they have become engaged in conflict.” In nonviolent intervention, established behavior patterns, policies, relationships and institutions which are seen as objectionable are disrupted, or new ones are established. Civil disobedience is the “disobedience of laws which are regarded as inherently immoral or otherwise illegitimate.”  (Sharp, G. (1973). The politics of nonviolent action. Boston: P. Sargent Publisher).

Contemporary Relevance:

This study moves us closer to understanding how nonviolent resistance might be used as a tool for confronting war, not only as a tool for challenging injustice. If one of the parties to a civil war decides that their goals would be better served by a shift in methods—from armed to unarmed—that shift already effectively diminishes the violence of civil war. What’s more, that shift from violent to nonviolent strategy may also more effectively challenge the power of the other party to the civil war (in this case the monarchy), ultimately removing the other source of a war’s violence. It is refreshing to imagine what a similar shift would do to other, seemingly intractable civil and/or inter-state war contexts like Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan. For instance, if the Taliban were suddenly to decide to shift away from armed insurgency to a strategy of nonviolent resistance, what position would it put the Afghan government, the U.S., and their allies in? What would it do to those actors’ ability to use counter-insurgency violence? But how, also, might it transform the Taliban itself—and its political project—especially if it were to decide that to successfully employ such a strategy it would have to collaborate with other more moderate parties? These are all very open questions—and perhaps the biggest open question is how to encourage armed groups like the Taliban or others to turn to nonviolent resistance in the first place, especially when whole economies and systems of cultural meaning (around heroism, bravery, and resistance) might be built up around war-making. One place to start is to publicize the way in which many of an insurgent group’s goals can be better served by such a shift—a point for which this study provides convincing evidence.

An additional question that this research does not explore is how “sticky” an armed group’s identity as an armed group is even when it turns to nonviolent resistance. In other words, how easy is it to gain the benefits—in terms of shifts in power and support—that come from maintaining nonviolent discipline when many still perceive and can plausibly represent a particular actor as violent instead of nonviolent due to years of waging armed struggle? As the concurrent presence of an armed struggle can be more of a liability than a help to nonviolent movements, according to Chenoweth and Schock’s 2015 article (discussed in the Volume 2, Issue 4, of the Peace Science Digest), how can a shift to nonviolent strategy by a former armed group be made more convincing and credible? And how might one’s reputation as an armed actor—with the easy legitimation such a reputation gives to return violence—be most effectively overcome and transformed, so that nonviolent resistance can have its greatest effect?

Talking Points:

  • There are often strategic reasons for conflict parties—even armed groups—to shift to nonviolent forms of resistance.
  • The adoption of nonviolent/civil resistance by conflict parties in a civil war can play an important role in conflict transformation, transforming the parties themselves, the conflict issues, and the broader structural conditions shaping the conflict.
  • Nonviolent/civil resistance can be a tool not only of political and social change but also of war termination.

Practical Implications:

As noted earlier, this research broadens our conception of what kind of action may be effective in bringing an end to war. Although frequently the direction resistance groups move in is from nonviolent resistance to violent resistance (when an assessment is made—often unfairly or unwisely—that the former has not “worked” and that the latter will), this study highlights movement in the opposite direction: the CPNM’s decision to shift from an armed to an unarmed strategy.

Activists in affected countries who may have links with members of such armed groups—sympathetic with their ends if not their means—should do everything they can to encourage these armed actors to make a shift in this direction, reminding them that such a shift is possible and can be strategically beneficial. A few hurdles must be overcome, nonetheless: 1) widespread assumptions about the effectiveness of violence and the passivity of nonviolence must be challenged (easy enough to do with the emerging empirical studies that point to the higher rate of effectiveness of nonviolent resistance); 2) cultural meanings tied up with violence (about its radical, revolutionary character, its status as the epitome of a certain kind of masculinity, and so on) must also be transformed such that nonviolent resistance begins to take on similarly radical, revolutionary connotations; and 3) armed groups who decide to make this shift must somehow make it credible, convincing adversaries that they have shed their armed identity.

While the first two of these challenges are most effectively addressed through widespread publicity and education about the strategic benefits of nonviolent resistance—perhaps most persuasively presented by other former members of armed groups who shifted to nonviolent resistance and were more successful at reaching their objectives that way—the last of these will be best addressed the more explicitly a group declares its newfound nonviolent status and demonstrates it in irrevocable ways. For instance, the large-scale turning over of weapons (as symbolic as it is practical in assuaging the concerns of one’s adversaries), public declarations of a group’s commitment to nonviolent discipline, and the prominent use of symbolically potent individuals (such as religious figures or well-liked celebrities) can all be powerful ways to demonstrate a group’s identity shift from armed to unarmed.

Making this shift credible to multiple audiences is key because there are different standards when it comes to the acceptability of the use of violence against armed actors versus its use against clearly unarmed actors: the former is considered self-defense and the latter is considered a severe human rights violation. If a government can plausibly portray a resistance group as still armed, it will be easier for it to gain support—both locally and internationally—for its use of violent repression against members of that group. If it cannot, then this same use of violence is much more likely to backfire—and therefore more likely to bring about the shift in power necessary to bring down an authoritarian regime and end the war.

Continued Reading:


Subedi, D.B. & Bhattarai, P. (2017). The April Uprising: how a nonviolent struggle explains the transformation of armed conflict in Nepal. Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, 12(3), 85-97.

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