Over the past decades, writes Michael Green, “Burma has gone from being an anti-democratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious threat to its neighbors. The international community must change its approach to the country’s junta”
Even among the most detestable authoritarian regimes remaining in the world today – North Korea, Zimbabwe and a few others where the ruling party or the leader gets regularly elected by huge margin of votes in the “elections” till their death or senility — the military leaders of Burma have been repressing the people since 1962 when they first seized power. The internecine strife with the different ill armed ethnic groups and kleptocratic maladministration laced with unimaginable brutality by the military have reduced Burma – a country with vast resource potentials among ASEAN members – to a least developed country. Burma once used to export one million tons of rice a year. Now it has become a rice importing country. Political and administrative positions of any consequence are held by the military.
The world knows about the intermittent military rules of Pakistan because it has become the eye of the needle after 9/11 but is hardly aware of the brutalities daily meted out to the unarmed civilians in Burma. In the seventies the Burmese military had adopted the Burmese Way to Socialism – a concept not understood by then Soviet Union or China. In the ensuing period of global change from bipolar to unipolar to multipolar world time in Burma stood still. The UN Security Council sanctions on Burma had little effect as the ASEAN and neighboring countries maintained normal diplomatic and trade relations with that country. So the Burmese military leaders never became international pariah and the people became poorer, listless, oppressed and brutalized. Persecution by the military forced thousands to flee to Bangladesh, Thailand and China.
Opposing the military junta emerged that National League for Democracy led d by Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s independence leader General Aung San revered by the Burmese as the founder of the nation. Under severe international pressure the military junta allowed a general election to be held in 1990 in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party-NLD- won a landslide victory that was immediately nullified by the military. Suu Kyi was put under arrest and had remained under detention for 14 years during which her husband, a British academician, died as he was not granted visa by the military to come to Rangoon to see his wife. Her two sons living abroad were also refused visa to visit their mother.
Only last month the military held a fraudulent election widely condemned by the world and boycotted by Suu Kyi’s party. To give the election a semblance of civilian character many top Generals swapped their uniform for suits. The business, however, is expected to go on as usual. The military’s only argument for keeping the people in bondage is that without military rule Burma would disintegrate as it has many ethnic groups who have been fighting for a role in the governance of the country since 1948. The military conveniently forgets that many countries in the world are peopled by different groups, professing different religions (Burma is overwhelmingly Buddhist), speaking different language and having varied culture. These countries have remained united because they believe in their single national identity. Besides the sham elections held by the military Burma has become a danger due to the junta’s reported interest in North Korea’s nuclear program, revealed by defectors and internal sources, reports validated by nuclear experts in a report to the UN Security Council.
The question that the world has to face is whether Burma under the repressive military regime is a fit case for international humanitarian intervention.
The paper written by Dr. Dan Bulley (Queens University-Belfast-the politics of ethical foreign policy-March 2010-European Journal of international relations) could be taken as a starting point to delve into the question. Albeit the introduction of ethical dimension in foreign policy could be a conceptual and practical minefield yet the international community in large measure has supported intervention in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan because sovereignty today cannot be defined by the terms of the Treaty of Westphalia but to meet the sea change in global politics by the entry of non-state actors or terrorists and truant states like North Korea, Taliban Afghanistan and failed States.
We also have to take into account the 1985 UN Summit that had endorsed the right to protect citizens of country subjected to genocide or ethnocide by the by their own rulers. Therefore morality, values, ethics, universal principles etc have been included in the conduct of foreign policy of big powers. Unfortunately disproportionate use of intervention as in the case of the invasion of Iraq, that too on false premises like Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destructions for imminent use against the West and his close connection with the Taliban has made the case of humanitarian intervention weak to the world.
Developing countries in particular are generally opposed to any intervention by outside powers and zealously guard their territorial integrity mainly because human rights infractions happen in the Third World they are acutely aware of their exploitation by the European powers during the colonial period. But then again the 2001 report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty opined that sovereignty is not only a right but involves obligations by the State to look after the wellbeing of its citizens. Should a State be unwilling or unable to provide security in its full meaning to its own citizens then the international community has to shoulder its responsibility to protect. In this sense sovereignty as described by the UN Charter, a pre-atomic document in the words of John Foster Dulles, as immutable and irreducible does not hold water.
In reality only militarily powerful nations can claim to exercise complete sovereignty while others would become less sovereign. So effectively despite the dissipation of unipolarity the US remains the global hegemon and the most powerful nation in a multi-polar world. Yet as the invasion of Iraq testifies the US-UK misadventure has backfired and both President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had to leave their respective offices with the legacy of leading their nations into a ruinous war.
Even the war with Taliban Afghanistan, initially supported by the nations of the world after the tragic events of 9/11, has become unpopular and one by one European nations are abandoning the ship leaving President Obama as the only credible NATO country fighting the Taliban in a never ending war. According to Richard Haas, a former Bush appointee in the State Department, US federal debt could equal 100% of the GDP approximately the relative indebtedness of Greece and Italy today. In the years to come the US would require to cut deficit and thereby have shrinking budgets. Impact on the war in Afghanistan would be considerable, and as Haas points out, the war there is now twice as expensive as the war in Iraq and a US presence of about one hundred thousand troops would cost $100 billion a year.
The very fact that NATO allies are deserting the US testifies to the unpopularity of the Afghan war that does not show any light at the end of the tunnel. This impatience with the war is greatly due to the global economic recession though Richard Hass’ article in Foreign Affairs on American profligacy indicates that defense expenditure, which too is expected to be reduced along with other sectors, is not going to be staggering. What is more worrying is that US, the largest economy in the world with a GDP worth $14 trillion, has also become the largest borrower with China becoming the largest creditor.
The death of communism was partly because the communist world saw the ease with which the consumers in the capitalist world were buying material things and services were being provided to the citizens without their standing in the line in front of empty stores. The failure of the rulers emphasized communist governments’ inability to provide even the basic necessities of life. Little did they realize that the seemingly high standard of living in the Western world was based on borrowed money. Western consumerism is now at a critical state of lost faith of the people in the system and many people are wondering whether China’s regulated economy is not a better system to follow. Richard Haas makes the point that foreign policy is carried out as much by the country’s image as it is by deeds.
The continuing saga of economic collapse of the Western world will most certainly affect its influence and consequent loss of pliant nations to listen to Western dictates. In that case the possibility of humanitarian intervention even in most deserving cases like Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Haiti, Ivory Coast, and Somalia would become difficult. Besides the only legal way of intervention has to be through the UNSC where one veto by one of the permanent members will make a policy of intervention a non-starter.
In case of Burma the vital interest of China (a permanent member of the UNSC) and India are involved. Burma’s geo-strategic location, writes an Indian political analyst, at the tri-junction of South Asia, South East Asia and East Asia enhances its strategic value to India. India as an emerging economy is energy starved and Burma has enormous hydro power and hydro-carbon potentials. India is also interested in huge off shore gas fields. Burma reportedly has the world’s tenth biggest gas reserve estimated at 90 trillion cubic feet. Two Indian companies have considerable stake in exploration and production of two off shore blocks. Burma is also important for India from security point of view as India has 1640 kilometers long land boundary with Burma 98.5 percent of Indian land boundary in north east is with Burma and Bangladesh.
Burma’s close relations with China are of great concern for the Indians. With Pakistan on the western front and Burma on the eastern front India fears encirclement. Given his scenario and Indo-Burma trade flourishing in the coming years it is unlikely that India will take an overt stand on Aung San Suu Kyi and democratic movement in Burma. In case of China it will certainly use her veto in the UNSC if any move is made for humanitarian intervention in Burma. It is unlikely that Japan will support any Western move and ASEAN believes in engagement with the Burmese military junta.
After the Iraq and Afghanistan wars the US is already suffering from what historian Paul Kennedy described as “imperial overstretch”. It is doubtful whether the American people and the Republican dominated US Congress would support any US military involvement in Burma. Besides any intervention produces a dilemma for the interventionist about the choice of the place. One may ask why Burma was considered the most deserving candidate when many other people in faraway places have to live sub-human life under ruthless dictators. One may ask of the Western powers as to why Zaire’s Mobutu Sese was befriended by the West during the Cold war and why the West kept quiet when Idi Amin was ruling Uganda according to his whims. But in the ultimate analysis if ethics is totally subtracted from foreign policy equation and if self interest becomes the only guiding principle then liberalism and democracy will be lost and humanity’s basis of survival will be mercantilism. One hope such would not be the fate of the world.
Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Ambassador and Secretary of Bangladesh.