Freedom for Burma:
Now means NOW!!!

By Roland Watson
December 1, 2005

Why I care

Many people ask me why I work for freedom and democracy for Burma. I will admit that my first involvement in the cause had a chance element.

I went to Burma in September 1994. I was on my way from Thailand to Bangladesh to Nepal. The Biman Bangladesh Airways flight had a stop in Rangoon, so I decided to have a look. I was aware that the country was a dictatorship, and I normally avoid travel to such nations, so as not to support the regimes in any way. On the other hand, in 1994 Burma showed signs of opening up to the world and becoming less repressive, so it seemed worth a stop. I didn’t want to do the ordinary tourist circuit, though, so I devised a plan to get permission to visit areas of the country untraveled since World War II.

I said I was developing an adventure tourist business for wealthy westerners, and needed permission to visit remote parts of the country to appraise their potential for this. After a week of meetings in Rangoon, I was given permission to visit Myitkyina and Putao. My real objective, though, was to survey the extent of the deforestation in the country. I flew from Myitkyina to Putao on a clear day, and the entire stretch below was uncut rainforest, some of the most dramatic topography that I have ever seen.

During the trip I was enthralled by the people of Burma and their country, and aghast at their domination by a gang of military criminals. It was like traveling behind the Iron Curtain before the fall of the Soviet Union (which I have also done).

When Burma is free, fifty million people will finally see an end to forty-plus years of repression and tyranny. (Think of the joy as thousands and thousands of families are finally reunited.) This in itself will be more than enough reward for the years of hard effort that followed, and which so many other people have devoted as well, but it is not the only reason why I care.

Dictator Watch is dedicated to the preservation of value, and we further believe that value lies in diversity, both cultural and environmental. Burma, lying at the end of the Himalayan mountain chain, is both a cultural and biodiversity hotspot, and this must be saved. The world will be a far poorer place if Burma’s extraordinary range of human cultures, and natural habitats, are destroyed.

In addition, Burma is what is called a Least Developed Nation, although few people realize that this is actually one of its strengths. Burma has yet to proceed through the modern industrial-technological development cycle, which when implemented in most places, certainly rural Asia (witness both Thailand and China), has been horrendously destructive of both traditional culture and the environment. The people of Burma, when they are free, will have the opportunity to say no to this development model (and its proponents such as the World Bank, IMF, World Trade Organization, and various national embassies and chambers of commerce). They can learn from the mistakes of others and create their own approach, one that puts “economic development” in its proper place, meaning that economic objectives are pursued only after social and political goals have been achieved, and also only when such objectives are not destructive of these goals. (Please see our article, Development in Burma.)

Burma also has a good possibility to build a well-functioning federal democracy. Because the democracy resistance has been active for so long, individuals from the country’s various ethnic groups have had the chance to work together, over a period of many years, and develop positive relationships with each other. There is significant unity around a common cause, which unity can and should survive the democratic transition, including through a willingness to compromise for the good of all. Indeed, as with development Burma can become a world leader in democracy. The political system of democracy is of recent invention (in a modern context, not excepting the Greek and other antecedents), one which humanity is still struggling to understand and implement. The people of Burma can learn from the experiences of others, and establish their own unique system, tailored to their specific situation and concerns. Through this Burma can not only help reinvent our approach to development, it can lead the evolution of democracy as well.

Lastly, a democratic Burma will have profound positive consequences throughout the region if not the world. The possibilities are so great that they are difficult to grasp. Burma will set an example which the leaders of its neighbors, most importantly India and China, at the urging of their publics, will be compelled to emulate. The consequences of a democratic China and India (for the latter, without a caste system) on the world social order would be immeasurable.

Why now

The above is what we will not achieve if the SPDC and its supporters win. This is the dream that we are on the verge of losing.

The obvious answer to the question of why now is that the abuses the SPDC are committing are intolerable. They have to end. Now!

The problem is that the International Community does not see it this way. Everyone, at least everyone reasonable, agrees that the junta is absolutely hideous, yet no one does anything about it. This failure to act is no longer simply unconscionable; it’s positively surreal. You get the feeling that the worse the generals are, the less inclined the world, starting with the United Nations, will be to do anything about it.

The position of the International Community on the SPDC can succinctly be described as: Who cares. The SPDC is a leading dealer of narcotics. Who cares. It tortures political prisoners. Who cares. It has a systematic campaign to rape ethnic minority women. Who cares. It is committing ethnic cleansing and even genocide. Who cares.

Burma is a failed state, yet not even an international arms embargo has been imposed. The United Nations accepts the junta, and the nations of the world accept its “Ambassadors,” acting as if they are legitimate envoys when they are really nothing less than gangsters. (And of the worst sort: all such ambassadors are in Military Intelligence, which is the arm of the junta that tortures political prisoners.)

As I’ve written before, one even questions the sincerity of the only party that has spoken up: the United States. Is the U.S. making a show of caring? Are they talking tough, but meanwhile, behind closed doors, saying the opposite? Have they said to China and Asean: “We’re going to say some strong things about Burma; just roll with it and do what you want. We understand, and accept, that it’s your business. Our policy is also non-interference in the affairs of others (unless they have something we want!).”

Personally, I don’t believe this is the case, but we need more than words as proof.

The American Revolution was in response to “taxation without representation,” which is far less a complaint than the abuses the Burmese suffer. The U.S. also had the support of the Marquis de Lafayette and the French. The U.S. should serve a similar role in Burma, which the people of the country will no doubt receive with sincere and long-lasting appreciation.

This also exposes the logical flaw and moral bankruptcy of non-interference, which implies that there is never a situation where you are compelled to act. The SPDC could start to kill every single person in Burma, indeed, every living thing, and some parties, certainly Thailand under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, would still stick to non-interference. The irony of course is that the policy also implies that you don’t want others to help when something terrible happens to you. (Why did Thaksin accept foreign interference, i.e., aid for the tsunami victims? Wasn’t this inconsistent, and hypocritical?)

There’s another reason as well why we have to have freedom for Burma now. Five years ago, the gross human rights offenses and environmental destruction committed by the SPDC were inadequately documented. This is no longer the case. Through the efforts of many, many human rights and environmental groups, and journalists, these crimes have been precisely described and are widely recognized. This documentation in turn has been used to create substantial pressure on the junta, as evidenced by their being denied the chairmanship of Asean.

The time for documentation is over. We are at a decisive point. We need action, and change, and we need it now. We can’t let the SPDC survive. We can’t let this period of effort be inconclusive and be forced to start again. It is completely unacceptable that even one year from now – 2006 is the year for freedom! – that we begin preparing new torture and rape reports, IDP relief missions, etc.

How to win freedom for Burma

I have long argued that the key for Burma is to create a feedback cycle between the actions of democracy freedom fighters inside the country and Burma activists and supporting parties outside. Under this plan we on the outside create pressure, which encourages the Burmese public to rise up. Their actions inside then motivate us to do more. The people of Burma in turn see our increasing support and escalate their defiance. This cycle continues until the SPDC’s breaking point is reached.

On consideration, it is evident that we can refine this scenario, and also address the barriers that have prevented it from unfolding to-date.

Since the world refuses to help, on the ground inside Burma, the people are going to have to initiate the cycle. Fortunately, overt public dissatisfaction with the regime has developed and it is clear that the time is now opportune. The generals, as their move to Pyinmana illustrates, are afraid. They have seen the ministries in other countries invaded by the public, and the photos of other dictators thrown out of the windows and burned. Their solution, which is rather naïve, is to move their ministries: no buildings to take over somehow equates to no possibility of revolution.

The revolution in Burma, though, must be intelligent. There is no need for the people to immediately take to the streets. Recent years have seen a number of individuals conduct public demonstrations in the country, where they fully expected to get arrested (and were). These individuals were incredibly courageous and heroic. However, the time for this type of tactic has passed.

The prime directive for everyone in Burma who wants to participate in the revolution should be: Don’t get caught! We need a period of widespread subversion and even sabotage, with as few arrests as possible. The goal should be to increase the pressure, greatly, on the SPDC, and also on its foreign cronies. As the cycle progresses we want to first strip away the SPDC’s most important external supporters, Thailand, Russia and China, leaving the junta exposed and alone. At the same time, there should be widespread appeals to ordinary soldiers in the Burma Army to join the movement (rather than follow orders to resist it), including by deserting their posts. Only then will the stage be set for a massive public uprising.

A critical issue is one of leadership. The Burmese people themselves must address the question of why a new generation of revolutionary leaders is not emerging. Burma needs widespread popular resistance, driven by many individuals – many such leaders. It should not be reliant on one dominant individual. The murder of Aung San, and the indefinite house arrest of his daughter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, clearly illustrate the risks with this approach.

Similarly, the ethnic self-defense forces must reinvigorate their struggle. To mention a few such groups:

- The New Mon State Party should listen to the Mon people and abandon their ceasefire.
- The Shan groups should patch up their differences, unite against the SPDC, and also approach the Wa.
- The Karen should put their ceasefire and development hopes behind them, recognize that freedom and democracy must come first, and unite to this end. Through such steps they will also resume their leadership role for the other ethnic groups.
- As for the Kachin, the leadership of most factions have surrendered and become corrupt. They are effectively SPDC, and should be treated as such.

On the outside, the International Community must recognize the absurdity of its position. The SPDC has even had the audacity to blame the NLD, saying that it is the NLD’s demands for democracy that are somehow preventing democracy. There have been no international objections to this. Similarly, the ILO has accepted death threats against its representatives.

Under the SPDC Roadmap there will not be a Constitution, or an election, or democracy. This is propaganda to create false hopes and to give the cronies, most importantly, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan, ammunition for their arguments to forestall real action.

The time has come to deport the gangster representatives, including from the U.N. and the national embassies, and to impose a worldwide arms embargo. Then, the three major supporters must be confronted. The first of these should be Russia, and here the U.S. can prove it is sincere. Russia has blocked Security Council action both on Iran and Burma. This is unacceptable. In the world of international geopolitics, the U.S. must use its influence to get Russia to back down on Burma.

For Thailand and China, the argument is simple. Currently, they benefit from the status quo in Burma in a number of ways. For example, the country is a source of natural resources to both, and for Thailand, of cheap labor. However, the conduits through which such resources are supplied are inefficient, benefiting only the corrupt cliques that direct the exploitation. Burma also undermines regional stability and projects numerous social problems, including spillover conflict, refugees, and criminal syndicates that trade in people and narcotics. It draws unwanted scrutiny and censure from the West as well.

The future of East Asia is now clearly established. China, Thailand and the other countries in the region are committed to open and legitimate economic development and trade. While there is a residual unwillingness to yield authoritarian political structures and traditions, the embrace of capitalism (although this is poorly conceived and completely unregulated) is clear.

A free Burma, even a Burma that very carefully and systematically reviews its development options, would be an additional catalyst to the region’s already strong prospects, which is a benefit that China and Thailand should readily grasp. As it stands now, the country is an economic cripple, holding the region back.

With sufficient diplomatic pressure from the nations of the world, these are arguments that can easily be advanced. Thai and Chinese support for the SPDC can be reversed.

Finally, as the popular revolution takes off, the International Community must speak loudly in support of it; warn the SPDC that a violent reaction will not be accepted and that it will be punished, militarily (this would be similar to the assurances that have been given by the U.S. to Taiwan); and work diligently to contact the revolutionary leaders and offer them every possible support.