Saturday, September 29, 2007

What can be done to liberate the people of Burma?

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The totalitarians who call the country Myanmar, a military junta that makes up one of the most brutal regimes in the world, have clamped down on those who wish to liberate the country from within, the monks and other protesters who have had enough of being brutalized.

The insular rulers of that insular country, a country made ever more insular by the insular totalitarianism of those rulers, seem to care nothing for world opinion, nor for their country's place in the world. They have responded to internal dissent by cutting the country off even more from the outside world, notably by cutting off access to the Internet.

And, of course, they responded to non-violence with violence, with brutality, with murder. The "official" reports, those released by the totalitarians, the illegitimate "government" of what is rightly called Burma, play down this violence. They set the death toll well below what it must really be. The violence, much of it unreported, given the absence of international journalists and the control of whatever local media there are, has been widespread, as the totalitarians have sought to crush any and all opposition to their rule.

And yet the protests continue, the streets in Rangoon and elsewhere alive with hope:

Several hundred people have held protests in Burma's main city of Rangoon, despite three days of crackdowns on pro-democracy protests.

Protesters chanted slogans before being baton-charged by security forces, and at least two were severely beaten, eyewitnesses said.

In the central town of Pakokku hundreds of monks reportedly led a peaceful march of thousands of demonstrators.

Such incredible courage, such an admirable cause. But what is to be done? They cannot do it alone.

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The cultists of national sovereignty -- which is to say, many at the U.N., many around the world who stand as apologists for genocide -- argue that the crisis in Burma is an internal matter and therefore that there is no cause for intervention. But there must be intervention where genocidal regimes are in power. Have we not learned the lessons of the last century, of Rwanda, Bosnia, now Darfur, and so many others? The question is rightly not whether to intervene but how to intervene. Obviously, military action is often not the answer. Whether through unilateral action (the U.S., mostly), treaty-based multi-lateral action (NATO), or international action (the U.N.), military responses to such crises may not be feasible, for a variety of reasons. So what else?

Diplomacy, sanctions, pressure. And this seems to be the course the U.S. and Europe are taking, and, for once, I cannot find fault with the position of the U.S. government, that is, with the Bush Administration:

The Bush administration stepped up its confrontation with the ruling junta in Myanmar on Friday, and officials said they were searching for ways to persuade China and other nations to cut off lending, investment and trade into the country.

But in a sign of how limited Washington's leverage is against the country, which has long been the target of American sanctions, officials said they were concerned that China, a trading partner and neighbor of Myanmar, would block any serious effort to destabilize the Burmese government.

The administration seems to regard the violent crackdown on Burmese monks as a long-hoped-for opportunity to get other Southeast Asian nations to rethink their insistence that they should not interfere with the internal politics of their neighbors. The hope is that American pressure might force the Burmese leaders into a political process that would drive them from power, if not from the country.

"What we are trying to do is speed their demise," said a senior American official. "The question is, do we have the diplomatic and economic influence to hit a bank shot here," by persuading Beijing, in particular, that its dealings with Myanmar could embarrass it as the 2008 Olympics approach.

Another senior official said the administration would try to persuade China to offer sanctuary to the leaders of the junta, in hopes it would get them out of the country. Other ideas include getting China and India to halt investment in new oil and gas projects, cutting off bank lending in places like Singapore to freeze Burmese accounts.

These are "techniques are modeled on the sanctions designed against North Korea," sanctions which have been somewhat successful in terms of cutting off (Western) investment and other engagement with the Hermit Kingdom. But there is only so much the U.S. and Europe can do without Chinese and Indian support. As long as the totalitarians in Burma have China and India to prop up their regime, efforts to "speed their demise" may not be all that effective.

Still, it's something -- and something (Bosnia) is better than nothing (Rwanda). With military action not feasible, the crisis in Burma forces the U.S. and Europe to pursue other means, notably diplomacy (through the U.N.), tougher sanctions, pressure on China and India, and, presumably (hopefully), secret efforts in support of the protesters and their cause.

The Burmese people need our help. This confrontation with their totalitarian rulers must amount to a lot more than talk if they are to be liberated.

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