As the thuggish junta that has ruled Burma since 1962 cracks down on thousands of protesters, the United States has an opening to advance its interests by doing the right thing.
Backing the protesters is morally sound because the Burmese regime is among the cruelest on the planet. It is responsible for a campaign of ethnic cleansing that has killed scores of thousands and displaced multitudes more. It is an unapologetic practitioner of forced labor. It conscripts children into its armed forces. It keeps Aung San Suu Kyi — the leader of an immensely popular pro-democracy opposition — under house arrest or worse (reports surfaced this week that she had been thrown in prison). It has shattered the Burmese economy: Resource-rich and once relatively prosperous, Burma now has a per capita income of just $200. What wealth does exist is concentrated in the hands of its rulers. Top general Than Shwe, who sees himself as a god-king, recently moved the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, a place whose extreme remoteness protects his opulent palace from the righteous anger of the dispossessed.
Small wonder the Burmese have taken to the streets. Their protests began last month when a few hundred gathered to decry the junta’s decision to raise fuel prices by 500 percent. The protests have now spread across the country, and their ranks have swelled to the tens of thousands. Significantly, they are led by Buddhist monks, who represent one of the two most powerful institutions in Burma — the other being the army — and pose a credible threat to the regime. That’s no doubt why the junta has resorted to violence in the past two days, firing into crowds (and reportedly killing several people) and dispatching troops to keep the monks in their monasteries.
The last time protests on this scale rocked Burma, in 1988, the junta had killed 3,000 people before the dust settled. This atrocity turned Burma (or, as the junta has rechristened it, Myanmar) into something of a pariah state — though not quite, for China, which covets Burmese ports and energy resources, has gladly become the junta’s chief arms supplier and diplomatic advocate. China’s complicity in Burmese abuses is comparable to, though less well-known than, its hand in propping up the genocidal Sudanese government.
But the Chinese role in Burma is both a moral outrage and strategic threat. Through Burma, the Chinese military has access to the Indian Ocean, and is positioned to bully the other nations of South and Southeast Asia. And the Burmese junta is itself emerging as a danger not just to its neighbors, but to global security. It shows one telltale sign of a would-be nuclear proliferator, having purchased an experimental reactor from Russia. And its army of 400,000 is large enough to make nearby states think twice before crossing it — which in turn complicates U.S. efforts to forge alliances in the region.
India is a case in point here. The Indian government’s interest in counterbalancing China’s rise overlaps neatly with U.S. priorities. But, convinced that the junta is here to stay, India has preferred to placate China by accommodating the junta — and has even found a profitable side business selling it weapons. Should the protesters succeed in changing the Burmese government, New Delhi could be expected to align itself more closely with Washington.
It’s of course highly uncertain that the uprising will succeed, not least because the countries with most leverage over Burma have an interest in preserving the status quo. China has urged restraint on the junta through back channels, but has publicly opposed outside interference in Burma’s “internal affairs” (the PRC’s catch-all term for useful oppression). Russia has kept silent. The members of ASEAN have been notably spineless, fearing as they do the Burmese army and susceptible as they are to anti-Western third worldism. Singapore — where Burma’s rulers go to buy their Rolexes and visit their doctors — is shrugging as well.
President Bush’s speech at the U.N. on Tuesday — which condemned the junta’s abuses and called on the world to take action — was a refreshing contrast. Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, has called for the Security Council to address the Burmese crisis, and France can be expected to join Britain and the U.S. in pushing for tough economic sanctions against the junta. But that effort will likely fall to a Chinese veto.
Bush announced in his speech that the U.S., for its part, is tightening unilateral sanctions already in place. These are of admittedly limited effect, but they send the right message to the Burmese people and to the world. Bush should keep sending that message, and his administration should do its best to pressure China and Russia to do the right thing. For it matters to us — as Americans concerned with our own security, and as human beings — whether the junta is able to continue its brutal and dangerous ways.