Friday, 8 August 2008

Bush, Beijing and Burma

the Irrawaddy News

One day before the Beijing Olympics begin, President George W Bush and first lady Laura Bush meet with Burmese democracy activists in Thailand. The trip rightly draws attention to a matter China prefers the world would ignore—it’s propping up of one of the world's most brutal military dictatorships.

The trip also calls into question those in the United States, European Union and many countries in Asia who have for some years placed great hope in the idea that China will assume the role of a "responsible stakeholder" as it is increasingly integrated in the international community.

In the case of Burma, these hopes couldn't be more divorced from reality. China serves as Burma's financial, political, military and diplomatic backbone, working actively to derail international efforts at change. Without China’s help, the regime would have been forced into peaceful negotiations many years ago.

The stakes couldn't be higher for the Burmese people. While not as well-known as Idi Amin, Omar Al-Bashir, Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, Burma's dictator Than Shwe rightly belongs in a rogue’s gallery of the worst dictators in history. Among other abuses, Than Shwe has locked up nearly 2,000 political prisoners, along with the world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Aung San Suu Kyi.

He has ordered and carried out the destruction of a staggering 3,200 ethnic minority villages in Burma, forcing millions to flee as refugees and internally displaced people. To put this in a comparative perspective, this is twice as many villages as have been destroyed by Bashir's Janjaweed in Darfur. To make matters worse, when Buddhist monks marched on the streets in Burma last September calling for peace in the country, Than Shwe ordered his troops to shoot directly at the monks. Many monks were killed; many more were arrested, disrobed and tortured, along with leading dissidents and human rights activists.

I can personally testify to the horrors of Than Shwe's prison gulags. I was arrested and then imprisoned in Burma for more than four years, during which time I experienced firsthand many of the Burmese military regime's torture tactics. Severe beatings, starvation and electrocution are the order of the day. I still have nightmares about what happens behind Burma's bamboo curtain.

Many modern dictators who carry out atrocities on this scale are immediately faced with action from the United Nations. Peacekeepers may be dispatched, the UN Security Council might demand changes or a global arms embargo could be put in place. Yet, China has prevented any meaningful action at the UN via its veto power at the Security Council.

When France, the UK and the United States proposed a non-binding resolution in early 2007 that called on Than Shwe's regime to end its attacks against the Burmese people and engage in peaceful negotiations with the democracy movement, China vetoed the move.

When the military regime opened fire on the Buddhist monks, China permitted a truncated UN Security Council statement calling for change in Burma, only to backpedal the very same day.

Beyond stifling UN efforts at jump-starting peaceful negotiations in Burma, China has served as Than Shwe's key supplier of weapons for more than two decades, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, fighter jets, attack aircraft, coastal patrol ships, small arms and light weapons. With Chinese arms and military equipment, Burma's regime has quadrupled the size of its forces to 450,000 soldiers.

In return, Burma has granted China sweetheart deals on natural gas extraction. By some estimates, the Burmese regime ignored a superior Indian offer by $8.4 billion for
Burmese natural gas; the cheaper deal went instead to China. Unlike China, India can offer no respite to the regime from the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, the regime continues to plead for international humanitarian aid, shockingly siphoning off 10 to 15 percent for itself. Even after Cyclone Nargis recently devastated much of Southwestern Burma, the regime continued to line its own pockets, stealing millions of dollars in foreign assistance intended to help the most needed.

The President and first lady should raise these issues with President Hu Jintao when they arrive in China on August 8th, the 20-year anniversary of a massive popular uprising in Burma and the opening day of the Beijing Olympics.

Specifically, the President should ask President Hu to inform the Burmese military regime that unless Than Shwe enters into serious three-way negotiations with Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's ethnic minorities, China will end its support for the Burmese dictator at the UN Security Council.

We hope the Bush meeting with Burmese dissidents—many of whom have been through hell in their peaceful struggle for democracy—will inspire him to press China to play the "responsible" role that the modern world expects.

Aung Din is the executive director of the US Campaign for Burma. A former political prisoner in Burma, he served more than four years imprisonment.

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