Contact: Roland Watson, roland@dictatorwatch.org


August 8, 2006

Please forward.

Note: We have posted a compilation of the photography from June and July Free Burma Rangers mission reports.

Recent events have raised the risk that the Burma Democracy Movement will be split along a number of fault lines. The issue of economic sanctions against the SPDC has once again surfaced, with some people arguing that they should not be used. These people apparently, or conveniently, forget that the leaders of the democratically elected government of Burma, the National League for Democracy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, have called for sanctions.

Freedom of expression should be guaranteed everywhere, certainly in a pro-democracy movement. If someone wants to argue that sanctions are unwise, that is his or her right. But they should also understand that the NLD has decided that sanctions are appropriate, and more generally that as much international pressure as possible should be applied to Than Shwe. It is difficult to understand why, other than from pro-SPDC elements, anyone would oppose this.

The basic argument for sanctions, once again, is that it is unethical to do business with murderers. Than Shwe and his gang are mass murderers. It is a sad testament that modern social institutions – governments and corporations (and leading university academics) – regularly ignore this. This clearly signals how far we are from the goal of a just and selfless global society.

It is of course also essential to stop economic engagement for practical reasons. International investment and trade strengthen the regime and allow it to buy more weapons to repress the Burmese people. But this is a secondary concern relative to the first fundamental principle. (If social institutions and their leaders were principled, we wouldn’t have to worry about the practical consequences of their immorality.) Further, it is debatable to what extent the restrictions actually harm the general public.

For freedom and democracy, what is needed is more pressure, not less. That to-date it has been difficult to organize such pressure should not lead us to discard what we have. We have economic sanctions (but only from the U.S.); diplomatic leadership against the SPDC, also from the U.S.; public disapproval of the generals by the EU and ASEAN (which formerly refused even to condemn the junta); and momentum towards formal Security Council proceedings. This is not insignificant. We should not let the fact that it has been a long and hard struggle, and that many people are tired, distract us from this success. (Finland’s invitation to the SPDC, which implies that Europe’s visa ban is not in fact a “ban,” is an unprecedented diplomatic betrayal.)

Many people in the movement are tired. They are “burned out.” I would advise that they take a break – some time off. The problem, though, is that this includes prominent individuals at important pro-democracy groups, who think they can’t leave since this means they would lose their income. Instead, they hold onto their positions, and pursue only timid initiatives, at the same time blocking younger and more aggressive individuals who, were they in charge, would reinvigorate the struggle.

The blockade of new leadership is a difficult problem. One way to address it is to contact the foundations that fund such groups and ask for a change, as happened recently with VOA’s Burma service.

Periodic leadership change is vital. This is one of the reasons for term limits, which to my knowledge are not applied in any Burma pro-democracy organizations.

The issue of sanctions also raises the question of our overall strategy. Some groups, Dictator Watch among them, advocate empowering the people of Burma to directly confront the generals. We view this as the best way to create additional pressure. Others want to concentrate on the international sphere and diplomatic objectives, including Security Council proceedings; expulsion from ASEAN; pressure on China, Russia, Thailand, India and Japan, etc. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Everyone should feel free to pursue the avenue they prefer (or both).

Most of the large Burma democracy groups are pro-engagement (meaning “diplomatic engagement”). Nineteen leading organizations recently published an article declaring this. However, it also appears that they are against a new popular uprising. They certainly never issue statements in support of one.

They apparently believe that it is possible to negotiate a democratic transition without additional pressure from within the country. This is dangerously naïve, and ill-informed, since it ignores the testament of history. You cannot bargain with people like Than Shwe. They can only be defeated outright, or pressured to such a degree (by the people of the country, or through an international military intervention) that they are forced to sue for peace.

If the democracy movement relies solely on diplomatic engagement, Burma will never be free.

A final set of fault lines exists within Burma’s ethnic nationalities. They mirror the situation in the overall movement. With the largest ethnic nationalities, there are schisms between groups that have joined the SPDC, or are now considering it, and groups that continue the fight for freedom. The difference though is that the first are traitors. Freedom of expression and association does not extend to conspiring with the enemy.

This is the correct characterization. Burma is at war, a war by the SPDC against the people. Than Shwe and his fellow generals are the enemy. Anyone who sides with them, publicly, secretly or even unwittingly, has joined the enemy and should be treated as such.