For those who keep up with current events, I notice more than passing resemblance between two Buddhist countries that recently had clashes between monks and police.
In both instances, the monks were unarmed. In both instances, the monks were protesting on behalf of the people against unjust economic conditions. In both instances, the monks were fired upon by police. In both instances, civilians became involved. In both instances, foreign journalists were restricted from access to or reporting on events. In both instances, official accounts of casualties seems grossly underreported (a former general who defied orders to fire on monks last September reports that about 2,000 bodies were dumped in the jungle).
Now, here’s something that leaves me somewhat incredulous: In both instances, state controlled media claimed that the protesters were actually undercover guerillas who had infiltrated the monastaries. In September, the police also claimed that the ordinary civilians who had surrounded the monks were also guerillas who had dressed in civilian clothing. In both instances, this lie was then used to justify beating and shooting unarmed people as well as raiding and searching monastaries and evicting all their residents.
Thankfully, in both instances, the world is watching and hoping. One glimmer of hope comes from the fact that some of the things which are necessary to enable commerce — telecommunications, internet, and economic ties — also enable reporting of facts and are not easily silenced. There have been plenty of instances in recent years where government denials of atrocities had to be recanted after contradictory photos were produced which had been snapped by cell phone cameras. Thank goodness for citizen surveillance! It’s just a bit harder these days to make factual claims that are 100% false.
This last observation is the reason I made the difficult decision not to boycott travel to Myanmar. Observers bring at least awareness of accountability and make it slightly more difficult to engage in doublespeak. For the same reasons, I also think it’s hypocritical to boycott one country while buying goods made in the other. My view is that more good than harm results from a policy of economic engagement (though capitalism in its purest form, disassociated from the values of the humans who manage capitalist companies, certainly places no stead on any non-economic or human rights considerations). And it’s not as if a trade embargo stops commerce. All it does is stop commerce by scrupulous people. There are still plenty of countries and companies that don’t have the same scruples (an issue in itself) doing business.
We’ve all known the circumstances in the Himalayas which have led to leadership in exile and sporadic protests since 1959. Though the world has a short attention span, abetted by a media bent on sensationalizing the news of the moment for commercial gain, was the crackdown this week any surprise? The only surprise for me was that the protests happened, anywhere. I know I’m not crazy enough to throw rocks at guys carrying automatic weapons!
The other big surprise for me, in recent months, is that the world actually seems to take itself seriously in its demands that China join the rest of the "free world" in pressuring rogue nations to eliminate human rights abuses. In light of history and the well known position of China regarding its own civil liberties and territorial acquisitions, how could China have any official policy other than "non-interference" with the political affairs of other countries? Did the USA really believe last fall that China could ever be persuaded to protest against the crackdown on monks in Burma? In the case of China, the phrase an "eye for an eye" could be modified to the phrase, "I’ll turn a blind eye in exchange for your turning a blind eye." If China had protested last fall during the military crackdown in Myanmar — one of its significant trading partners — how could it have protected its own military from the rock hurling crowds this week?
Indeed, the only shocker, for me, is not the reaction in the T place nor the lack of reaction in the M place, but the ripple on the diplomatic waters in the S place. I’m surprised that China has put any pressure whatsoever on Sudan. I surmise that, like a complex game of chess, a political calculation must have been made that there was no similarity between the two situations that could be used to hold China’s feet to the fire of any similar standard in the future. And, corollary, China must have also concluded that protests wouldn’t hurt ties badly enough to disrupt the flow of oil: either Sudan would realize the protests were only for show and would change nothing, or else Sudan is so engaged with China that protests by China would not harm the economic relationship that enables Sudan to use China-originated oil revenue to finance weapons intended for use on its own population. Or, would it be hoping too much that someone would actually be responding to overwhelming, in-your-face evidence of genocide?
Just as the ruling junta in Myanmar has now proposed a constitution that would prohibit the elected leader from running for office and would ban her political party from conducting any public campaign, the Sudanese government can likewise make some conciliatory gesture such as perhaps not aiming weapons directly at but perhaps just in the general direction of unarmed civilians? At least the political hero in Myanmar is alive, probably saved by fears that martyrdom is more dangerous than house arrest. In Sudan, most potential leaders are dead. And in the T place, most serious leaders who object to the economic and cultural displacement of natives by Han Chinese are either in exile or now will be in prison for re-education.
I recently read that the Japanese justify whaling because it was western whaling ships that first brought about near extinction to the whales: the westerners had their good turn, so the Japanese must not be deprived of that good turn as well. Similarly, China and India are embarking on paths leading to exponential growth in energy consumption because the west had its turn at development, and now it’s China and India’s turn to develop. It could be argued, along these lines, that the cultural extinction which accompaniess Han Chinese influx into the high plateau is merely a modern day parallel to the displacement of native populations in the American West. There’s just one fallacy with all of these arguments: two wrongs do not make a right.
It’s far too easy to blame social unrest on outside forces rather than admit to policy failures or the existence of issues that warrant correction. Honesty, along with full and fair evaluation and changing of course, is much more difficult medicine than name calling, blame shifting, cartoons and caricatures. One of the weaknesses of America’s national religion, Democracy, is that the public is far too enamored with hearing what it wants to hear than in facing the true issues and hard facts and swallowing the bitter medicine (witness the current American political and economic scene). A command – based government has no such excuse. If this government says, "Let’s build a modern city," then by golly that city will be built and it will be inhabited by people (witness Shenzhen). If this government has the political will to address an issue, then it will be addressed. All that is needed is wisdom, courage, and senstitivity. Fortunately, I believe the Chinese government is capable of this political will, if it will allow the door to open to the idea.
If that happens, then economic engagement will not have been a failure in the civil humanist project.