Roland Watson
September 28, 2007

The people of Burma, led by Buddhist monks, have been marching in the streets calling for political change. They have been completely non-violent. The country’s military junta has responded with a murderous crackdown.

What this illustrates is that the nature of the tyrant sets the tone for the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Some dictators, such as Suharto in Indonesia, reach the stage where they have robbed their country enough, and without the need for extreme measures are willing to relent. Others, though, like Adolph Hitler, and now Than Shwe of Burma, can only be driven from power by force.

The people of Burma tried the route of non-violence. Had the demonstrators been backed by appropriate assistance from the international community, and joined quickly by the rank and file Tatmadaw, this would have been sufficient to remove the SPDC.

Over the years some foreign observers, both commentators and diplomats, have complained that the people did not fight for their rights. However, in making this judgment they applied their own standards and assumed that the country should be like the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa or Central America, where popular revolutions generally are violent. I have been indirectly guilty of this as well, because I advocated more aggressive means.

I now understand that the people don’t fight back, they haven’t resorted to violence – except for the ethnic armies, which have no choice due to the need for an active self-defense – because Burma is a land of gentle, peaceful people. It is not in their nature to be violent revolutionaries, nor should they have to be.

The character of the people of Burma is extremely positive. They are deserving of the world’s assistance. They should not have to fit some pre-defined model, before the international community pays attention.

As to the soldiers who are willing to kill on Than Shwe’s orders, they are no longer Burmese. They are brainwashed psychopaths, who have lost all connection to reality.

Another problem with the world, and this is going to sound cynical, but it’s not, is that it is all about money. As long as the SPDC could guarantee the flow of Burma’s natural resource wealth, it got support. Other countries might have complained about the associated repression and poverty, but this was for public consumption only. As long as the money continued to arrive, there were no real objections. Now that the junta’s ability to continue to do this is in doubt, though, this support is wavering.

The dominant theory and practice in international relations is known as “realism,” and it has three major elements. First, the world is viewed as being inherently chaotic. This does not mean that there is widespread anarchy. Instead, it refers to the fact that there is no overall governing authority, quite literally no adult watching over all the squabbling children in the sandbox.

Secondly, the only legitimate participants in the international system are nation-states. The interests of the many other groups of what is now a growing international political society are secondary, if they even receive consideration at all. This is underscored by the fact that membership in the dominant international organization, the U.N., is for nations only.

Related to this, national sovereignty is considered supreme. Individual nations are considered to have the right to do literally anything that they want within their own borders. On this basis, other countries then follow what is called the principle of non-interference.

Thirdly, nations only act in their own selfish interests. They compete with all other countries in what is effectively a zero-sum game. If someone wins, another loses. Even when nations cooperate, this is only because it serves their perceived interests, not because it is the right thing to do, in and of itself. Also, there is the question of whose interests “national interests” really serve. Nowadays, this is inevitably biased towards the personal agendas of political leaders, and their corporate sponsors.

The recent developments in Burma, though, are forcing adjustments to the realist status quo. Because of the peaceful leadership of the monks, the nations of the world, and also Than Shwe and the SPDC, are being backed into a corner. China would much rather the junta stay in power, but the threat to its Olympics is so severe now that it will be forced to act. In the coming days its position will develop from, “You’re on your own,” to “Your time is up; You have to accept this; Come to Beijing, or move to Singapore.”

The U.S., specifically George Bush, is also in a corner. He has called Burma an outrage, and more generally made the struggle for freedom around the world his international platform for his last year in office. The U.S. is no doubt pushing China hard. Now that Than Shwe has unleashed the Army, Bush has to act. Not to do so will make him, in the eyes of America and the world, a hypocrite and a wimp. As unlikely as it sounds, the military option is not out of the question. The SPDC would be a pushover. The involvement of the U.S. military in a true liberation success would not only burnish its image; it would divert attention from Iraq.

The Republicans, to have any chance at all in next year’s elections, need some sort of international victory on which to hang their hats.

Than Shwe is in a corner as well. He is trying to put the genie back in the bottle. He has decided to fight it out. (He may also be reserving the option to flee, as his wife reportedly is already in Singapore.)

Than Shwe has previously demonstrated that he has no qualms about killing Karen, Karenni and Shan people. He is an ultra-nationalist: a racist. It is now clear that he is willing to kill his own ethnicity as well, even monks. He fancies himself a king. If so, he is the king who slaughters his own people.

He has given the order to fire, but it is not yet a massacre. It is likely that other generals are urging restraint. Among the top officers, prosecution for war crimes must be an ever-present anxiety. If he pushes hard enough, they could easily decide to topple him.

Because he is not willing to back down, the people may have to escalate. The only alternative to this is if the international community does act. To date Burma has not been viewed as urgent. The interests of other nations are not yet seriously threatened. Than Shwe is saying that he can still keep up his end of the bargain: the rape of the country.

Ultimately, it’s all about money. If the SPDC can no longer be trusted to deliver Burma’s wealth, the international community will find someone else, if necessary even a democratic government, to do the job. But, it would much prefer not to. There are many, many established interests at stake, all of which would have to be renegotiated, and which could easily be lost, if Burma goes free.

When the people of Burma ask, why won’t the world help, this is the explanation: the “real” reason. It applies to Sudan and other dictatorships as well. Its overall implication is bleak: The people will have to free themselves. They will have to do whatever it takes to defeat the SPDC.