But, Joshua Kurlantzick at TNR argues it is not enough, as police in Yangon fired shots over protesting monks’ heads and arrested over 300.
The reason, as in 1988, is China.
Many Western powers believe that China, the most important foreign actor in Burma, can be convinced to withdraw its blanket backing for the junta. In a British cable earlier this year obtained by The New Republic, British diplomats argue “China is closer than any other country to Burma’s military regime … China’s interests had changed in Burma. They [are] investing heavily and want to see a return on their investment … There may be an opportunity to persuade China that it is in their interest to see a stable and developing Burma.” Indeed, some of this week’s Burma protests have signaled popular anger at China as well, with demonstrators pointedly going by the Chinese embassy; several Burmese previously told me of kidnappings of Chinese businesspeople in the north of the country. Recently, according to AFP, senior Chinese official Tang Jiaxuan offered a gentle rebuke to the Burmese junta, telling its foreign minister that “China sincerely hopes that Myanmar can bring stability back to its domestic situation.”
Yet beyond these words, China has done little. It still has not thrown its support for tougher U.N. action against Burma. Unlike in North Korea, where China cut off some types of aid when trying to pressure Pyongyang to come to the bargaining table, Beijing has taken no such apparent actions towards the Burmese. Meanwhile, placing so much trust in China conceals the fact that there are still steps other nations can take on Burma. India and Thailand could at least demonstrate greater concern for the protestors, signaling to the Burmese junta there might be some consequences from neighbors if they crack down. The U.S. could appoint a special coordinator on Burma, thus placing more pressure on the U.N.’s coordinator and on China. While meeting with Chinese officials the White House also could more publicly call for specific actions from Beijing on Burma.
Apparently convinced they’d risk no serious sanction, in September 1988 the Burmese military stepped in, staging a kind of auto-coup. In the course of suppressing protests, Burmese troops killed as many as three-thousand people. Today, similar fears are rising. More soldiers reportedly are taking positions in Rangoon, and the regime reportedly is recruiting criminals, possibly to infiltrate protests and cause havoc, a tactic utilized in 1988. Burmese opposition radio has reported rumors that senior junta leader Than Shwe has ordered that authorities can use violence to squash demonstrations. Twenty years on, 1988 looks nearer than ever.
After calling attention to Beijing’s footprint in Myanmar, the Christian Science Monitor calls on China to do the right thing:
China does itself no favors by associating itself – and thus implicitly equating itself – with such a regime. There is a clear difference between the many regimes in the world that deny their citizens democracy and the smaller number that deny their citizens everything. China belongs in the first category, while Burma belongs in the second. Regimes such as China’s may deserve sustained criticism, but regimes such as Burma’s deserve immediate intervention.
China has already gained global plaudits and prestige by withdrawing its blanket diplomatic support for North Korea. It is high time to do the same with Burma. Such a move would mute external criticism, not embolden it. (And Burma’s lucrative natural resources will still be there for China to tap into when the junta eventually falls from power.)
Until Chinese leaders start distinguishing their own relatively successful regime from the unmitigated disaster that is Burma’s, the human-rights protesters on their doorsteps can hardly be blamed for not discerning the difference.
Though some accuse the monks of being pawns of extremist groups, and some others accuse the monks of being hypocritical because some of their leaders sometimes ceremonially “sit in golden chairs” (each temple often has chairs given by the populace that are anywhere from simple to fancy) it is unlikely that such accusation hold much sway. More sturdy is that this could be China?s chance, despite multiple motives, to show how humane they can be by staying the Burmese government?s violent reactions to the protesters. It could be a chance for the United States to stand up for a people who dearly seem to want a rock-solid democracy instead of a mock democracy?as their government keeps averring they have a stepped plan for a democracy? some day. It would be a chance for the Burmese government to take down its armored bunker mentality and become a governing body instead of an exploitative one.
But, Myanmar’s rulers have two other powerful weapons, 400,000 soldiers and one idea.
The Myanmar junta blames foreign economic sanctions for the nation?s poverty, and foreign meddling for the persistence of political opposition, including the current demonstrations.
The junta is led by a tough and taciturn military man, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, 74, a frequent, stolid, uniformed presence on the front pages of government-controlled newspapers.
General Than Shwe gave a taste of his worldview at a national day celebration in March in which he said, “Judging from lessons of history, it is certain that powerful countries wishing to impose their influence on our nation will make any attempt in various ways to undermine national unity.”
He vowed to “crush, hand in hand with the entire people, every danger of internal and external destructive elements obstructing the stability and development of the state.”
Against all that, China, soldiers, and xenophobia, the monks ha
ve an uphill battle.