On Burma, A Phony Realism

By Fred Hiatt (THE WASHINGTON POST, 27/10/08):

Almost a year ago, a Buddhist monk on the run from authorities published an op-ed in The Post advocating democracy for his Southeast Asian nation of Burma.

«It matters little if my life or the lives of colleagues should be sacrificed on this journey,» U Gambira wrote, describing the nonviolent campaign for freedom. «Others will fill our sandals, and more will join and follow.»

As he wrote, the regime already had arrested his father and brother, holding them as hostages to flush him out. It found and arrested him on the same day — Nov. 4 — that his article appeared.

Since then, U Gambira (a pseudonym; his real name is U Sandawbartha) has been forcibly deprived of his monastic robes and tortured in Burma’s notorious Insein Prison. A half-dozen other members of his family have been arrested or forced into internal exile. At age 29, he has been charged with «crimes» that could bring years in prison.

I thought of U Gambira’s case as I read a report published last week by the International Crisis Group that is part of a swelling campaign urging the United States and other nations to engage with Burma’s government, end many sanctions against the country and ratchet up humanitarian aid.

«Rather than shunning the authorities, the best way to help the people is to involve government officials at all levels and enlist their cooperation and support,» the report suggests.

ICG is a nonprofit «working to prevent conflict worldwide,» led by heavyweight former diplomats and government officials, and its latest report on Burma makes many good points. It argues that current policy has brought neither democracy nor prosperity to Burma’s 50 million people, and so it should be rethought. It praises the regime for allowing international aid to flow, admittedly after some delay, to victims of last spring’s Cyclone Nargis.

What’s curious, though, for a report advocating the supposedly pragmatic, realistic view, is how bloodless and detached from reality it is — as if Burma were just another ineptly governed Third World nation. «Government restrictions and intrusiveness» are a problem, it says, «as in many developing countries.»

You could read it, in other words, and not know that during this past year of supposed progress, the number of political prisoners has doubled, to more than 2,100 (including 21 in prison for attempting to help cyclone victims without government permission). Or that while permitting some aid to flow to the Irrawaddy Delta in one part of the country, the Burmese army has been waging a war in eastern Burma so directly targeted at civilians that in June Amnesty International accused it of crimes against humanity. Or that Reporters Without Borders, in its just-released index of media freedom, found Burma to be the world’s fourth-worst (better only than Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea). The significance of that is not just the danger to Burmese journalists of honest reporting but the difficulty for the rest of us of knowing how bad conditions really are.

And you might not realize that organizations have curtailed aid in the past, not just because of politics in the West but because they couldn’t prevent the regime and its pervasive network of secret police and front organizations from stealing money or using aid to further its political goals.

There’s nothing new in the dispute between human rights and pro-democracy organizations, on the one hand, and aid-giving groups and foreign policy experts, on the other. When it comes to Burma, President Bush has identified with the democracy camp — the ICG report lambastes Laura Bush and others for «megaphone diplomacy» — and so has Sen. John McCain. Sen. Barack Obama’s record is shorter, and the «realists» may think they have a chance with him.

But how realistic is that hope? Just last June, on the birthday of Burma’s confined democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Obama promised to honor her «the way she would want it done: by honoring the people of Burma, and keeping faith with them in their struggle for freedom, justice and democracy.»

The ICG report offers many recommendations to the United Nations, donors and the West. But it has only three for Burma, none of which — though the report acknowledges that «human rights abuses are a major contributor to poverty» — has anything to do with easing repression. Meanwhile, it calls on grass-roots groups in the West to «cease ongoing consumer boycotts.»

A policy rethink may be in order. But the idea that voters in Western democracies would support buckets of aid to a loathsome regime, delivered without political conditions and with a willing suspension of grass-roots pressure — how realistic is that? You might almost say it’s naive.