Friday, September 28, 2007

What Can Burma Teach Us?

What lessons are we to learn from the events in Burma? There is much talk of the nobility of the protesters and the brutality of the government. And Wretchard, with whom I reluctant to disagree but will nonetheless, speculates that things have reached a critical pass, and that the next 48 hours may be crucial because the Burmese army may be splitting.

Just as a remover very far observed, I suspect this is unlikely. The military presumably benefits more than anyone else in society from its dominance, and overturning the status quo would be particularly painful to them. Set against that is the presumed unwillingness of the military to massacre civilians, but set against that is the ability of the rulers to exploit ethnic and urban/rural resentment and mutual ignorance and draw on specific military units accordingly, much as the Chinese communists did in launching the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.

But the most painful thing to watch is the seeming helplessness of the mostly nonviolent protesters. Burma has been down this road before; massive protests in 1988 were met with ruthless gunfire by the military, and Burma has been a black hole for human dreams ever since. The BBC has accounts of similar behavior, although less dramatic, by the military now.

Can nonviolent protest work? There is at least one pressure group devoted to the proposition that the answer is “Yes.” They argue that nonviolent protest is effective, even preferable to violent rebellion. It clearly worked in the American South, British India, the Philippines, Chile, South Korea (though, consicuously, not North Korea) and Eastern Europe. But just as often it fails, as imprisoned dissidents all over the world and the survivors in China and Burma can testify. An official of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict was on the BBC this morning arguing that the Burmese strategy is working, but I am skeptical; those who have power do not give it up unless the consequences of not giving it up are worse. That Burma is so isolated (I have never met a Burmese immigrant, or seen a Burmese restaurant in America, for example, which suggests that few people leave Burma, unlike Thailand or India) makes the government more powerful. And the nature of the oppressor matters too; Ferdinand Marcos, for all his flaws, was no Hitler. Martin Luther King’s tactics worked because they took place in America. Gandhi’s march to the sea would have been spectacularly ineffective if he were a Ukrainian protesting Stalin instead of an Indian protesting His Majesty’s Empire. Nonviolent protest makes good TV; a Burmese Second Amendment would have kept Burma free.

And what of China? The Chinese government makes a great show of its policy of “noninterference” in the “internal affairs” of other societies. But this is a silly formulation. When a government is at war with its people, a refusal to sanction or condemn a government is taking a side, of the government. The Chinese government takes a hardline realist stance in foreign relations; foreign policy is about pursuit of natural resources, business opportunities, and nothing else. Their past support of the dictators would surely weaken their position if a democratic government were to be swept in. And the Chinese cannot tolerate a neighboring dictatorship being swept out of power by street demonstrations and replaced by some sort of consensual government; the power of the example for China’s own people would be unacceptable. It is sometimes argued that the threat of an Olympic boycott will force China to be more sensitive, but such a boycott is practically unthinkable, the dream merely of Darfur activists who slam the “Genocide Games.” The status quo gives China locked-in natural resources and an intimidated Burmese population, and that is the way they like it. As Chinese economic influence expands, expect the decline of moralizing foreign policy not just in Burma, but everywhere.

In short, I expect this all to end very badly.


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