Burma needs democratic revolution, not intervention

International power games between the West and China threaten to take the Burmese people's fate out of their own hands.

Why have US president George W Bush, UK foreign secretary David Miliband and the leaders of the European Union suddenly developed such an intense interest in democracy in Burma? After all, Western governments of all stripes have not seemed particularly bothered that Burma (renamed Myanmar by the governing generals) has effectively been under military dictatorship for more than 40 years. Call me an old cynic, but the upsurge of concern seems likely to have less to do with the rising protests among the Burmese people than with the rising power of China.

At the time of writing on Wednesday, the outcome of the clashes between pro-democracy protesters and the military junta in Burma remains uncertain. But one thing should be clear enough to those, like us at spiked, who support democracy in Burma and want to see the overthrow of the dictatorship. The more the fate of the country becomes entangled with wider diplomatic manoeuvres between the West and China, the less control the people of Burma will have over their own future.

The protests began over fuel price rises, but soon took on a wider significance. They have turned into the largest pro-democracy protests in Burma since 1988, when the military regime cracked down on militant students and massacred an estimated 3,000 people. By contrast with that crisis, however, the recent events have, at least until now, looked more like a standoff. The Buddhist monks leading many of the protests have been asking only for the government to apologise for its rough treatment of opponents, reduce fuel prices, and start a dialogue. Reports in the past few days suggested that the size of their marches had been seriously reduced by the threat of tougher government action. For its part, the military junta has puzzled seasoned observers by initially showing uncharacteristic restraint in dealing with the protests, even allowing one demonstration to pass the place where world-famous opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – who won the last election held in Burma in 1990 – is held under house arrest. Recent reports of troops firing warning shots and even beating monks – almost unheard of in staunchly Buddhist Burma – indicate the potential for matters to escalate, but until now there has been little sign of the repeat of the 1988 massacre that many observers feared.

Meanwhile, the pressure from outside Burma has been cranked up considerably, with the US and European governments threatening new sanctions against the junta and issuing demands for democratisation that go some way beyond those of the moderate Burmese protest leaders. During his big speech to the United Nations this week, President Bush broke off from his expected theme to issue a fierce denunciation, not of the Iranian government, but the Burmese regime. He declared that Americans were ‘outraged by the situation in Burma, where a military junta has imposed a 19-year reign of fear’. At the same time, new UK foreign secretary David Miliband used his first set-piece speech to the Labour Party conference to ask (sounding as well as looking like a school prefect): ‘Wasn’t it brilliant to see Aung San Suu Kyi alive and well outside her house last week? It will be a hundred times better when she takes her rightful place as the elected leader of a free and democratic Burma.’

Yet the ‘outrage’ of America and the West at the situation in Burma, and their apparent devotion to the cause of democracy there, has rarely been evident during those long years of dictatorship. Despite being largely under military rule since 1962, Burma has been more or less off the international radar for years, notwithstanding the occasional imposition of empty sanctions and issuing of ritual criticisms. While Suu Kyi has been turned into a pin-up by Western peace activists and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, the question of democracy in Burma has never been seen as a pressing issue and the military regime has been left to its own devices. While other dictatorships in the developing world have come under pressure to concede power and reform in the years since the end of the Cold War, Burma has continued as one of the military states apparently caught in a political time warp.

The sudden change of mood in Western capitals appears to reflect their concerns with international power relations more than events in Burma itself. As has been discussed extensively elsewhere on spiked, Western governments are becoming increasingly worried about the rise of China, first as an economic powerhouse and now a political power. They want to put pressure on the Chinese authorities to toe the ‘international community’ line, and to become a more pliant part of the Western-dominated global set-up. To that end, the Americans and Europeans are keen to get the Chinese to play the role of a sort of third-rate regional policeman, sorting out problems in relation to states such as North Korea and now Burma. When Bush, Brown, Miliband or some EU spokesman calls for UN action on Burma, that is code for demanding that China (which vetoed the last UN resolution criticising the regime) should get its act together.

So Burma has become the latest issue – after global warming, pollution, human rights and the rest – which Western governments can use to get on their moral high horses and lecture the Chinese about their supposed international responsibilities. For its part, however, China has its own agenda and interests for intervening in its impoverished neighbour state. China wants access to Burma’s raw materials and ports (just as the British colonial power did in the past), and is building an important pipeline across Burmese soil. The strong economic and military ties with China have certainly helped the isolated Burmese regime to ignore token Western sanctions and retain its hold on power, while its people suffer poverty and repression.

Today, however, whilst the Chinese authorities do not want the protests to destabilise Burma, they do not want to see their military allies committing massacres on their doorstep either – especially with the global spectacle of the Beijing Olympics just around the corner. Thus regional observers believe that the Chinese have been pressing the junta, not to make serious concessions, but to show some restraint. This is not 1988, even in Burma.

The upshot of all this diplomatic posturing and skulduggery is that the Burmese people’s protests against the junta are increasingly caught up in an international tug of war between the West and China. If this continues, their destiny will be taken out of their own hands.

Yet the demand seems always to be for more and more international intervention. International supporters of the Burmese opposition call for more sanctions, UN motions, or even boycotts of the Beijing Olympics in protest at China’s role. Within Burma, the orientation of the opposition movement has long been more towards the international community than the masses at home, with Suu Kyi promoted as a global figurehead. The monks’ main concern this time around has sometimes seemed to be getting pictures of their protests onto the Internet, for worldwide consumption.

The corollary of this is the opposition movement’s attempt to restrain the Burmese masses themselves, to keep the protests as moderate as possible. As Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy told The Times (London), ‘There should be no agitation to topple the military regime.’ It is, of course, understandable that people should be wary of provoking another full-scale military crackdown. However, the history of anti-authoritarian protests suggests that moderation and prayer offer no guarantee of avoiding state repression. Indeed, shows of passivity often invite the iron fist. In the end, some more forceful opposition is likely to be needed to bring about the democratic revolution that the Burmese masses deserve.

In any case, if they are to avoid another defeat or the imposition of some shabby compromise, the important thing now is for the Burmese people to take control of the protests and raise their unequivocal demands for an end to dictatorship and the creation of democracy – something for which the recent protests have shown the potential. That, however, is the last thing that many of their newfound friends in high places in the West appear to want, now urging ‘restraint’ on both sides as if they are morally equivalent.

Many in the West love the images of peace-loving monks making polite demands for reform and appealing for the world to save Burma. That is their idea of a nice, civilised ‘revolution’. The enthusiasm of Bush or Miliband for these protests stands in stark contrast to the West’s far cooler attitude towards the more militant protests for democracy and the overthrow of the monarchy in Nepal over the past couple of years (see Now that’s what I call democratisation, by Brendan O’Neill). The Western authorities prefer their Asian rebels to be meek and mild and know their place.

In the same speech where he spoke about bringing democracy to Burma, the UK foreign secretary talked about the need to ‘move on’ from Iraq-style militarism and learn the lesson that other types of international intervention can be more effective for Britain and the West. By the same token, the critics of Western governments should try to learn the lesson that diplomatic, political, and economic intervention in the affairs of a country such as Burma can be just as damaging to the interests of those on the receiving end.

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large. He is speaking at the session The new heresies at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Daniel Ben Ami argued that Davos 2007 was ‘waging’ war on China. Kirk Leech asked if China’s economic growth was really toxic. While Brendan O’Neill questioned the panic about Chinese toy imports and asked why the calls for democracy in Nepal were met with ambivalence in the West. Or read more at spiked issue Asia.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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