Thursday, September 27, 2007

Winds of Change in Burma

Burma's military dictatorship has so far reacted with less ferocity than expected at the massive pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks and nuns. While the world has pretty unanimously voiced its indignation at whatever violence the government has inflicted on the protesters, and puppet master China has called for restraint, one gets the feeling that the worst is yet to come. Daw Ang San Suu Kyi who has been a prisoner of conscience for a long time, said many years ago that it is fear, not power, that corrupts. When you fear losing power, you become corrupt. As of now the Burmese government is repressive because it fears its people.

What is interesting in the question of Burma is the attitudes of other countries. China has long supported the military rulers in Burma. Having unleashed violence on its own people in 1989, China knows well that civil uprisings are tough and has always encouraged Burma with military and economic aid. Besides China has always counted Burma as a hedge against India. A democratic Burma has no value as a hedge.

India has always been supportive of the pro-democracy movement in Burma. Recently though the thinking in New Delhi has shifted considerably. It is as though India has grown tired of playing the pacifist and renounced its moral high horse position. Today Indian policy toward Burme is one of realpolitik, of curbing the influx of narcotics and arms from Burma into India's volatile North East, rife as it is with Chinese propaganda. India, though supportive of democracy, has been developing economic relationships with Burma, and engaging them in dialogue, thereby winning the government over to crackdown on the narcotics and arms trade. And to make it clear from the outset, to me this is the best bet from both a practical and humane angle. I will explain why shortly.

The ASEAN has also been engaging Burma in trade, admitting the country into its association in 1997. The Philippines recently decried the violence in Burma, surprisingly and unprecedently upping the ante against the military rule. But in general these nations have not imposed sanctions on Burma like the West has.

The West has imposed sanctions on Burma and has reached out to Burma's neighbours to do the same. The sanctions have had no effect as China has supported Burma mightily through thick and thin. Besides, India, realizing late that its interests in the region are compromised by the sanctions, and knowing that a foothold in the energy-rich nation is essential to meet its exploding demand for energy, is involved in a race with China to secure its place in Burma. The South East nations have siezed the opportunity to trade with Burma in the face of Western sanctions. At the same time, the West has not done anything in Burma other than the ineffective sanctions. Their focus has been on the Middle East and Latin America.

Samuel Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations' theory posits that the Western world acts in its own interests- a fact borne out by numerous incidents. Individuals within the Western world are independent agents and hold their own opinions, but their governments always act in their own interests. Thus they may turn a deaf ear to massacres in Srebrenica, but act quickly in Cuba or Nicaragua. They may support military rulership in Pakistan and decry the same thing in Burma.

The West also tried to influence other nations and cultures with its line of thinking. Take Russia, for instance. Pressured to alienate Iran, Russia does not want to create an unfriendly neighbour. There is no toeing the Western line there. Unlike the West, these Asian/Eurasian nations do not usually cry themselves hoarse about repressive nations that the West supports, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, because they are not united in their opinions and/or they do not want to compromise their own relationship with these nations. Thus the US states freely that India and Pakistan are both allies, but the fact remains that Pakistan is ruled by a dictator who initiaited a war with India and whose nation is clearly in the wrong as far as exporting terrorism to India is concerned. The recent revelations of nuclear technology transfer from Pakistan to North Korea have rattled the West enough to censure Pakistan, but this bears out the fact that democracy outside of the West interests the West only when it is beneficial to the West. If a dictatorship is similarly beneficial then the West usually supports it. In China's case there has been recently a turn of events- some call it political maturity, others call it the result of affluence or economic integration with the world. China could and did ignore world opinion on a lot of matters in the past. The massacre at Tianenmen square was an example. Its actions today are markedly more benign. Could this be India's nuclear capability? Could it be that world opinions matter now for attracting investment in China, especially now that India and other nations have become as hungry and ready for it? Could it be that Beijing is accomplishing a facelift, of which its newly gleaming cities and the Olympics next year are examples? For whatever reason, one finds that China reacts considerably differently to events such as the Maoist threat in Nepal and North Korean nuclear ambitions. So it is with the protests in Burma. This represents an opportunity for the West to push their agenda (at least a little) in some of these nations.

What about Burma? Or specifically what can India and the US do (separately) about Burma? India cannot march in and crush the junta as the consequences of a sustained war and a proxy-war with China are unthinkable. Already the lessons from Sri Lanka are fresh in Indian minds. India cannot impose sanctions as they are not only ineffective but counter-productive to the confidence building measures and economic relationship fostered painstakingly over the last decade. India cannot as its policy arm militants as it has been itself a victim of such export of terror. India can incentivize a return to democracy and freedom by establishing economic cooperation. Besides the shabby treatment of Daw Ang San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement by the junta has always worsened when it felt threatened. Democracy imposed from the outside is never a true democracy, as Solzhenitsyn recently remarked about the US remaking of the Iraqi government.

The US is the most serious player in this equation. In its war against terror the US has a moral responsibility to oppose regimes such as Pakistan and Burma, but experience with other Asian countries must have taught the US that democracy imposed from without is of no use. The US too must begin constructive dialogue with Burma. It must help Burma move on from being an international pariah to economic powerhouse that it is entitled to be, given its rich resources and people. A nation like Singapore is a US ally without being a true democracy- why not Burma? What prevents this is (1) US fear over Chinese influence on Burma; and (2) the prevailing mistrust in Burma towards the US. These are tough to overcome, but absolutely necessary to create a peaceful Burma. The US must take the lead in bringing both the junta and the pro-democracy leaders to the negotiating table. As all dictatorships do, Burma's will fall one day. To prevent the spillage of blood in the meantime, there needs to be a give and take as Burma becomes stronger and integrated with the world.

One can hope for the pro-democracy movement to succeed in Burma, and if it does, it is good news indeed. Hopefully it will result in a good plan and action towards democracy and join India as the only true grassroots democracies in Asia. If it doesn't, the best other nations can do is to help integrate that nation with the rest of the world.

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