An Undercovered Stirring in Burma
February 23, 2007
Burma is so isolated from the international mainstream that any activity in that country gets just a passing mention in the U.S. media.
Take a recent demonstration on February 22, in which 15 very brave protesters demanding better policies by the regime staged a march in the middle of Rangoon, the nation’s erstwhile capital. This extremely rare, daring gesture merited no more than a paragraph in the New York Times.
Alas, the ruling junta’s wish has become reality. Ever since the military took over way, way back in 1962, the nation has been led on a path to complete isolation, ruin and extreme repression. The most infamous act that the junta committed was the slaughter of hundreds, perhaps thousands, in a crackdown on nationwide protests in 1988.
“There are regimes that attract more negative attention than the Burmese dictatorship of today, but there are few that are as universally condemned, or that have shown such a consistent talent for immiserating their own people,” writes John Lanchester in The New Yorker.
Lanchester recalls how he was personally affected by one of the regime’s opening acts, its confiscation of all foreign business and the expulsion of almost all foreigners, including hundreds of thousands of Indian and Chinese immigrants. Lanchester’s father worked for a bank and was given six months to wind up the business while the family was put under house arrest. My great-uncle, who founded an oil company, suffered a similar fate of expropriation, though unlike Lanchester’s dad, he somehow managed to stay behind in the country till his death many years later.
On February 22, 15 very brave protesters demanding better policies by the regime staged a march in the middle of Rangoon, the nation’s erstwhile capital. This extremely rare, daring gesture merited no more than a paragraph in the New York Times.
The regime since its inception has foisted upon the Burmese people (especially in the case of General Ne Win, in power from 1962 to 1988) policies often based on numerology and mumbo-jumbo rather than any rational considerations. Ne Win changed the legal tender, for instance, from one based on the decimal system to a currency based on the number nine. Such irrational practices have continued in recent years. Not too long ago, the regime announced it was moving the nation's capital inland into the middle of nowhere! The regime never announced the reason, but speculation ranges from the junta’s paranoid fear of an American attack to an attempt by the military to insulate itself from public protest. (Pictures of the new capital, published in Himal magazine, reveal a weird, surreal ghostliness.)
The date and time of the shift was chosen by an astrologer advising the ruling clique. This lot has got to go.
But how? And this is where a recent debate enters into the picture. On the one side is Aung San Suu Kyi, icon of Burmese democracy and the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. In a 1997 interview with The Progressive, she called for global sanctions against Burma.
Companies that invest in Burma “do create jobs for some people but what they’re mainly going to do is make an already wealthy elite wealthier, and increase its greed and strong desire to hang on to power,” she said]. “So immediately and in the long run, these companies harm the democratic process a great deal.”
Her viewpoint has been challenged (politely) by the grandson of another Burmese icon, Thant Myint-U, whose grandfather was U Thant, the U.N. Secretary-General from 1961 to 1971.
Thant Myint-U, who was raised in the U.S., says in a new book on his native country, “The River of Lost Footsteps,” that Suu Kyi’s approach is wrongheaded.
“The paradigm is one of regime change, and the assumption is that sanctions, boycotts, more isolation will somehow pressure those in charge to mend their ways,” he writes. “The assumption is that Burma’s military government couldn’t survive further isolation when precisely the opposite is true: Much more than any other part of Burmese society, the army will weather another forty years of isolation just fine.”
The debate is so complicated that a friend of mine who is a prominent activist, Zar Ni, a few years ago completely changed tactics from being in support of isolation of the junta to wanting an engagement with the regime.
“The protracted economic sanctions and international isolation of Burma only stymie the emergence of a viable civil society and economic forces that can function to bring about political change,” he wrote in the London Independent in January 2006. “For an open society—that ultimate goal of democratic and economic reforms—cannot be fostered through and in isolation.”
His turnaround was so controversial that his colleagues left him to start a new pro-democracy group.
The difficulty of coming up with an easy answer is made even trickier by the fact that China has happily stepped into the breach created by the absence of the West, funneling military and economic aid to the regime. And in a bizarre game of geostrategic rivalry, India, which initially was supportive of the democracy movement, has also engaged in a competitive wooing of the junta. With the region’s two giants on its side, why does the Burmese military need the West?
To give the Bush Administration partial credit, it has generally continued the policies of the Clinton Administration of isolating the country, though this doesn’t mean that it has been critical when individual U.S. corporations have been implicated in the repression.
The oil giant Unocal was charged in U.S. courts on the behalf of Burmese refugees with complicity in the murder, rape, and torture by the junta during the building of a gas pipeline in the nation. The company settled out of court just before it was bought out by ChevronTexaco.
Throughout the proceedings, the Bush Administration was in opposition to bringing Unocal to justice.
The debate over how best to tackle the Burmese regime goes on. Meanwhile, out of sight of the world, the Burmese junta continues its mission to create a hell on earth for its people. We ought to take note when some of those people rise up to challenge the regime.