Burma and the rest of us

The brutal suppression by Burma’s military junta of Buddhist monks and civilian protesters has sparked global outrage.  The generals who have ruled this unfortunate country for 45 years remain seemingly impervious to worldwide appeals for moderation.  We in the Philippines who resisted and overthrew a comparatively milder dictatorship can do no less than to encourage and actively support the just struggle of the Burmese people to participate in the governing of their country.

It is right that the president of our country has come forward to urge respect for the civil and political rights of Burmese citizens.  Never mind that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, because of her own administration’s appalling human rights record, is hardly the right person to lecture Burma’s military about democracy.  What is important is that our people’s collective voice is expressed in no uncertain terms on an urgent issue like this.

Yet, we cannot be unaware of the global political-economic context in which Burma’s crisis is embedded.  This is an immensely resource rich country that every power in Asia and in the West has been salivating over. For all the lamentations about the human rights situation in Burma – American, French, British, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Singaporean, and Thai economic interests, just to name a few, are very much in a cozy relationship with the country’s repressive regime.  These interests are in the lucrative oil and gas industry, mining, forestry, telecommunications, and tourism.  Burma’s butchers require a lot of firearms and ammunition to keep their control over the restive population.  Such needs are abundantly supplied by the same countries that are today feasting on Burma’s natural resources and market.

One cannot avoid noticing how much the current diplomatic attention on Burma is being driven by the United States and Great Britain. Of course, the fact that this is so is not an argument against the validity of the present furor over Burma.  But, if we are mindful of the media campaign that preceded the American invasion of Iraq, we cannot be oblivious of the way in which democratization as a value had been used as a disguise for the advancement of naked imperial interests. Today we know that it was not so much Iraqi democracy but Iraqi oil that led America and Britain to that hapless country.

This brings us to a classic dilemma that is bound to recur in every society where citizens are resisting domestic tyranny. That dilemma is best posed as a set of questions for the rest of us:  How do we support the just struggles of peoples for freedom in other societies without taking over these struggles ourselves?  How do we bear witness to human suffering and struggle while avoiding what Michel Foucault once called “the indignity of speaking for others”?  How do we balance the imperative of international solidarity, which our own moral intuitions prompt us to voice, with the principle of national self determination that has been the cornerstone of international relations since the formation of the United Nations?

We know there are no quick answers to these questions.  The United Nations had refused to authorize the invasion of Iraq.  The United States went ahead anyway, gathering its own “coalition of the willing”. In the course of toppling down Saddam Hussein, America reduced a sovereign nation into a colony, nominally administered by a weak Iraqi government but controlled in every way by US forces and private security contractors.  To this day, the UN has failed to sanction America for what it has done.  It also has nothing meaningful to say about how Iraq can resist those forces that seek its dismemberment, or how it may rebuild itself into a modern democratic society.

Not too long ago, a despicable apartheid racist regime existed in South Africa.  It employed the most brutal means to keep the far more numerous black population in subjection.  An underground armed struggle led by the leftist African National Congress led the resistance. Its icon was a mild-mannered activist who had been kept in solitary detention for decades.  His name was Nelson Mandela.  He symbolized the vision of a free and democratic South Africa, in much the same way the imprisoned the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi today represents the aspirations of a modern and democratic Burma.

South Africa counts many heroes and martyrs among those who bravely fought the regime, but it is doubtful if the apartheid system would have collapsed when it did if the rest of the world community had not at one point pulled out all their investments from that country. Global opinion had galvanized radically against the regime, and this was methodically applied on the corporations and governments that had kept the racist government afloat.  Finding itself isolated, the regime had no choice but to hand over power to a new government chosen by democratic elections.

Turning points like these vary from country to country.  It would be foolish to decide what is to be done from an unchanging pivot of imagined transcendental principles. Notions like self-determination and humanitarian intervention are inherited social values that arose from different traditions.  Their precise application to the contemporary world cannot be dogmatic.  The world is changing, and so too are our moral intuitions.  With modern satellite communications, it is easier for people all over the world to converse with one another, to share in the suffering of others, and hopefully to find solutions compatible with an evolving global sense of justice.


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