Politics & Policy

Crisis in Rangoon

Secretary Powell can send a lifeline to the suffering Burmese.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is planning to head to southeast Asia next week. He should not go unless the region’s leaders commit to dealing with the crisis in Burma first.

Burma’s democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and world-renowned icon of freedom, is imprisoned. Burma’ s ruling generals refused a U.N. special envoy’s request to release her. The generals seem unmoved by the world’s condemnation, and their people’s suffering. It is time for all respectable members of the international community to put weight behind their words and take active measures to secure the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese people.

#ad#Most of the world sees the Burma crisis in staggeringly different terms than do the Burmese military rulers. Despite the regime’s denials, the May 30 assault on Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters was a well-organized, premeditated attack by members of the Union Solidarity Development Association, a militia of the ruling, and misnamed, State Peace and Development Council. Given Aung San Suu Kyi’s stature within Burma and around the globe, we know Burma’s top generals, led by General Than Shwe, would have had to personally approve a physical attack on her and her delegation. We know that Than Shwe would never let his conscience interfere with any calculation of what is in the best interests of the junta’s continued ability to repress the democratic aspirations of its people.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s associates, including several who witnessed the May 30 attacks, say that at least 70 and perhaps 100 members of her National League for Democracy were slaughtered by the regime’s militia in the most violent crackdown since the junta crushed an August 1988 popular uprising. We know the junta’s claim that only four people died on May 30 — in what they call a spontaneous clash with the opposition — is false. We know that Suu Kyi is not in “protective custody,” as the junta insists, but that she is being held because her national popularity and clear democratic mandate ultimately make the generals’ rule impossible to sustain.

The irony is that by crushing the democratic opposition, the generals have once again demonstrated to their people and the world the fragility of their rule, which no amount of repression will legitimize. That one woman, unarmed and leading only an army of citizens who believe in her, can so rattle a group of uniformed officers who control every instrument of national power is testimony to what Vaclav Havel called the “power of the powerless.” As Havel and many other brave dissidents behind the Iron Curtain knew, no amount of repression can provide a regime the democratic legitimacy that is the only basis for regime survival. No leader or leaders can systematically repress their people and loot their country and get away with it forever. The Burmese military has been doing it for 40 years, and their time is running out.


Another sad truth the current crisis has exposed is how little the leaders of Burma’s neighbors, including the democracies, seem to care for the most basic rights of the Burmese people. The prime minister of Thailand is in Washington this week: I hope he is prepared for a barrage of questioning — and criticism — of Thailand’ s warm embrace of the dictatorship next door since he assumed office in 2001. Under Prime Minister Thaksin, Thailand has moved aggressively to deepen Thai business ties with Burma, provide substantial economic assistance to the junta, collaborate with the Burmese military against Burmese ethnic groups who oppose rule by the generals, arrest and repatriate exiled Burmese democrats across the Thai-Burma border, and pursue a policy of cooperation and conciliation with a regime that is opposed by the vast majority of its people and known to much of the world as an outlaw.

Bangkok’s coddling of Rangoon has gone well beyond passive acceptance of the regime next door to something approaching active sponsorship of the junta. Thailand has made no effort to reach out to the Burmese opposition, which is especially unfortunate since some of its most fearless leaders reside in the Thai-Burma border region. Under Prime Minister Thaksin, Thailand has supported and sustained its historic enemy, at the very time when it could use its influence to help bring about the negotiated transition to democracy in Burma.

India’s government also appears to have made a strategic decision to “constructively engage” Rangoon out of fear of growing Chinese influence in Burma. India has legitimate concerns about China’s interest in using Burma as an outlet for Chinese commerce and military forces in the Andaman Sea. But given China’s pervasive influence in Burma, India cannot hope to compete with Beijing for the junta’s affection. A more effective strategy would be to support the Burmese opposition’s campaign for a free Burma. I don’ t know what policies a Burma led by Aung San Suu Kyi would pursue towards China, but I’m quite confident she wouldn’t choose to pursue a strategic partnership with an Asian dictatorship. Democratic India would be a natural ally of a free Burma, and I believe New Delhi would be wise to help move Burma in that direction, rather than curry favor with the generals.

China’s unreconstructed policy towards Burma following the attack of May 30 was best expressed its ambassador to Rangoon, who told U.N. envoy Razali Ismail that China considers the crisis to be Burma’s “internal political affair.” Interestingly, China has been helpful in dealing with the North Korean nuclear crisis — hopefully because Beijing understands the costs of tying itself too closely to a regime that is actively alienating the rest of the world. Perhaps it is wishful thinking to hope that China’s rulers will reach a similar conclusion about their support for the Burmese junta: that in their increasing repression and devastation of their country, the generals are fighting a battle they can’t win, and that undermines the stability and prosperity China seeks in southeast Asia. Perhaps Beijing would take a more resolute line with the generals if southeast Asia were united in condemnation of their assault on the Burmese people.


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations will hold its annual ministerial summit and security meetings next week in Phnom Penh. Secretary of State Powell is scheduled to attend the meetings of the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conferences from June 18-20. I urge Secretary Powell to reconsider his plans to travel to southeast Asia unless the ASEAN nations, excluding Burma, agree to address the crisis in Burma as their central agenda item; agree to forcefully condemn the crackdown on democracy in Burma; agree to require the release of Burma’s detained democracy leaders in order for Burma to participate in the ASEAN ministerial meetings; and agree to issue a concrete action plan to move Burma towards a negotiated settlement with Aung San Suu Kyi that grants her a leading and irreversible political role culminating in free and fair national elections.

I understand the importance of Secretary Powell’s visit to southeast Asia. I agree that the region is too important for the United States to neglect. But as long as Burma’s neighbors neglect the political crisis in their backyard, it is hard to imagine what coherent role ASEAN can play in the region and the world. All southeast Asian leaders have a vested interest in building ASEAN into a strong regional bloc that can help expand prosperity and improve security in southeast Asia. As long as Burma, an ASEAN member since 1997, is held captive by the generals, destabilizing the region and attracting precisely the kind of international sanction southeast Asian leaders would like to avoid — and as long as those leaders do little or nothing about it — southeast Asia will remain little more than the sum of its parts, and ASEAN will have little enduring relevance. Secretary Powell should condition his visit to Phnom Penh on an ASEAN agenda that addresses the rot at the heart of the organization — the decaying dictatorship in Rangoon — and that helps move ASEAN towards a more constructive role in southeast Asia than that of “constructively engaging,” and abetting, tyranny in Burma.

The United States has moved to restrict visas for officials of Burma’s Union Solidarity Development Association and freeze Burmese leaders’ assets. Congress is moving rapidly to ban imports from Burma. Europe is moving to tighten existing sanctions against the junta. These efforts to bring to bear pressure for democratization will have additional force if Burma’s neighbors end business as usual and take concrete steps to help liberate the Burmese people.

It is hard to believe that Americans and Europeans care more about the rights of the Burmese people than do people in Bangkok, Beijing, New Delhi, Manila, Jakarta, and other Asian capitals. These nations will always have Burma as a neighbor; yet Burma will not always be ruled by the generals. When they are gone, free Burmese leaders will speak the truth about ASEAN and its support for Asian autocrats, unless that organization and its member states make a strategic decision to stand with the Burmese people in their struggle for freedom today.

The Honorable John McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona. This is adapted from a speech he delivered on the Senate floor earlier this week.

NR Staff — Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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