Burma’s generals go scot-free

(Associated Press photo)

COMMENT: Burma’s generals go scot-free

Nonintervention lets the world’s worst dictatorship terrorize with impunity.

By Daniel Gawthrop

Published in the Georgia Straight on October 4, 2007

As September drew to a close, the world watched with increasing revulsion as protests led by Buddhist monks against the brutal dictatorship of Burma were violently crushed by the same military thugs the protests were aimed at. TV coverage of jubilant marches gave way to scenes of tear gas, rifle-toting soldiers, and terrified citizens, so that more than a few observers of the country renamed Myanmar were experiencing a creeping sense of déjà vu.

“They’re going to die anyway—at least they’re doing something about it,” my spouse, a native of Karen state, said resignedly.

As in 1988, when a growing democracy movement led by students began to pick up steam, hopes were dashed this time when the army swept in and began beating up, arresting, and killing its fellow citizens. It remained to be seen whether or not the “Saffron Revolution” of 2007 would result in another bloodbath. But on October 1, the U.K.’s Daily Mail quoted a junta deserter—Hia Win, an intelligence officer—as saying that perhaps “several thousand” protesters had been killed and that he had been ordered to help round up and kill “several hundred” monks. What was clear as the Georgia Straight went to press was that not even widespread international condemnation would be enough to convince the junta leaders to change course.

The generals of the Burmese armed forces, or Tatmadaw, have 45 years’ practice in holding on to power. As individuals, their relative anonymity in the outside world gives them an advantage. (Try dropping the names of Than Shwe, Maung Aye, Shwe Mann, Soe Win, or even the junta’s late patriarch, Ne Win, in a roomful of educated people and see if they ring a bell.) As a collective, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and its predecessor, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), has been the world’s most accomplished practitioner of Orwellian totalitarianism.

Its list of sins would be enough to topple most dictatorships: one of the highest levels of forced labour in the world; more child soldiers than anywhere else; rape used as a weapon of war against ethnic women and children; forced-relocation programs in Shan state and elsewhere that typically feature mass executions and the torching of entire villages; a poverty rate of 60 percent (despite military spending that takes up almost half the government budget); and all those political prisoners.

In 1990, the generals decided not to honour election results that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy pull in 86 percent of the vote. They also put “the Lady” under house arrest, where she has languished for 12 of the past 18 years. Yet they’ve continued to chirp, with straight faces, that progressive change is on its way. In 2003, the generals issued a seven-point “Road Map for Democracy” that was to include a new constitution. As with every other pronouncement of theirs, this was a deliberate attempt to stall for time. And it worked: the headlines faded, the world forgot, and the regime kept welcoming investments from ethically challenged overseas firms.

The main thing keeping the world’s worst dictatorship in power today is the doctrine of nonintervention: the agreement by states with shared interests not to get involved with each other’s so-called internal affairs. Nonintervention is a favourite mantra of China, Burma’s number one trading partner. It’s an especially convenient cop-out: if China pushes Burma to stop the repression, fingers would then be pointed at China’s less-than-stellar human-rights record. The same head-in-the-sand approach goes for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (a regional equivalent of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) that, to much of the world’s chagrin, admitted Burma to its membership 10 years ago.

When push comes to shove, as it has again this fall, nonintervention continues to be the rule. The most China could muster, when pressed, was a tepid request of Burma to “properly handle the current situation” and restore “peace and stability” as soon as possible (which, cynics argue, is exactly what the generals did). Otherwise, China refused to agree to UN sanctions, saying that such interference was unwarranted because the military clampdown would not reduce stability in the region.

It could be argued that China, in particular, has already done more to intervene in Burma’s internal affairs than any other state. By 2004, the People’s Republic had supplied about US$2 billion worth of weaponry to the Burmese military, along with construction assistance for roads and railroads throughout the country.

For the sake of appearances and good trade relations, the doctrine of nonintervention has, in the case of Burma, enabled state oppression, forgiven the worst of human-rights abuses, and strangled an entire population for more than 45 years.

Somewhere in Naypyidaw, Burma’s relocated capital in the northern jungle, the generals are sleeping well tonight.

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