BURMA MORE OR LESS NEEDS HELP
BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM
SEPTEMBER 30, 2007
At first glance, the unfolding crisis in Burma ("Myanmar") offers America a golden opportunity—after four years of bad news from Iraq and Afghanistan, suddenly a popular uprising in a land hungry for the ostensibly American values of freedom, democracy and perhaps even capitalist development.
Problem is, US President George Bush has almost single-handedly frittered away US prestige and credibility to the point where just hearing him mention the word freedom is enough to send the smart, and in some cases shell-shocked, running for cover. Under his watch, an immigrant country that had a not entirely unearned reputation for caring about human rights and humanitarian causes has become a global laughingstock, if not bogeyman.
Bush has dug himself into a diplomatic hole so deep it is beginning to resemble a black hole. That a man at the end of his tether might be desperate for a bit of high ground, something to cling to, something to show he isn't an entirely spent force is understandable, but a Bush intervention in Burma would be an unmitigated disaster.
Anything Bush or his minions have to say is colored by the actions of an arrogant administration that has shamelessly promoted torture, eavesdropping and kidnapping, not to mention a self-serving and totally manipulative war on terror. Bush invaded Iraq for all the wrong reasons, a family vendetta being central among them, and he has continued to shamefacedly lie about it. Unfortunately for the people of Burma in their hour of need, Bush has shot the wad of US credibility, and anything he touches is likely to be contaminated, if not broken and crumbled to bits, by know-nothing neo-con greed.
Had Bush not invaded the wrong country, or had he faced up to his mistakes with at least an ounce of accountability, the US government, as the representative of the American people, might not be hamstrung in its ability to help. Had Bush and the cosseted "chickenhawk" architects of the war in Iraq, the most abjectly craven of whom are now pressing for a war with Iran, shown even a glimmer of humility to atone for setting Iraq on the road to disaster which has cost a million-plus souls, perhaps Uncle Sam could offer a lending hand without scaring the very people he seeks to help. But Bush remains unrepentant and imperious, making the prospect of a ham-fisted US-led intervention in Burma too frightening to contemplate.
Burma needs help, desperately, but with a "friend" like Bush trying to capitalize on his "freedom" agenda, they might do well to look elsewhere.
ASEAN is a good place to start, Burma is a member country and informal personal, cultural and trade links provide intelligence and potential leverage. Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN's new Secretary General is a veteran diplomat who as foreign minister under Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, chose not lend support to the dictators of Burma, in sharp contrast to the devil-may-care profiteering in Rangoon and elsewhere on the part of the successor government led by Thaksin Shinawatra.
And Japan, the largest aid donor and home to a community of Burmese exiles has a modest role to play.
But the real wild card in the Burma conundrum, with immense leverage for better or worse, is China.
Just as it might be prudent at this checkered moment in US history for the US to tame its impulse to intervene, China conversely, needs to discard its traditional policy of radical non-intervention, the product of a time when China was poor and powerless, to a more responsible global role commensurate to its rising power.
China President Hu Jintao and his foreign minister Yang Jiechi have inherited a seemingly idealistic and lofty model of diplomacy that was only truly lofty in proportion to China's poverty and inability to project power. Even during the heyday of non-intervention under the guidance of Zhou Enlai and Chen Yi, China engaged in significant, albeit largely clandestine, meddling in Southeast Asia and provided some significant development assistance in Africa.
Times have changed and China is neither altogether poor nor powerless, indeed it is a lopsided power in which the supremacy of economic considerations is running havoc with environmental and humanitarian concerns at home and abroad.
For China to now claim fealty to political non-intervention at a time when it is economically active, if not rapacious, as it secures and consumes natural resources across the globe from Burma to Zimbabwe at an unprecedented rate is disingenuous. It's like trumpeting economic reform in the absence of political reform, it's awkward, ungainly and ultimately off-pitch.
What Hu Jintao's foreign policy needs is what pre-Bush America once claimed to possess in spades, a willingness to engage in humanitarian intervention not because it can be commercially profitable or even politically advantageous but simply because it is the right thing to do. China's deaf ear to people crying out for help is the mirror image of the US telling people what they need to do; both extremes overlook the genuine possibility of outreach to the downtrodden, the bullied and disenfranchised.
In recent months, China has made modest adjustments to its Africa policy, recognizing that being "neutral" with respect to cruel and tottering regimes in Zimbabwe and Sudan is not only a public relations failure in the run-up to the Olympics, but endangers long-term stability and interests in the region.
Similarly Beijing, which has enjoyed profitable if not entirely cordial relations with Burma's military dictators, is said to be cultivating some support among opponents of the current regime. In addition to solid trade and military ties, China additionally boasts perhaps a million of its own citizens eking out a living in Burma as a petty bourgeois Peace Corps of sorts, providing an unusual degree of leverage and exposure in both formal and informal terms.
For China's foreign policy to meet the needs of Burma's downtrodden calls for deft, timely intervention, a prudent policy guided by something more than laissez faire trade-at-any-cost and something less than the bombs-and-bullets of military intervention of the sort currently favored by the Bush administration.
A more nuanced and humanitarian thrust from China, effectively unmooring itself from the darkest forces in Burmese society, while putting economic considerations on hold, could prevent things from spiraling out of control and provide a bridge of interregnum stability until a new government can coalesce. The risk of continuing to put one's weight behind the despicable Than Shwe is that China will be a tarnished if not unwelcome player in the inevitable post-Than Shwe Burma that is certain to emerge from the ashes of the current crisis.
The courage of journalists covering the courageous mass demonstrations allows the world to peer into Burma's closed society with compassion and concern. And clearly help is needed. But for now, US governmental help would be as unhelpful as China's unwillingness to engage in truly humanitarian intervention.