An international crisis

Taken from Guardian Unlimited, September 28, 2007.

Now that the Burmese military is cracking down on protesters, and reports of murdered monks have come to light, it is time to take stock of who is responsible for the current crisis.

Certainly, blame rests squarely with the country’s junta, or State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), led by Senior General Than Shwe. His decisions to increase fuel prices served as the catalyst for these protests, which are as much about economic hardship as they are about political despotism.

But international actors also need to be called to task for allowing this situation to develop.

Attention has centred on China. Rightly so. China has been Burma’s key ally – its “big brother”, to use the local parlance.

The Burmese regime has used Chinese weapons and funds to maintain stability in its sensitive southern border, secure oil and gas reserves, expand access to markets and set up military facilities in its southern islands.

China, meanwhile, has vetoed measures against Burma in multinational organisations including the UN security council. In return, it has gained the premier position in accessing Burmese resources, and created conditions that enhance the development and security of its western provinces.

But China is not alone. India has also worked actively to buttress the regime over the past few years in order to secure its own supplies of oil and gas (though its efforts to do so have been largely unsuccessful).

Russia has had more luck, gaining access to oil wealth in exchange for training, arms and a key UN security council veto.

The list of countries that have sold their principles of responsible governance for oil and gas also includes South Korea and Malaysia. The latter’s Petronas investments in Burma make the recent critical remarks of its foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar, look hollow.

There are real conflicts of interests here that need to be addressed. And governments who invest in the oil and gas sector – at its foundation a long-term investment with high capital expenditure – need to assess what their long-term interests really are. Do they want to work with a leadership that is increasingly isolated and unpopular, or do they push for dialogue?

Chinese leaders, at least, may recognize that Than Shwe’s actions over the last few years have fostered greater instability. An unstable Burma is not in their interests. The closer they get to the source of the instability, the more they put themselves at risk in the long term.

The groundswell of opposition to the regime in the current crisis has shown the international community how deeply felt is the disdain toward the SPDC. The Chinese know more than anyone that fear is not enough to maintain power: reform is crucial. And the first step in the reform process is dialogue.

In the last year, as China has shown that it is willing to take steps toward being a responsible member of the international community, its relationship with Burma has become a bit greyer.

They have called the Burmese on the serious problems of drug trafficking, human trafficking and HIV/Aids, which are extending out from Burma into China. They have worked to encourage greater economic development by supporting infrastructure projects (though not all of these – such as the proposed dams in the northern Kachin state – have been carried out responsibly). And, most importantly, they have worked to expand dialogue not only with different parts of the regime but also between the regime and the international community.

This summer, the Chinese hosted a dialogue with military leaders and international representatives, including those from the US. It is these more responsible initiatives that need to be harnessed and encouraged, especially as China moves towards the Olympics.

The Bush administration must also appreciate that its use of sanctions has backfired, helping to strengthen the regime rather than weaken it. The US position is based on moral outrage and is tied to strong support for the Nobel prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the leader of the National League of Democracy, the party elected in 1990, and is a symbol of hope for most Burmese.

But condemning the Burmese government for its human rights abuses has served only to provoke a nationalist response – and violence – and allowed the regime to deflect blame for the hardships felt by Burmese citizens from the regime to the US.

Indeed, the SPDC has used sanctions as a tool to win international support. In a climate where US heavyhandedness in places such as Iraq has alienated some countries, the Burmese government has reached out to potential allies.

None of its regional neighbours effectively supported US sanctions, and the regime’s leaders found means to get around them: putting their funds in banks in friendly countries and shopping in Asia rather than in the west.

Sanctions by a few countries alone cannot work. In Burma, they have not worked beyond extending symbolic support for the opposition; they have yet to promote the most urgent step: dialogue.

This is why US policy has taken a noticeable shift this week. Yes, George Bush did introduce new sanctions on Tuesday. But they are substantively different in tone from earlier measures.

Recognising that they will depend on the support and cooperation of other countries to be effective, the Bush administration’s policy on Burma has evolved into one of greater international cooperation – a point Bush emphasised in his speech at the UN.

Allies such as China are given more space to act. It remains to be seen whether they will take up this mantle, but the move toward multilateral action should be commended.

In reaching out to the international community, there needs to be an appreciation of who has provided quiet sanctuary to the regime’s leaders. Blame here rests with Singapore – which has provided medical treatment for the leaders and accepted their lucrative bank accounts.

Perhaps more than China or any other ally of Burma, Singapore has been the closest personal friend to the SPDC leadership, as the premier shopping destination for the junta leadership and their families. It is essential that Singapore uses these personal ties to send a message that the need for dialogue is urgent.

The crisis in Burma is truly an international one, and the actors responsible extend beyond the country’s borders. How it will evolve will depend on the international community adopting new tactics.

The US has changed its position; other parties need to do so as well. Only by taking stock of who is responsible and adopting new initiatives can bloodshed be limited and real dialogue begin.