The world has been horrified by graphic images of the latest crackdown by Burma’s military junta. But the bullets and clubs unleashed on Buddhist monks have worked. The monks have treated, and an eerie normalcy has returned to Rangoon, the principal city and former capital. That crackdown continues under cover of darkness. When the sun sets, fear rises (Manila Bulletin 2007). Everyone listens half awake for the dreaded knock on the door. Any night, the military’s agents can come for you, take you away, and make sure you are never heard from again. The global condemnation of the brutal crackdown on Buddhist monks and pro- democracy activists has not loosened the military junta’s grip on power in Burma.
Despite the fresh sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States and Japan, the generals are far from granting the demands and other cities in Burma in August and September. The protesters demanded the lowering of Begin Match to source 2 in source list: Mydans, Seth. consumer prices, release of Aung San Suu Kyi andEnd Match other Begin Match to source 2 in source list: Mydans, Seth. political prisoners, and national reconciliation.End Match Weeks after soldiers fired at marchers in Rangoon and descended on monasteries, the arrest of activist continued. The ruling junta acknowledged that 10 people were killed, but opposition groups in exile said that the death toll was much higher and that thousands of people were held in brutal conditions. State media insisted that there were no political prisoners in the country and critized a UN Security Council statement slamming the bloody crackdown. Burma poses a dilemma for its neighboring countries. On the other hand, strategic value of its location and its oil and gas resources makes it very attractive for its neighbors, especially China and India. On the other hand, its repressive regime is seen as a threat mainly to its won people, but this repression has led to spill-over effects. In the Burma policies of neighboring states, it is national interest-rather than values such as the promotion of democracy or human rights-that prevails. China, perceived as Burma’s key ally, has come under increasing international pressure to prevent further repression by the junta. China’s interests in Burma include access to the Indian ocean, oil and gas. An active border trade and using Burma as a buffer against India. Through its influence over Burma, it also has a foothold in ASEAN. China is thus unlikely to antagonize junta. Moreover, China consistently touts the principle of “noninterference in internal affairs” and holds respect for state sovereignty practically sacred, if only to protect itself against possible encroachments on sovereignty by greater powers. Thus, it will not be the first to intervene in Rangoon. In addition, human rights and democracy are clearly not China’s strong points. We remember that the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown shortly followed the 1988 Rangoon massacres (Bangkok Post 2007). If China openly presses the Burma junta against violent suppression of protests, this may raise questions about the need to renounce its own cracking down on the 1989 Tiananmen dissent. This is something China’s leaders are not prepared to do, as it may encourage other mass pro-democracy movements in China. We should, however, avoid overestimating China’s influence over Burma. After all, Burma has a long tradition of neutrality and isolationism since the 1950’s, and in particular, resistance to Chinese interference, which it abandoned only after 1988 partly because of sanctions by the West. Given a chance, it is likely that the people of Burma may wish to return to this path of neutrality in contrast to alignment with big powers, a sit is so crucial to their survival. Moreover, China is not its only significant or even major trade an investment partner. Indeed, China has provided the military regime with increasingly assistance in transportation, energy, mining, military, industrial, cultural and other infrastructure, such that, if it so wanted, it is in a position to press the junta. However, Chinese weight along will not be enough.
The decision by ASEAN to admit Burma as member was in large part anchored on the vision of a united Southeast Asia, the need to counter growing Chinese influence over the regime constructively engaged in the face of the policy of isolation and sanctions by the West and the United States. However, the junta has shown itself resistant to nay change urged by the ASEAN, because it knows ASEAN countries themselves are not united on democracy and human rights, and many are still wedded to the noninterference principle. Following the coup d ‘etat in Thailand that overthrew the Thaksin government, only Indonesia and the Philippines are seen as committed to human rights, but even in the Philippines this commitment on the part of the political elite is shaky. We should remember that Thailand is also ruled by a military junta while Vietnam, Laos, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei are under different degrees of authoritarian rule (Bangkok Post 2007). Because most ASEAN governments would rather look at Burma as a market, an investment destination, or in terms of this strategic value, civil society organizations in the ASEAN region face the challenges of persuading their governments that genuine stability and prosperity in Burma can only come through political dialogue, and with the junta relaxing its grip on power. Singapore should be especially targeted because it is a major trade and investment partner and a major source of military and police assistance to the regime. Another dimension of ASEAN affected by the crisis in Burma is its charter- drafting process. Among the hurdles here is the problem of ensuring the states’ commitment to any new rules of the association. Questions have been raised as to whether member states found to be in violation can be sanctioned through suspension, expulsion, or other means. The debate in the past centered on the expectation of some that Burma’s military junta would continue to behave ignominiously as before, dismissive of international norms.
The current crisis and ASEAN’s inability to contribute to its peaceful behavior by a member state, even with respect to its own people. If agreement on a charter were to be announced in a regional atmosphere poisoned by the beating of monks and continuing arrests of peaceful demonstrators in a member country, ASEAN might indeed deservedly become a laughing stock. Perhaps ASEAN should already consider the Burma crisis in relation to the timing of its announcement of its charter. ASEAN leaders could explore postponing the charter decision until the junta demonstrates a stronger commitment to political reform, and even explore using the charter issue to demonstrate to the junta the urgent need for measures to accommodate the legitimate democratic opposition. There is a precedent to such a postponement of a major ASEAN decision. The deferment of Cambodia’s entry into ASEAN in 1997-98 was due to internal disorder among its elite factions at the time. There have also been a lot of international pressures on India to withdraw its support for the Burmese junta. India feels the need to wield influence over the junta for one overriding purpose-not democracy or human rights-but to balance China’s growing power. India is also very much interested in Burma’s oil and gas resources. However, India should realize that for as long as the junta remains in power, China is bound to play an important role in propping it up. Over the long term, a democratic Burma is much more likely to be friendly toward a democratic India.
Therefore, the earlier democracy can be established in Burma, the better it will be for India. As for the United States, Europe and the United Nations, their sanctions have failed to produce change just as ASEAN’s so-called constructive engagement has failed. Western sanctions may in fact have given China free rein over the junta as well as the Burmese economy, and there has been no lack of Asian or foreign companies seeking to fill the void. The attempt to sanction the Burmese government through a UN Security Council resolution last January was also bound to fail. It was opposed by China and Russia because it yet again smacked of interventionism under yet another pretext of “threat to world security,” when clearly and tragically the junta represents at most a threat to its own citizens (Japan Times 2007). After Iraq, we should not be surprised if countries this time demand incontrovertible proof to support threat claims by certain Western powers. Since geopolitical interests appear to take center stage in how most regional states view Burma, the challenge for democracy and human rights in Burma are in their interests, too. For ASEAN, the argument has long been made that it is credibility, unity and ability to progress together will depend on its success in becoming a cohesive, institutionalized, rules- based organization sharing a common vision and common principles. While it is not for ASEAN or any other country to define Burma’s political system, ASEAN’s principles of peaceful settlement of disputes, consultation and consensus-building, reliance on dialogue and accommodation or harmonization’s of diverse interests, mutual respect, and its more recent commitment to social justice and the vision of a “caring society” can and should also very well guide state-society relations within individual member countries. For China, continuous association with what may become a long, drawn-out repression and potential violence by the military junta could eventually cast a shadow over the democracy debate in China, bringing to a head as well the growing tensions between that is externally domineering and internally repressive towards its own people versus the China that is highly civilized, and a responsible and respected great power. Moreover, like India, if China ends up on the wrong side of history should the pro-democracy forces in Burma ultimately prevail, and then it stands to lose its influence over any new government in Rangoon.
Both Western sanctions and ASEAN constructive engagement have failed to reform Burma’s military leaders. On the other hand, support by China, India and other governments as well as corporations have apparently helped sustain corruption and repression and are becoming a major source of embarrassment, what with the images of dead monks and of the military firing into unarmed crowds. At this point, only a multilateral, concreted and collective effort demanding a peaceful approach by government to the protests, and an immediate return to political dialogue with the opposition, may work. Possible mediation by a neutral third party might help. These minimalist demands are based only on the lowest common denominator for these countries, but the multi-lateralist concerted approach allows for the mitigation of policy dilemmas for the individual states. In the meantime, however, individual leaders, governments, prominent personalities, and others may continue to issue more specific demands, including the Begin Match to source 3 in source list: derelease of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, other prisoners of conscience,End Match and of arrested demonstrators, or urgent action on a new constitution. The ASEAN + 3, employing the additional economic leverage of Japan and Korea, might consider extending specific assistance for the alleviation of the economic crisis hitting citizens of Burma, but this should be conditional on political dialogue and reserving the its primary role, non-state actors and international organizations in the implementation of assistance programs (Myanmar Times and Business 2007). As events throughout Burma are still unfolding, such predictions, prescriptions and recommendations may prove premature. But because the internal conflict in Burma appears to be moving farther away from resolution with each passing day, faced with the now legendary obduracy of the ruling junta, and because any further loss of life is too high a price to pay, the peoples of the world. As global protests escalate in this day and age of instant news via cell phones and the Internet, rightened economic sanctions by the West probably won’t hurt the generals too much but they’d increase suffering of the ordinary Burmese. These are the courageous people who protested back in 1988, whose lives were further constricted when the currency was arbitrarily demonetized.
Two years later, the generals ignored the electoral landslide won by the redoubtable Aung San Suu Kyi, whom they promptly placed in detention while slaughtering an estimated 3,000 of her followers. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Suu Kyi did not go abroad to claim it-just as she did not go to her husband’s bedside when he was dying of cancer in London, knowing she wouldn’t be allowed back into her country if she left. Her detention in virtual isolation for over a decade shows the generals are terrified of her. Feeling the heat, including threats from some US Senators to link America’s nuclear deal with India to its actions in Burma, India has announced that it is asking for the release of Burmese democratic Begin Match to source 1 in source list: (7-7-07) opposition leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.End Match But Begin Match to source 1 in source list: (7-7-07) theEnd Match credibility of all democratic regimes, not just India’s, is at stake in what unfolds Burma. Cited by Time magazine as one of its Asian Heroes of 2005, she said, “The regime does not want the world to know, what’s happening to the people, but the women’s voices will be heard.” Recently a Washington Post editorial stated: “The global sources response thus far has been lackadaisical… China, which has more influence in Burma than any other country has, needs to decide whether it wants to host the 2008 Olympics as the enabler of one of the world’s nastiest regimes or as peace-maker.” Indeed, Burma’s fate lies in the balance. Any change of regime in Burma will not be the result of international intervention, but of political negotiations between the junta and its domestic opponents. China should thus recognize that using its influence would not imply accepting as a matter of principle intervention in other countries’ domestic affairs.