Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Limits of Outrage

No one who has followed the situation in Burma can react with anything less than disgust and anger with which the military junta has brutally repressed the popular demonstrations that erupted this month and last. But there are limits to what even the fiercest outrage and anger can do, as George Packer acknowledges in a post at his blog (accompanied by a graphic picture of a dead monk):

Aye Chan Naing, D.V.B.’s executive director, told me by phone from Oslo that as many as six thousand Burmese, the majority of them monks, have been detained in four locations around Rangoon, and their fate is uncertain. After nightly raids, the monasteries are “totally empty,” and he fears the worst for the detainees. But, staving off despair, he’s been mildly encouraged by the reaction of Malaysia, Thailand, and even, in its tepid way, China—quite different from their response after the brutal crackdown of a similar uprising two decades ago. At that time, Aye Chan Naing was two months away from completing his degree in dentistry in Rangoon; he became involved in the revolt and ended up an exile in Thailand and then Norway. “The change must come from inside Burma,” he said, “but I don’t know how much the Burmese people can resist this kind of violence. They need some help from outside.”

Andrew Sullivan quotes a reader who says much the same thing:

f freedom is to be gained in the near-term, the Burmese junta need to be dealt a death blow that can only be administered through military defeat. Satyagraha merely provides the reason for an SPDC soldier to pull a gun out and blow someone's head off for defying an order to provide labor, food, possessions, sex slaves, or whatever is demanded by the junta. Perhaps over the longer term the strategy of non-violent resistance could work, but this presumes that the Burmese junta and its allies such as China will come to value and honor the will of the people, which seems unlikely.

There is no negotiating with SPDC thugs, only submission is tolerated. They are cunning, vicious, and too comfortable in their luxury and power to ever give it up willingly. The democracy movement within Burma cannot count on other nations to overtly come to their aid, and China's appetite for resources is too sated by the junta for any alteration of diplomatic course.

Put simply, the tyranny of the military junta in Burma is so great that they care little about the opinion of anything but their closest trading partners, and even then only to the extent that it does not in any way threaten their power.

Democratic movements everywhere should be supported. Mostly this entails a sort of moral support, accompanied by letter writing campaigns and the threat of boycotts and sanctions. But in dealing with particularly vicious tyrants, such threats are almost meaningless. At best the tyrant will accommodate the outrage to the extent necessary to make an issue go away (for example, no more shootings in the street...while nonetheless dissidents are rounded up and quietly "disappeared.") Truly vicious tyrants can be unseated by only one means, and that's force.

But it's no easy to step from moral support to aiding an active and violent revolution. It's one thing to write emails to the representatives or aiders of a dictatorship, and quite another to secretly ship arms into their country to insurgents. International law and common sense require that nations tread lightly when it comes to interfering with the sovereignty of other nations, for the reason that support of convenient rebellions out of naked national security interests has so often been masked as support for democracy and freedom.

And yet there comes a time when it's simply not enough to accept that we must sit back and watch as people are murdered by a violent regime, out of fear of overstepping ourselves. No one in their right mind can argue that direct military intervention in a place like Burma is a tenable alternative. But there are steps that can be taken short of that. Providing rebels with food, medicine, safe haven-and yes, weapons-is intervention, make no mistake about it, but a kind that can be supported under a reasonable moral calculus.

So far there's little talk of doing more to aid the Burmese people. Unfortunately, support of rebellions and insurgencies is often taken only when it also supports national security interests (and never when it's against national security interests) and no one right now has an interest in angering or provoking China by encouraging the downfall of one of it's "allies." This isn't likely to change soon.

But it's clear that the Burmese people lack only the ability, and not the willingness, to undo their rulers. How to go about helping them do that is something that all free nations should be willing to talk about, even after things quiet down.

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