You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 48: How Do Rebel Groups Govern?

How Do Rebel Groups Govern?

While the immediate image that the phrase “rebel groups” brings to mind may be men dressed in fatigues and carrying Kalashnikov rifles, the activities of rebel groups extend beyond paramilitary engagements and into the provision of public goods and social services. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Megan Stewart joins us to discuss rebel governance.

Professor Stewart defines rebel governance (1:29) and breaks down the different ways that rebel groups approach governance (2:03). She shares a few projects that rebel groups have undertaken (3:42), explains whether these governance projects are mostly meant to serve PR purposes (4:41), and gives an example of when a rebel group bit off more than they could chew while attempting governance (6:47).

Based on research she conducted for her book, Governing for Revolution: Social Transformation in Civil War, Professor Stewart shares what rebel groups have learned from the Chinese Communist Party (8:32) and explains the risks that rebels face when they take on expensive governance projects (14:44). She reveals the impacts of rebel governance on civilians (16:22) and how the international system relates to civil wars, as well as the conflicts in which these rebel groups are involved (17:51). Finally, Professor Stewart shares how she conducted research for her book (19:01) and some of the unexpected findings from her research (21:36).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Stewart shares the five most unique rebel governance projects she has heard of (12:39).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. Say the words rebel group to anyone who follows the news, and you may get a lot of different examples. You might hear about ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or the FARC from Columbia. At some point, some groups that today are in charge started as rebel groups against an established order. Hamas on the Gaza strip, for example. Or the Chinese Communist Party.

0:38      KS: While the immediate image that the phrase rebel groups brings to mind may be men dressed in fatigues and carrying Kalashnikov rifles, the activities of rebel groups extend beyond paramilitary engagements and into the provision of public goods and social services. There's even evidence that a rebel group once built a movie theater. So, today we're talking about rebel governance.

1:02      KS: I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Megan Stewart. Megan is a professor here at the School of International Service. She's the author of the recently published book, "Governing for Revolution: Social Transformation in Civil War." Megan, thank you for joining Big World.

1:17      Megan Stewart: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

1:20      KS: It's going to be fun. Megan, for listeners who aren't familiar with this concept of rebel governance, like me, how would you define rebel governance to get us started?

1:29      MS: Sure. We typically think about rebel governance as the set of actions that rebel groups use to order civilians' social, political, and economic life during war. Sometimes this is just rules, so don't go here, stay to this area, don't engage in this set of behaviors. Other times, it's actually building institutions. This could range from schools, to movie theaters, to hospitals, as an example.

1:56      KS: What are the different types of ways that rebel groups approach governance, and why do they take different approaches?

2:03      MS: I conceive of rebel groups taking a couple of different approaches to governance. The first way that they might approach governance is much more limited with a focus on structuring their governance institutions to really bolster the military capacity of the organization.

2:20      MS: What they might do, or what we often observe rebel organizations doing, is going to some existing town or location, trying to work with whatever preexisting authorities are on the ground, but basically leaving them to their own devices and not really meddling with these preexisting institutions. In that case, rebel organizations often act like a police force to prevent security threats or internal threats. They might adjudicate disputes, but they're really focused on the military side of things.

2:52      MS: Then other rebel organizations tend to govern in a much more expansive way. This goes beyond just acting as a police force or an adjudicator of disputes, and they're really trying to restructure societies. They might engage in land reform and redistribution. They might build hospitals. They might try and change preexisting institutions. It's far more meddlesome.

3:16      MS: Then there are some rebel organizations that combine both types of these approaches, so that they're really falling in between those extremes. With some governing in some ways that are more limited, but occasionally taking up some of the more intensive forms of projects.

3:30      KS: You mentioned some of these types of projects, hospitals in particular, but what types of governance projects are rebels undertaking today, some which I know you discuss in your book? What are a couple of examples?

3:42      MS: Rebel organizations often build schools. They typically set up judicial institutions. Sometimes they create hospitals or places where civilians can get care, but also where they can take care of their own soldiers.

3:57      MS: In more extreme cases, historically, but even recently in places like Syria, rebel organizations restructured political institutions. They introduced their own governing institutions, sometimes even holding elections, and in the past, they've also redistributed land and property.

4:15      KS: As someone who is in communications, I firmly believe that good public relations and something being substantive, they don't have to be mutually exclusive, but we all know that some things are done strictly as a PR move, and this answer may vary from group to group that you've seen, but in general, are these governance projects only smart PR moves? Or are they substantive as well for the people they affect?

4:41      MS: That's a great question, and the answer is it really does depend. Some rebel organizations will say that they're building these really elaborate school and hospital systems, and then the empirical reality on the ground seems to be a little bit more mixed. Individuals will come, journalists will come, and they'll say, "This organization says they built these hospitals, but I visited them and they seem to be quite literally faked for my presence, my being there."

5:09      MS: Other rebel organizations, not only do they build these really robust institutions, they invite people in to see them, see them operating, see them in practice, and it would be quite a feat to just pull this off for the one visit. These are brick and mortar institutions that have long time horizons meant to be permanent or stay for quite a long time, and they're quite widespread. In that case, it's both a PR move and it's meant to be substantive.

5:39      MS: For some rebel organizations, in particular ones that want to restructure societies in particular ways, they really care about the outcomes of their governance initiatives, and so they'll spend not an insignificant amount of effort trying to realize and build these institutions.

5:57      MS: For other rebel organizations, it's very much a PR move, a box that's being ticked and just saying, "Hey, we've done the thing. We're doing the thing. Give us support. Give us aid." But the reality on the ground, the lived experience on the ground, is probably not living up to what's in their platforms or their PR.

6:17      KS: Megan, some of the activities that you describe are fairly expansive and would seem to demand a lot of manpower and resources. Your book demonstrates that, and I'm quoting, "Some rebels undertake burdensome governance that can imperil their cadres during war." Can you give us an example of a time when a rebel group bit off more than they could chew, in terms of attempting governance and, in the process, endangering their personnel or their larger goals?

6:47      MS: Definitely. One of the most challenging projects that rebel groups often undertook during war was land reform and land redistribution. Some rebel organizations would go into a town and they would figure out who owned what land, and then they would decide how the land would be redistributed and to whom.

7:07      MS: Or, they would introduce a new political system or appoint certain officials who would make the decisions for them, and with their approval, about how land would be redistributed. Then the rebel organization would then enforce those decision making processes.

7:25      MS: But, as we've often observed historically, it's not just rebel groups that undertake land reform, states undertake land reform. Land reform is extremely challenging because sometimes you're taking away an asset, often from powerful organizations or people, and redistributing it to others. And sometimes you might be confiscating that land without paying whoever you confiscated it from back, and that often provokes anger and resentment, and sometimes those people who have lost land might be motivated to fight the rebel organization themselves.

8:01      MS: There's a great paper by Marc Opper, and he basically finds that the Chinese Communist Party's land redistribution as a rebel organization in the 1930s was actually so challenging and extreme it caused the CCP to lose territory in the South and had to retreat up into the Northern part of China. Their governance project was so unpopular and so extreme that they lost their territorial foothold in the South and had to retreat.

8:32      KS: Megan, your book explores case studies of some rebel groups, including the one that you just mentioned, the Chinese Communist Party, and their actions during the Chinese Civil War, which took place between 1927 and 1949, and the Chinese Communist Party's also referred to as the CCP. You say in your book that the CCP quote, "Knowingly introduced challenging governance projects during war, causing a fundamental discontinuity from previous rebel organizations." What does this case study reveal about rebel governance more broadly? What can we learn from this Chinese case study?

9:10      MS: The Chinese Communist Party, at least in my reading, represents a fundamental break in the way that subsequent rebel groups often approached or at least some subsequent rebel groups approached and understood governance. Prior to the CCP's rise, most rebel organizations really didn't think too, too much about the governance behind their own lines. This was not their most pressing concern. They wanted to make sure that governance behind their own lines wasn't creating challenges, but they weren't really interested in restructuring societies.

9:46      MS: As I talked about with the land reform, the CCP was really interested in introducing institutions that fundamentally changed the fabric of Chinese society during war itself. This was an explicit strategy to build the revolution into the war. Where we often think of revolutions as this period of contestation, some leader gets ousted and then the revolutionaries come in and change out society, the CCP said, "No, this is happening at the same time. We're changing society, and we're fighting for control over the state."

10:19      MS: The CCP basically set up and implemented a set of institutions which ranged from providing security and a police force, judicial institutions, some utilities, all the way up to the land reform that I've discussed. But also changing the status of women, changing political institutions, even holding elections, schools and hospitals.

10:41      MS: They then talked about and created propaganda about their approach and they spread information about it globally. They would talk to any journalist who was really interested in seeing their governance projects, and they would talk to other rebel leaders, such as Ho Chi Minh from the Viet Minh, who eventually would go on to lead rebels in the Vietnam War of Independence. Basically, the CCP was just trying to spread their approach to how they wanted to undertake governance during war itself.

11:11      MS: After the CCP, other rebel groups, other rebel leaders were coming about and they were trying to figure out, okay, they have information about the CCP, so how are they, as leaders of a different rebel group, going to approach governance? If they saw themselves as being similar to what the CCP did or wanting to do similar things to what the CCP eventually accomplished, they would try and imitate the CCP's approach, and they would adopt their intensive governance strategy.

11:38      MS: But other rebel leaders would look and say, "Okay, I see what the CCP did, but that's just too much. That goes far beyond the scope of what we're interested in. We have no desire to do that." Even though they knew about the CCP's governance, they would decide that, "We're not going to do that", or "We're not going to do all of it. We might do parts, but we're not going to take on full land reform, changing political institutions. That's just way too much during war."

12:01      MS: The CCP is a cognitive weight, and in the mind's eye of rebel leaders, was a really important force in shaping the strategy for governance for rebel leaders, sort of subsequently from the 1930s onward.

12:25      KS: Megan Stewart, it's time to Take Five. We've learned so far that some rebel groups attempt to govern, and this has taken the form of some projects that may surprise people. What are the five most unique rebel governance projects you've heard of?

12:39      MS: The first really unique governance project, or broadly kind of a cultural governance project, that rebel groups have undertaken that I've heard of, or I've actually seen, is a calendar that a rebel organization and its supporters created to commemorate key milestones in the struggle, with images from the particular country, with actual poetry that the rebel leader had written, and with certain key commemorative dates. Speaking of the Chinese Communist Party, one of the dates that they had commemorated was Mao's birthday. So, that's the first interesting thing.

13:14      MS: The second interesting thing is a rebel leader wanted to start broadcasting a public radio that would talk about the rights of man and the history of colonialism in a particular country. He asked a supporting external sponsor state to give him a radio broadcasting system to create what I call a rebel public radio or a rebel version of NPR, just talking about the history of a country and things that people might be interested in.

13:44      MS: Some rebel organizations have built movie theaters and cinemas for civilians. In other places, rebel organizations have gotten the infrastructure to build hydro electric power plants, so some green energy. Then finally, rebel organizations have held dances or cultural events along those lines to bring people together, to meet folks, but also to build a shared sense of cultural identity, and so dances were one way to do that.

14:10      KS: I love it. I'm picturing them teaming up and the NPR station giving the calendar away as a thank you gift for donors.

14:17      MS: Yeah.

14:17      KS: That's amazing. Thank you. Megan, you talked about how sometimes taking land is much easier than holding it, whether for a government or a rebel group. What are the risks that rebels face when they undertake expensive governance projects? We talked about holding land. What are some other risks that they encounter if they're going to take on something expensive?

14:44      MS: Sure. They often face civilian resistance. Not all civilians are going to equally welcome all projects equally. In the US, right, there's a debate about critical race theory. Some people are very concerned about certain topics that actually happened in US history being taught in US history classes.

15:07      MS: Similarly, a rebel group comes in and wants to change the curriculum. People in other places are also unhappy with rebel groups trying to do that. Sometimes the civilian resistance is minimal, maybe protests, maybe voicing some concerns. Other times, the civilian resistance can be armed resistance against the rebel group.

15:26      MS: When rebels face resistance, they have to address that resistance and sometimes that resistance might be addressed vis-a-vis more violence. It might require more resources. It might require more personnel to implement some projects. If a governance project is challenging, then rebel organizations might have to allocate more resources and personnel to see it completely executed.

15:55      KS: I'm glad we started talking about civilians and the people who live in these places. I can't help but... everybody personalizes everything. I'm a mom with two kids, and I'm imagining myself positioned in a place where a rebel group is now attempting to govern and do things differently. In general, what are the impacts of rebel governance on civilians in these places being governed and beyond, within the countries?

16:22      MS: That's a great question and something that really has not yet been explored to the fullest extent. Some folks have argued that places where rebels that have governed really extensively and broadly have been successful, places like Vietnam or Eritrea, the post-conflict consequence of that are some of the most enduring authoritarian regimes. That may or may not have its roots in rebel governance.

16:51      MS: Alternatively, sometimes for people like women in conflict zones, this might be their first time being able to go to school, or it might be their first time where they can participate in political institutions or own land and property. It depends a lot on who the civilian is and their relationship to the broader rebel organization's goals.

17:15      MS: Other people suggest that rebel governance institutions actually can mobilize individuals and often precede more democratic countries. Really, there's quite a bit of tension and it's not fully clear what the post conflict or even during conflict consequences are of rebel governance projects.

17:34      KS: What would you say that your book can tell us about how the international system relates to civil wars and the conflicts these rebel groups are involved in? Because nothing happens in a vacuum in the world, everything is global, so how does the international system relate to these conflicts and civil wars?

17:51      MS: Well, I think that's precisely the point, right? Which is we think that civil wars often take place just within one country and they don't really have implications for countries beyond. But my work really underscores the fact that a lot of these civil wars are directly linked with rebel organizations learning from, and sometimes supporting, each other.

18:13      MS: Rebel leaders often knew each other. They shared strategies. They shared ideas. They supported one another. They referenced each other in speeches. They wrote letters to each other talking through some of their struggles or things that they both supported.

18:30      MS: Just because something is considered a domestic conflict or a civil war does not mean it's only occurring within one country, and the implications of that conflict go far beyond one country's boundaries and borders.

18:45      KS: Megan, in your book you used archival data from six countries, primary rebel sources, field work, and quantitative analysis while you were researching and writing. What countries did you study, and what was your research process like? How did you do this work?

19:01      MS: The cases that I studied were located in Eritrea, South Sudan, Lebanon, and East Timor. My theoretical framework is really operating at the rebel leader level. It's a theory about how rebel leaders think about the choices that are available to them during civil war with respect to governance. The information that I needed was information about how rebel leaders themselves were thinking about the choices that they could make.

19:31      MS: That's why archival research was particularly valuable to me because rebel leaders were often talking to or reaching out to representatives of foreign countries around the world. They were asking for aid, or they were asking for support. They were talking about their initiatives. And other emissaries from other countries were trying to understand and what rebel leaders were doing, like what do they want?

19:54      MS: That's why the archival research process was particularly interesting. I did archival research in Australia and East Timor. I did archival research in Lebanon and Sweden. I did archival research in the United States and the United Kingdom, quite a spread of countries. You're thinking, how do you speak all those languages? The short answer is, rebel leaders also didn't speak all those languages. They tended to speak either French or English, sometimes Spanish, depending on where the rebel organization was, and I do speak those languages, so it was not too difficult to read some of the archival material.

20:33      MS: In addition to the archival work, I also went to Lebanon, and that was in 2015, to try and get a sense of what was going on with Hezbollah, but that was also sort of the high point of ISIS, the Islamic State. And Hezbollah was preparing to mobilize and move into Syria, which they eventually did.

20:50      MS: Hezbollah leaders were not that interested in speaking to me at that point, and because I wanted information about leader decision making, that was a hard thing to get. I don't know that I was necessarily that successful on the field work front from that particular standpoint.

21:10      MS: Then the quantitative analysis builds from my dissertation in which I collected a data set on rebel governance institutions. I used measures that I collected from the dissertation to analyze broader global historical patterns in rebel governance provision.

21:30      KS: Did you find that there were any of your findings that were unexpected? If so, what surprised you?

21:36      MS: I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how maybe interconnected a lot of rebel leaders were with one another, and how in touch they were, especially for rebel groups who wanted to introduce these really revolutionary projects. They all knew each other. Some of them had gone to school with each other. They were in not infrequent communication. Oftentimes, they would publish each other's work in pamphlets that the rebel groups themselves would publish.

22:09      MS: I found, for instance, in my work on Eritrea, they had published a letter they had received from the IRA. Then I was in Belfast pre-COVID in 2019, and you can see just lots and lots of different international solidarity, images, and pictures in Belfast. To me, I thought what was most interesting are these deep interconnections that are often actually quite personal. Individuals actually know each other and are in touch with each other. To me, I thought that was the most exciting and interesting.

22:38      KS: That is very unexpected when you consider that in our framing, we often position a lot of these groups around a particular religious ideology or political ideology. To hear that you've got people who may be part of a different religion supporting those in the Irish Republican Army, it's interesting. What ties them together is the idea of wanting some type of systemic change in their countries. Is that right?

23:09      MS: Definitely. Both the systemic change, as well as the desire to contest imperialism, and they understand themselves as part of a broader anti-imperial project, and it doesn't matter who the imperial force or fighter is, they're all connected in their struggle against imperialism. A simultaneous desire for the social change, but also a desire to contest and combat imperialism, not just in their own country, but around the world.

23:40      KS: Megan Stewart, thank you for joining Big World and talking about rebel governance. It's been a pleasure to speak with you.

23:46      MS: Thanks so much for having me. It's been great.

23:48      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like finding out that spring is going to be the one when your allergies are completely dormant. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Megan Stewart,
SIS professor

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