Helping Burma’s nonviolent struggle
From Miami Herald
By Frida Ghitis
Once again, the news from Burma rings with echoes of despair.
The latest mission from the international community has ended in embarrassment — not for the despotic generals who rule Burma (renamed Myanmar by its illegitimate regime) — but for the United Nations and its ineffectual efforts. It seems no one who matters wants to waste any more time meeting with the U.N. envoy. Now, unconfirmed reports say the iconic leader of the pro-democracy opposition, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, may have started a hunger strike. Once again, Burma stands like a conscience-searing mirage on the Asian horizon, reminding us of our failure to help the most desperate.
The Nigerian diplomat chosen by the United Nations to conduct negotiations, Ibrahim Gambari, has left Burma without having met Gen. Than Shwe, the head of the ruling junta, or Suu Kyi, the woman who led the country’s National League for Democracy to victorious elections 18 years ago, and has spent most of the time since then under house arrest.
Opposition leaders in exile and inside the country are fed up with Gambari, who served as his country’s U.N. ambassador during Nigeria’s military dictatorship. Burmese activists say his work has proven ”worthless,” a ”failure.” The United Nations defends him, calling for patience, saying that he is engaged in a “process.”
But how much patience? Military rulers have governed Burma since 1962. In August 1988 — on the supposedly lucky date of 8-8-88 — street demonstrators demanded democracy. Soldiers massacred protesters, and a new junta took over. Reform was supposed to come after the 1990 elections, called by the junta in a miscalculation. Suu Kyi’s NLD won by a landslide. The winners landed in prison, and the junta continued to grind its heel on the population. By then, Burma had suffered not only from widespread human rights abuses, but had been transformed from one of the more affluent countries in Asia to one of the poorest in the world. The Burmese, one would think, have good reason to resent appeals to patience.
Calls for democracy don’t just rise out of ideological passion for the rule of the people. No, Burma needs change because the generals have destroyed their country and their people’s lives. According to the European Union, Burma spends less on healthcare than any country on Earth. It spends lavishly on one of the biggest military forces in the world, looting the country’s vast natural resources to enrich top officers. Meanwhile, combined spending on health, education — and on helping those who lost everything after a catastrophic cyclone — reaches a few dollars a year per person.
The Beijing-backed generals are not completely immune to international pressure. After Cyclone Nargis killed 138,000 and left 800,000 homeless last May, the junta blocked international aid. With thousands facing death, the generals wouldn’t budge. But then, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner uttered the magic words: The Responsibility to Protect.
The RTP doctrine says that governments have the duty to protect their people from crimes against humanity. When they become the perpetrators, the responsibility falls on the international community. That hinted at foreign intervention. The generals relented only enough to avert a major catastrophe. Witnesses say minimal aid has reached the victims, but not enough to rebuild their lives.
NLD officials say Suu Kyi has turned back food deliveries since mid-August and say they are extremely worried about the health of a woman revered by millions throughout Burma. Suu Kyi may want to scare the generals and shake the international community back into action. She has already made unimaginable sacrifices. No one knows how far she will go now.
History has shown that the junta responds only to extreme pressure, especially when it comes from its Asian neighbors — particularly China. Then it ignores earlier promises when the world looks away.
Reports in the region say the day after the Beijing Olympics ended, China’s defense minister told his Burmese counterpart that he wants to strengthen bilateral ties. China and Burma, it seems, have short memories. After the cyclone and a year earlier, after brutal repression of an uprising by Buddhist monks, they seemed briefly ready to negotiate. Then the world looked away, soothing its conscience with a useless envoy.
Helping the Burmese people’s nonviolent struggle requires outspoken, vigorous and relentless diplomacy. Beijing must hear that its post-Olympic international standing requires that it, too, pressure the junta to negotiate a transition of power.
Enough despair. It’s past time that we had some good news from Burma.