Myanmar’s Best Chance

The current unrest in Myanmar is inspiring to anybody who values political freedom and deplores the kind of oppressive regime the Myanmarese military has imposed on the country for close to half a century. And while the choice no doubt had something to do with not wanting to place too much emphasis on Iraq at a time when, Petraeus aside, things still aren’t going all that well, I’ll stipulate that President Bush is probably sincere in his admiration for the demonstrators and his loathing for the regime. It was potentially helpful to the cause of freedom in Myanmar for him to stress the situation there so prominently, although the sanctions he announced are likely to have little or no effect.

The situation in Myanmar makes a strong case that looking at international relations from what in some academic circles is called the "realist" perspective can be helpful in understanding why things shake out the way they do. The "realists" (as distinguished from so-called "idealists" who are inclined to embark on crusades to make the word safe for democracy or impose regime-change on countries that don’t live up to their not always consistent standards) argue that nation-states are governed, especially in their conduct of foreign affairs, by and large, by interests rather than ideals. They may prefer freedom or democracy, but alliances, economic interests and geopolitical realities determine what they do most of the time.

From this perspective, the condition of the rebels in Myanmar is dicey, especially if they hope (which they probably don’t) to get effective help from other countries. President Bush may sympathize with the demonstrators and want to publicize their cause, but Myanmar is not within the U.S. geopolitical sphere of influence. Even aside from exhaustion caused by the misbegotten Iraq war, the United States is not about to commit military resources there. Myanmar’s rulers have isolated it economically from almost every other country except China (which is one reason economic sanctions by the U.S., European countries and even the UN will have little effect), so while the country has enough natural resources that it should be prosperous, no Western or multinational companies have active interests there.

India might have been able to exert some pressure on Myanmar’s rulers but it has shown little inclination to do so. The only neighbor with real influence is China, and China, while it has issued pro forma statements calling for restraint by all sides (presumably including the demonstrators), it has essentially backed the Myanmarese military junta. China itself is hardly an exemplar of respect for democracy, human rights or anything but one-party rule, so it is hardly likely to be sympathetic to pro-democracy demonstrators; indeed, it could feel threatened by any success they might have in a neighboring country.

So if there is to be any help from the "international community" for Myanmar’s freedom advocates, it will have to come from what Richard Cornuelle once labeled the "independent sector" – in this case non-governmental human-rights organizations, celebrities able to command media attention, and perhaps most significantly, the international media themselves.

Thus I was pleased to see, as I switched among news channels the last few days, that CNN was willing to spend long periods of uninterrupted time discussing the situation in Myanmar, much of it with a correspondent in Thailand who is relying on phone calls, Web sites, text messages, e-mails and the like. (Says something about how the Internet and other technology have changed the news business and are opening up even an officially closed society.) It may be that CNN and other news outlets are the best hope for the Myanmarese monks and democracy advocates. When it comes to "hard power" pressure on the regime to avoid or prevent the kind of brutality it used in 1988, when about 3,000 dissidents were slaughtered, there’s just not that much available that’s likely to be effective.

The United States and Europe can complain, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon can send an observer. But China and Russia have announced they will veto a Security Council resolution authorizing further sanctions. It matters little. Further sanctions are likely to have little economic impact on a country so isolated from the rest of the world that its only real trading partner is China, despite an abundance of natural resources. News stories say the newest U.S. sanctions have to do with preventing regime leaders from dealing with international banks, of the kind that were said to be a significant factor in bringing North Korea around to an agreement to give up its weaponization program (maybe). But those sanctions took months to have a real impact on North Korea, even if they were decisive, which I doubt. The threat is not going to have an impact this week or next month.

To elaborate a bit, China, the only country that has any real influence in Myanmar, having made it a virtual economic satellite, is hardly squeamish as a matter of principle about putting down threats to the existing order or in love with democratic reform. Possibly the only pressure point that could get China to do more than issue pro forma pleas for restraint is the Olympics scheduled for Beijing next summer. China has been mildly schizophrenic about how to polish its image during the run-up to the Olympics, sometimes doing repressive things like moving troublemakers out of major cities to create the illusion of stability and normality in places where cameras might be. But it is concerned about its image. It wants to be seen as a "normal" country, an up-and-coming Great Power in the "family of nations" and all that. Even subtle hints that traditional sports powers like the U.S. won’t show up next August if China supports repression in Rangoon might be effective, though there’s hardly a guarantee.

That leaves "the whole world is watching" as the closest to an effective counterweight to the regime’s likely instinct to crack down good and hard. There’s some evidence that some elements of the army are opposed to a brutal crackdown, and that could stay the hand of brutality a bit. But "the whole world is watching" is effective only if outlets like CNN — and Fox and MSNBC and the major networks and European media, notably the BBC and Agence France Presse – really are watching. Doing so will require a commitment of resources and attention the cable news outlets are unaccustomed to devoting to really serious international stories when the latest missing college student or Paris Hilton antic is so much cheaper to cover and apparently holds greater viewer interest.

So CNN and other international media, perhaps aided by international celebrities like Bono, may be the best hope the democracy activists in Myanmar have. So I’m pleased CNN is on it, and I hope other outlets get more focused and they all have the gumption to stay on the story even if things calm down for a few days.

That said, prospects don’t look all that hopeful.

Here’s a somewhat dispiriting but, unfortunately, I think fairly solid analysis of the situation in Myanmar. The AP writer says the regime has shown it is willing to use force and the democracy movement has yet to produce a leader able to articulate the movement’s goals and desires. The only mitigating factor that might keep bloodshed down if the protest forces don’t sort of fade away is that the military is said to be better-trained in riot control and the use of non-lethal force to control or disperse crowds than in 1988. Although some might have wondered whether allowing the demonstrations, which began August 13 or 14, to go on so long was a sign of the regime’s getting soft, the story suggests that the military’s desire to hold onto power at all costs is as strong as ever – indeed it might be the only thing the regime believes in.

A piece yesterday by TNR‘s Joshua Kurlantzick, who’s done good reporting from several south Asian countries, is likewise discouraging. He explains the parallels between now and 1988, when similar demonstrations led to 3,000 people being slaughtered.

I still think it’s possible – if the media goes into “world-is-watching” mode and focuses intently on Myanmar for a while, even if Paris or Britney do something flamboyantly stupid – that the situation can be resolved peacefully with some hope for reform, perhaps based on a pragmatic desire to attract more diverse investors. I doubt the regime will give up power or be toppled, but it might loosen the reins a bit, if it can be convinced that’s the best way to hang onto power. Hardly an ideal outcome, but it would be better than a bloodbath, which is not beyond the realm of possibility.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange
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(Putnam-Berkley, 1995).