11 October 2007

Burma and unrealistic expectations

Any number of observers have mused about the duty of China and India to pressure Burma's military dictators into recognizing the human rights of the Burmese people. They have been scolded for not doing so, even accused of enabling the generals by maintaining cozy relationships with them.

How wonderful if they would use their considerable muscle to bend their wayward neighbour into moral shape. But how unrealistic to expect it. Great powers just don't behave that way. China and India have developed mutually beneficial relationships with Burma under the military and great powers nurture regimes that are of use to them, they don't undermine them. We in the Western hemisphere should understand that. We need only consider the behaviour of our local great power, the United States, toward oppressive regimes they find useful.

What did the Americans do when the Argentinean generals murdered tens of thousands of their citizens in the 1970s and 80s? What did they do when the Chilean military tortured and murdered thousands of its people? And what did they do when the Guatemalan military slaughtered thousands of students, workers, professionals and peasants during its 35-year reign of terror? For the most part, the answer is they enabled. They provided these militaries with arms, they trained many of the officers who carried out the atrocities, and in the case of Chile, even helped install the dictatorship. They saw these regimes as useful and acted accordingly.

Of no small importance in the Burma equation are its oil and gas reserves. China and India are not about to let human rights get in the way of obtaining energy resources any more than the United States does. The Americans supported Saddam Hussein as long as he was a reliable oil supplier and only turned on him when he no longer was. They currently support the Gulf dictators, including the execrable Sauds of Arabia, the most misogynistic regime on Earth, and recently agreed to sell them $20-billion worth of arms. As long as the oil keeps flowing west, they will no doubt get all the arms they can afford.

To expect China and India to allow the brutalizing of Burmese citizens to interfere with easy access to energy is to expect them to behave at a much higher standard than the United States. Not that that wouldn't be easy, it's just unrealistic.

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