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When an army shoots its own… Burma, sovereignty and the left… October 1, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Burma, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, The Left.

From the Lebanon last year, Darfur, this year and last, and now Burma there appears to be little one can actually do to shift, even minimally, the course that the present is taking.

Why no International Brigades? Why no assistance? Why too much rhetorical hand wringing from the left?

I’m being unfair, and I know it. The situation in Burma is difficult. Everyone concedes this. Timothy Garton-Ash, who I have a soft spot for, despite his being an almost implausibly centrist liberal, agrees that there is little to be done. Burma is far away. The economic and political levers available don’t stretch that far.

And let’s not be shy about it. Chinese and Indian expansionism play their part too. Burma, or rather the junta (why credit it with the term government?), is a client of the former, or perhaps close associate might be a better term. There is oil in Burma, but its tied up in concessions to the last great transcontinental nominally Marxist state. Well done everyone. A great step forward for the Burmese people.

This site, amongst many, called the silence on the part of the US and UK over the Israeli incursions in the Lebanon last year disgraceful. Pointed to their complete abrogation of responsibility in influence. They had the power to at least rein in an Israeli offensive that on any terms at all was stupidly counter-productive. So, let’s do a little more finger pointing. Fine words from the White House are insufficient. Realpolitik will prevail.

I hate to drag everything back to Iraq, but one thing that worries me is that the necessary criticism of the US and UK over that has led to a criticism and energy fatigue on the left. So much energy has been expended in decrying the appalling shambles of the invasion and aftermath that there is little enough left to deal with other issues. I’m not positing this in the old, ‘why won’t you march about Darfur?’ way that is used a stick to beat people, but simply to observe that both tactically and strategically it makes good sense to keep some by.

I also think a serious debate has to open up about how the Left deals with issues of state sovereignty, how it tackles oppression within states and how it can best assist those who need assistance. The concentration on national sovereignty strikes me as understandable, as a response to globalisation, as an offshoot of Leninist thinking and in the hope that promising left experiments are protected from neo-liberalism and the winds of the global economy, but it is also something that require considerable nuance. It’s not enough to see sovereignty as the final word on any issue. That consigns peoples to regimes of ineradicable awfulness. We become in effect spectators at arbitrary borders (and all borders are arbitrary) looking in and on. However, nor is it enough to argue that military action is the only way forward. In fact bar a limited number of examples we can be fairly certain that it is indeed generally the worst possible way forward.

Splintered Sunrise pointed to a very very sensible blog on this topic , and this interestingly echoes what was said on KCRW’s To The Point the other day which provides a revealing insight into thinking on foreign affairs inside the US. A couple of points struck me very forcibly. James Lilley, former US ambassador to South Korea and China, was, perhaps predictably rather optimistic about the moral authority of the US on this issue. His perception that Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib paled into insignificance besides the organised killings by Sunni and Shia. Perhaps he is right. Yet, I can’t help feeling that that is too realpolitik a reading of the situation for the US. The point isn’t that the US is equivalent in its actions, but that it should always be better if one is to take its own rhetoric at face value. The host, Warren Olmy, asked what else could be done by the US (and let’s be honest Europe as well) beyond sanctions and denunciations.

Dan Slater, Asst. Professor at the Dept. of Political Science at the University of Chicago said the US and by extension Europe can’t be in the lead (although we’ll return to the latter in a moment) and the sanctions will not have very much effect. He had noted that ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) was surprisingly critical statement of Burma and the expression of revulsion by authoritarian states such as Singapore and Vietnam indicated just how ‘far beyond the pale’ the Burmese regime was. He also noted that the regime ‘ had not had a restrained reaction as some say but terrible levels of force were being used’.

He disagreed entirely with Lily’s viewpoint, and thought it was sad that Lilley had to make an argument contrasting the US with Sunni or Al-Queda death squads.

Interestingly Simon Long, Asia Editor of the Economist, agreed with Slater that attention will swing towards ASEAN. The US had played itself out of the game, it has no economic or other leverage over the regime and its neighbours and Europe and Japan have, to some degree, filled the gap.

Slater also there is no clear analogy to any other regime in the world. In a poignant note he suggested that:

Military regimes give up power all over the world and we shouldn’t be despairing. The use of force shouldn’t lead to a belief it can’t split. We should acknowledge the bravery and courage of the demonstrators putting their lives on the line for what cultural relativists seem to think is only a western idea…

The last statement of his is interesting because he was deeply deeply critical of US policy in Iraq.

But then, what is to be done? I’ve mentioned before that the United Nations is in the process of considering these issues in the context of the ‘Larger Freedoms’ report although considering the urgency of these matters it is taking an unconscionable time about it. The UN itself is a far from perfect agency (in every sense of the word). It is contradictory. But it’s what we’ve got. And Larger Freedoms moves towards issues of ‘protection’, generally in a preemptive sense. But what about here where preemption is impossible because the rolling experience of the Burmese is one of continuing repression?

And before we think Europe is an innocent bystander in this it is worth noting a controversy that has blown up around the activities of at least one Paris based multinational corporation and their links with the country. Total S.A. is in joint development with the junta of an off-shore oil field. Worth contemplating how those sort of linkages can directly and indirectly aid and sustain those who would beat their people off the streets.

So, while there is work to do in lobbying the Chinese, let’s not forget that there are folk much closer to home whose influence might also shape the future of Burma.


1. ejh - October 2, 2007

for what cultural relativists seem to think is only a western idea…

Do they? Who are these people and where do they say this?


2. Free Burma! - October 2, 2007

Free Burma!
International Bloggers’ Day for Burma on the 4th of October

International bloggers are preparing an action to support the peaceful revolution in Burma. We want to set a sign for freedom and show our sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons. These Bloggers are planning to refrain from posting to their blogs on October 4 and just put up one Banner then, underlined with the words „Free Burma!“.



3. WorldbyStorm - October 2, 2007

Only quoting the man, ejh…


4. BobFromBrockley - October 5, 2007

A very interesting post. I agree with most of what you say.

This is a very minor footnote, about the link to the right-wing anti-imperialists of antiwar.com. The post by Alan Bock makes an error in mistaking a “realist” analysis of foreign affairs with a “realist” policy by a government. The realist analysis, that nation-states are governed by their interests, is of course correct: it is a staple of Marxist materialism. But this does not mean we should urge governments to take on a “realist” policy: we should be asking them to be “idealist” and to embark on “crusades” for democracy, to overcome their material interests and intervene.

Of course, a lot of “idealist” policy is actually a cynical cover for “realist” motives, but sometimes the interests of liberal democracies do coincide with the ideals of internationalists (as in the second world war).


5. WorldbyStorm - October 5, 2007

Bob, I take your point. Incidentally I wouldn’t share much with the sentiments of antiwar.com more broadly, but I thought that piece at least reflected some sort of a strategy forward. Incidentally my own instincts would be much more ‘idealist’ than ‘realist’, but… the past five years have indicated – to me at least – that unfortunately the nature of and approach adopted by those doing interventions is arguably potentially as important as the issue being intervened on.

I’m uncertain that democracy can be ‘crusaded’ for although I would think that the promotion of democracy is both important in itself and something democracies shouldn’t be shy about doing , but I’m very sure that soft power – such as that exercised by the EU – can have an exemplary effect upon the development of certain states. Seems to me to be the way to go.


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