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South-East Asia

US’s response to Burmese protests reveals its fears of losing everything in “Golden Triangle”

Our Own Correspondent

Suddenly in September this year, Burma found itself centre-stage in the western media, despite the fact that reports from thecountry are vague and not in accordance with generally-used definitions of news authenticity. Three months after reports about a “bloodbath” and “massive protests” in the capital, it now seems that the status quo in Burma is going to survive. The demonstrations reported around the world, most of which are being coordinated by western NGOs and human-rights activists, appear to have changed nothing at all. These massive demonstrations are usually attended by small groups of Burmese migrants, led by European and American activists, in front of Burmese diplomatic missions in various capitals. While it is true that thousands of monks and others did take to the streets in anger against increasing living costs, it is still debatable whether such protests took the form of an attempted revolution, no matter what the so-called undercover “correspondents” of the western media reported.

The whole episode shows yet again how little the western media are to be trusted, and how they almost always have a hidden agenda behind the sudden increase in attention for any event or story. When all else fails, they turn to issues such as climate change. Not surprisingly, therefore, the climax of the coverage in this episode was not the deaths of monks and other protesters, nor was enough coverage given about the real demands of the protesting monks: the climax of the coverage in the western media was president George Bush's statement ordering a tightening of economic sanctions.

So why is there sudden euphoria in the Western media about a few hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands (if one were to take Western wires at face value) of “monks” who took to the streets? Picking up statements from NGOs based some hundreds of miles away, or from personal and political blogs of Burmese diaspora and migrants who have no closer links with Burma than most Western human-rights activists have, the West launched a media blitz to “bring back democracy” to Burma.

It has become a thinly veiled tactic among sections of the media nowadays to orchestrate a ‘revolution' in countries where they would like to promote ‘regime change', by making online blogs and “dissident” correspondents as their primary source. A somewhat similar situation was attempted when they began highlighting student demonstrations in Iran (a perfectly normal occurrence inIran's political life), only to find it a futile exercise. However, the Burmese “tails-wag-the-dog”-type of media frenzy had slightly more success in misrepresenting the truth of what is happening, partly because the Burmese junta is indeed well known for repressing its own citizens, but mostly – and tragically for the Burmese people – because the struggle against the junta is being monopolised by European NGOs and their counterparts in southeast Asian capitals. While this, to a certain extent, financially greases the Burmese people's attempt to highlight their plight to a world audience, it hides the real aspirations of the people inside Burmawho are really defying the junta's leaders.

That the Burmese junta is illegitimate and that its demise will improve the lives of millions of Burmese are facts agreed by almost everyone. The junta's repressive behaviour is not confined to Buddhist monks; far worse atrocities have been inflicted on Muslim citizens, many of whom are now refugees in neighbouring states (and for whom none of the loud media organisations have protested).The junta has also tried hard to use Buddhist monks in its ethnic-cleansing campaign to drive out Muslim ‘refugees', only to fail.

All this pales in comparison with the larger picture of the West's plans for Burma, a country situated in what was once known as the “Golden Triangle” of the trade in drugs and arms. While the Burmese junta has been credited with the eradication of the opium trade in the region, its close ties with China bring to the fore Washington's greatest fear: the closing of doors to western companies and to their economic plans for Burma and the rest of southeast Asia. Now that China is emerging as the new “economic superpower” in the “Far East”, the US is losing its power to curry favour with tin-pot governments, such as that in Rangoon, which believe that their economic and political survival will be better served by their allying themselves with Beijing in the future, rather than with Washington.

Even then, talk of the Bush administration imposing economic sanctions on Burma was only meant as a media exercise. The US(and the west generally) will pursue nothing as seriously as it does Iran's nuclear development, mainly because it knows whose pockets will be hurt the most: American oil-companies', because they have invested heavily in the country's lucrative oil trade. How non-serious the talk of economic sanctions is can be seen from the fact that even Singapore, the US's most loyal ally in the region, has ruled out the enforcement of sanctions against Burma. Pressurised to perform ‘lip-synch' with Bush on ‘liberating' the Burmese people, Singapore and other governments in the region, most of whose ‘democratic' way of governance is not dissimilar to the Burmese junta's, have been issuing hypocritical statements expressing revulsion at the suppression of demonstrators in Rangoon.

Although the latest protests in Burma have now diminished, thanks to the military generals' years of experience in dealing with street protests, the Western powers' attempt to make the most of the disturbance has failed. Any breakdown of authority at this juncture will mean a carte blanche for Western intervention, and ensure the West's continued grip on the region: something that none of its people actually want.

The US's behaviour in the Burmese crisis is not dissimilar to its behaviour in Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Sudan, though these governments are in no way remotely close to the generals in Rangoon when it comes to persecuting their citizens. The situation is similar to when disgruntled Iranian ‘royals' living in exile in the West are given prominence in their desperate attempts to bring about “regime change” (and restore the monarchy, of course). Washington's support for Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's opposition leader, therefore, threatens to do more harm than good to the aspirations of the Burmese people to break free of the junta.

The demise of the Burmese junta will be welcome to the Burmese people both within the country and elsewhere; as such, it is a sad twist of fate for the Burmese people that even regime-change at this juncture, in the heat of Western noise-making and agenda-setting, will not serve their interests. Ordinary Burmese, including the opposition leadership, are aware of this reality. That explains why Suu Kyi is leaving all her party's options open, to the point of meeting junta leaders on October 25, and even expressing hope for a “meaningful dialogue” on November 9, with the same government which restricts her movement. If the talk of an “imminent collapse” of the junta in Rangoon were true, there would not be any need for Suu Kyi to engage in diplomacy.

The West, in its wishful thinking, hopes to make Aung San Suu Kyi, a figure respected even by the hardened generals ruling the country, into another Dalai Lama, whose survival depends on his cooperation with anti-China politicians in Washington. Suu Kyi, in detention for most of the nineteen years since her party was prevented from forming a government despite winning general elections in 1988, realises this more than most of those who shout for ‘democracy' in Burma. Her own personal-political history attests to this. Her late father, Aung San, a revered national figure, whom Britain's colonial-era prime minister Winston Churchill called “a traitor rebel leader” for turning down a senior post in the Burmese army, was assassinated with several other cabinet members, and recent revelations have provided evidence that suggests the involvement of British agents in his death.

Suu Kyi offers a hope to Burma's multi-faceted opposition and rebel movement, at a time when leadership is most needed. But it is even more important to avoid being tainted by the West's kiss of death, and this is a trap which she has so far been wise enough not to fall into.

The Burmese junta, in power for almost two decades, whose vulnerability to Western pressure is a foregone conclusion, is the kind of regime which the West screams is cruel and tyrannical, but whose demise cannot possibly be good for its long-term interests either. The moment such a regime cosies up to the West's rival, in this case China, and harms its long-term economic and geopolitical interests, the issue of regime change will suddenly be on the agenda of the “international community”.

In the mean time, all the rhetoric about “kicking the illegitimate military regime out of the UN” and about “replacing it with the country's elected government-in-exile”, to sum up the argument of many columnists in Western media circles, deserves no serious attention.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 10

Dhu al-Qa'dah 20, 14282007-12-01

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