Burma uprising: Time for China to switch sides
There have been many miscalculations by Burma’s military regime in recent days. Leaving aside the long-term reduction of one of Asia’s richer countries to penury, the decision to quintuple fuel prices in August was as gross an error of judgment as the subsequent handling of the protests it provoked. If an unloved regime is to maintain itself through repression, it needs to stamp out protest quickly. Having failed to do that, the regime now faces the full-blooded participation of the last, relatively untouched, organised sector in the country outside the military itself — the Buddhist church, which has thrown its great moral weight behind a determined effort to bring the military rule to an end.
We are now in unknown territory. However tempting, it may be too late to resort to shooting, as the military did with impunity in 1988. The question is how the regime can be persuaded that the price of repression now would be too high. Burma has proved indifferent to international pressure: it has survived as an international pariah for years and sanctions imposed by the US have had no effect; calls for the release of National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi have fallen on deaf ears. Why, then, should it be different this time? The main difference is in the role of China, Burma’s major trading partner and the principal protector of the regime.
So far, China, with the support of Russia, has blocked international attempts to bring the regime into line: nine months ago, China and Russia vetoed a UN security council resolution that sought to empower the UN secretary general to negotiate with the Burmese regime, and China has undermined three Asian diplomatic efforts — by Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia — to secure the release of Suu Kyi.
China has sustained the Burmese military with generous support; Chinese aid has built transport infrastructure and dams; Chinese investment gives Beijing
a stake in key sectors of Burma’s economy. Why, then, is China now being cited as
a restraining influence? China’s default diplomatic position is that it does not “interfere” in the domestic politics of other countries — one might add, especially where supplies of energy and natural resources or strategic issues are involved. Beijing is averse to lectures on human rights and democracy at home, so naturally disinclined to deliver them abroad.
But China is now faced with the fact that the high diplomatic profile that goes with greater global power exposes it to new pressures to uphold international standards, and that if the country is to continue to sell her ascent to global superpower status as unthreatening, close partnerships with unsavoury regimes can produce undesirable blowback. China’s previous intransigence on Darfur melted when campaigners married the Beijing Olympic games to China’s support for the Sudanese regime to produce the slogan “Genocide Olympics”. China suddenly found it convenient to send an envoy to Sudan and to play a more constructive role in multilateral efforts to resolve the crisis. A similar pressure is building over Burma.
For Beijing, the sight of tens of thousands of citizens in peaceful street protests led by Buddhist monks is little short of a nightmare, since China has its own potentially explosive combinations of religious and civil dissent: Buddhist monks in Tibet, Muslims in Xinjiang, even Falun Gong practitioners at home — all lay claim to the moral authority to challenge a corrupt and self-seeking autocracy. The sight of mass civic demonstrations in pursuit of political reform recalls both 1989’s Tiananmen Square and 1979’s Democracy Wall.
A bloodbath in Burma, given China’s close identification with the dictatorship, would resonate like a Tiananmen Square massacre by proxy, just as Beijing is polishing the silver for next year’s Olympics. For China negotiation is infinitely preferable to bloodshed and the instability that could result. The difficulty is that the Burmese regime’s inept initial response has complicated both options: repression is now too costly, but the moment for negotiation may have passed. The placards on the street now call for nothing less than the departure of the military from power.
Such an outcome remains unlikely: in the last decades the regime has dismantled any alternative power structures in Burma. The most intact organisation remains the party of their most hated opponent, Suu Kyi, who is their last choice of interlocutor. They fear, rightly, that the release of Suu Kyi would further stimulate popular demand for the regime’s overthrow.
But that is a bullet they have to bite. There is no long-term settlement without Suu Kyi and it is in the interests of all concerned, including the military, to negotiate an orderly transition. If China’s goals are the protection of investments, and regional stability, it is time it realised those are best achieved not by propping up unstable dictatorships but by supporting a peaceful transition to constitutional government. — The Guardian