Posted September 18, 2009on:
What should the “international community” do to help people living under repressive states?
Despite great strides in electoral democracy and human rights conventions around the world, billions of men and women continue to experience the suppression of basic human freedoms such as the freedom to travel, choose a job or school, criticize their governments, express their views openly, and practice their religious faith. The state, one of whose important functions is to provide security for innocent citizens, has become the principal source of insecurity and fear in many parts of Asia and Africa. At the same time, there are flourishing “think tanks” and a veritable PhD industry on human rights legislation and international law. What is clearly and urgently needed is less talk and more action.
Writing truthfully about my own country in a blog like this can actually get me into serious trouble. So let me, in a cowardly-or, if you prefer, prudential- way, consider the more pathetic situation of Burma/Myanmar. The farcical trial of Aung San Suu Kyi a few weeks ago was only the latest incident in the long history of violence, corruption, ineptitude and complete disregard for the lives and rights of Burma’s citizens. When Burma applied to join the regional conglomeration known as ASEAN, I begged my Singaporean and Malaysian friends to appeal to their respective governments to refuse membership until Suu Kyi was restored as the elected head of state. I was told by some Singaporeans that the “Asian way” would be bring about change through quiet diplomacy rather than open challenge. The generals could be wooed towards democracy by trade and friendship. Today, twenty years later, the repression is worse. Clearly, and predictably, the so-called “Asian way” (an euphemism for legitimizing local autocrats!) is not working.
Why? Because we don’t follow the money. Generally, I am not in favour of general economic sanctions, as they hurt the common people much more than those responsible. The latter can “salt away” their fortunes in foreign banks and find ways to keep on consuming luxuries even as the country languishes economically. But, in the case of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi herself called repeatedly for international sanctions. If the sanctions are carefully targeted- for instance, a complete stop to arms shipments and a total “freeze” of all foreign assets held by members of the regime- it would make life harder for those whose power now seems unassailable. If the people of Burma, who suffer daily under the junta, are asking us to help them, why are we not listening? The US and EU have belatedly imposed strict sanctions, but some oil companies continue to operate hand-in-glove with the military.
But Western nations do not rank among Burma’s top trading partners. India and China seem to be the worst culprits, openly selling arms in exchange for access to Burma’s rich oil and natural gas reserves. ASEAN nations and their leaders have not exerted much pressure on the Burmese regime. On the contrary, Singaporean banks are home to the junta’s ill-gotten wealth and the wives of the generals go on regular shopping sprees to Singapore and Bangkok. Thailand alone purchases 44% of Burma’s exports each year. Sanctions by ASEAN member states would deprive the generals of a large portion of the more than $11 billion they earn from foreign trade annually. The junta spends less than 1.5% of GDP on health and education. The public education system has deteriorated so much that many parents rely on free, monastic schools for their children’s education. Infectious diseases, including AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are rampant. How much longer is ASEAN willing to be dictated to by Burma’s human rights violators?
The ancient creeds of the Church tell us that Christ descended into hell. He is therefore close to those who are cast into it, transforming their despair into hope. This is not to belittle the suffering and anguish of our Burmese brethren, but to enclose their narrative within a wider narative of hope borne through sufferng- the narrative of the crucified, risen and returning Judge of history. If you are an Indian, a Chinese or a citizen of an ASEAN nation, what are you willing to do for the people of Burma that would also serve as a sign of that hope?