As the Burmese military brutally cracks down on a popular uprising of its citizens demanding democracy the question on many minds is – so what is the world going to do about it?
From the trend visible so far the answer is simple- nothing at all.
Nothing, that is, beyond the usual condemnations and pious appeals for ‘peaceful dialogue’ and the posturing at international forums in support of the Burmese people.
Nothing more than sending a lameduck UN envoy to negotiate with the paranoid Burmese generals. Negotiate what? Funeral services for their innocent victims mowed down like rabbits on the streets of Rangoon?
It is not that nothing can be done at all – to begin with, how about kicking the illegitimate military regime out of the UN seat it continues to occupy and replacing it with the country’s elected government-in-exile? Why should Burma continue to be a member of ASEAN or for that matter, by default, also of the Asia-Europe Meeting or ASEM?
What about international sanctions on foreign companies doing business in Burma- including dozens and dozens of Western companies apart from those from Asia? Why should large oil companies like the US based Chevron, the Malaysian Petronas, South Korea’s Daewoo International Corp or the French Total continue to be involved in Burma without facing penalties for their support of one of the world’s most heinous dictatorships?
The answers to these elementary questions are quite elementary too- it is Burma‘s abundant natural resources and investment opportunities that really matter. Which government really gives a damn for corralled Burmese citizens desperately battling a quasi-fascist regime that is open to foreign enterprises and shut to its own people.
Following the bloodshed in Burma the new French President Nicholas ‘Napoleon’ Sarkozy for instance grandly called on French companies to freeze all their operations in Burma. Close on his heels Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner clarified however that the French oil giant Total, the largest European company operating in Burma, will not pull out for fear they will be ‘replaced by the Chinese’.
Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister also expressed ‘outrage’ at the Burmese government’s despicable behaviour but was mum about UK companies merrily investing away in Burma. Between 1988 and 2004 companies based out of British territories invested over £1.2bn in Burma, making Britain the 2nd largest investor in this supposedly ostracised country. The sun it seems has not only set on the British Empire but–on its way out- also deep fried the conscience of its politicians.
The Japanese government, another monument to global hypocrisy, shed crocodile tears at the cold-blooded killing of Kenji Nagai, a Japanese journalist shot by a Burmese soldier after he had fallen to the ground while photographing a fleeing crowd of protestors. Mustering all the courage at its command Tokyo asked for an ‘explanation’ and got the response ‘ooops….very sorry” from the Burmese Foreign Minister who must have also muttered ‘that was easy – Moroni San’.
On the question of cutting off aid to the murderous Burmese regime of course the Japanese made their position quite clear- ‘ it is too early’ for such action. They are probably politely waiting for the regime to murder an entire posse of Japanese pressmen before doing anything – Burmese deaths being of no consequence anyway.
The most predictable rhetoric of course came from US President George Bush who while announcing a slew of sanctions on Burma‘s military leaders incredibly said, “I urge the Burmese soldiers and police not to use force on their fellow citizens”.
Wait a minute, that is what the Burmese soldiers and police are trained and paid to do- shoot fellow citizens- so what was the point Bush was trying to make? As usual only he and his Maker- from whom he claims to take instructions directly- knows.
Bush could have maybe uttered better chosen words but none of it would have been credible coming from a man with a record of war mongering and mass killings in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush own regime’s systematic destruction of international human rights norms have robbed it of the right to lecture even something as low as the Burmese junta about anything. A sad situation indeed.
What about Burma‘s old friends like Thailand, Singapore or Malaysia who in a surprise indictment of their fellow ASEAN member expressed ‘revulsion’ at the use of deadly force against innocent civilians? Their statement was welcome no doubt but comes at least two decades too late to be of any real meaning.
Burma‘s military rulers have already milked the dubious ASEAN policy of ‘constructive engagement’ for what it was worth to shore up both their regime at home and claw their way back to recognition abroad. In the early nineties when the Burmese generals were really down and out it was ASEAN who offered them succour and friendship while chastising those who called for democracy in Burma as being ignorant of ‘Asian values’.
All this leaves China and India, two of Burma’s giant neighbours, who for long have showered the Burmese junta with investments, aid and sale of armaments and whom the world now expects to use their ‘influence’ over the generals.
China‘s active support for the Burmese regime is not surprising at all for a country with its own sordid record of suppressing democratic movements at home and shooting civilian dissenters. I don’t however think the Chinese are really worried about Burmese democracy triggering off another Tiananmen-like event in their own country- not immediately at least and not as long as Chinas’ consumerist boom keeps its population hypnotised.
In fact the Chinese, pragmatic as they are and conscious of protecting their many investments in Burma, may also be among the first to actively topple the Burmese junta if they feel that the tide of protests for democracy is about to win. Their future position on Burma will surely seesaw like a yo-yo depending which cat, black or white, is catching the mice.
Of all the countries around the world the most shameful position is held by India, once the land of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi but now run by politicians with morals that would make a snake-oil salesman squirm. India likes to claim at every opportunity that it is ‘the world’s largest democracy’ but what it tells no one, but everyone can see, is that its understanding of democracy is also of the ‘lowest quality’.
Why else would the Indian government for instance send its Minister for Petroleum Murali Deora to sign a gas exploration deal with the military junta in late September just as it was plotting the wanton murder of its own citizens. In recent years India, among other sweet deals, has also been helping the Burmese military with arms and training- as if their bullets were not hitting their people accurately enough.
It was not always like this though. The “idealist” phase of India’s foreign policy approach to Burma dates from when Indian Prime Minister Nehru and his Burmese counterpart U Nu were close friends and decided policies based on trust and cooperation. After U Nu’s ouster in a military coup in 1962, successive Indian governments opposed the dictatorship on principle.
At the height of the pro-democracy movement in 1988 the All India Radio’s Burmese service for instance had even called General Newin and his men ‘dogs’ (very insulting to dogs of course). With the coming of the P.V.Narasimha Rao government in 1992 though it is India that has been wagging its tail all along.
The “pragmatic” phase of Indian foreign policy toward Burma since the early nineties meant throwing principles out the window and doing anything required to further Indian strategic and economic interests. An additional excuse to cozy up to the military junta was the perceived need to counter ‘Chinese influence’ over the country.
In all these years however there is little evidence that India’s long-term interests were better met by “amoral pragmatism” than the “muddled idealism” that had prevailed in the past. In fact, what emerges on a close examination of current Indian policy is that, for all its realpolitik gloss, the only beneficiary is the Burmese regime itself.
Take the myth of India countering China which, according to Indian defence analysts has in the last two decades gained a significant foothold in Burma, setting up military installations targeting India and wielding considerable influence on the regime and its strategic thinking. They say that India’s strong pro-democracy stand in the wake of the 1988 Burmese uprising provided a window for countries like China and Pakistan to get closer to the Burmese generals.
Indian and other defence analysts, with their blinkered view of the world as a geo-political chess game, forget that the then Indian government’s decision to back the pro-democracy movement was not a “mistake” born out of ignorance, but an official reflection of the genuine support for the Burmese people among Indian citizens.
The second myth that propels the Indian foreign ministry to woo the Burmese generals is that by doing so India can get Burma’s support in curbing the arms and drugs trafficking that fuel the insurgencies in the Indian Northeast. This argument assumes that the Burmese junta is both willing and able to control the activities of Indian ethnic militants and Burmese drug traffickers along the border. In the case of drug trafficking from Burma there is reason to be worried—groups close to the regime benefit directly from the trade.
Through its current policy the Indian government has achieved none of its strategic aims in Burma and instead alienated Burma’s pro-democracy movement and its millions of supporters worldwide. While sections of the Indian population are apathetic or ignorant about their government’s policies towards Burma, their silence does not imply approval.
India is not a democracy because of the benevolence of its elitist politicians, bureaucrats and “defence analysts” but despite them and because of the strong abhorrence of dictatorship of any kind among the Indian people. It is high time that the Indian government respected the sentiments of its voters and stopped misusing the term “national interests” to support Burma’s military dictators.
As for the Burmese people themselves what the world’s wilful impotence in dealing with their brutal rulers indicates is that ultimately they will have to achieve democratic rule in Burma entirely on their own strength.
The people of the world will of course support them in whatever way they can but to expect governments around the globe to help topple the Burmese military regime is as unrealistic as asking the regime to step down on its own. There is no option but to keep the struggle going.
Satya Sagar is a writer, journalist and videomaker based in New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]
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