Joining the young and passionate demonstrators outside the office of a certain Washington military attaché last week (and there was I, having thought that my “demo” days were over) helped me to settle one trivial question. The crowd was united in chanting “Free, Free, Free Burma.” This may seem like a detail, but I think it’s right to object to the grotesque renaming of Myanmar and Yangon, and I am glad that the Washington Post, at least, continues to say Burma and Rangoon. (You can tell a lot from this sort of emphasis. Lanka is the Sinhala word for Ceylon, and Sri means “holy,” so the name Sri Lanka expresses the concept that the island is both Sinhala and Buddhist, an idea that is alienating to many Tamils on the island. As a result, some Tamils still call it Ceylon or demonstrate their own nationalism by calling it Eelam. Lives are lost on the proposition.)
Some people write to me to say that I must be mistaken about religion, because the opposition to the gruesome dictatorship in Burma is led by Buddhist monks. This seems to be wrong twice because a) the photographs of the demonstrations also show large crowds of Burmese wearing ordinary civilian garb; and b) the dictatorship is itself Buddhist and has expended huge sums on building temples to witness to the fact. It’s fine by me if monks join the opposition, but Buddhism has a lot to answer for in, say, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, and if its fatalistic adherents want to claim credit in one case, they have also to accept responsibility in the others.
In any case, one is not hoping for a future Buddhist republic in Burma but for a country that is emancipated from totalitarianism in all its forms. This has been an unusually long struggle. According to Emma Larkin’s book Finding George Orwell in Burma, the Burmese have a national joke to the effect that Orwell wrote a trilogy about the country: Burmese Days, followed by Animal Farmand Nineteen Eighty-Four. There were some persuasive stories last week to the effect that in certain towns the army was not prepared to fire on the crowds (the conventional definition of a revolutionary situation), so it might be permissible to hope that this time the Burmese people will have a chance to throw off the especially foul despotism that has enchained them almost from the moment that the post-colonial era began.
I thought President Bush was quite correct in listing his least favorite regimes during his address to the United Nations last week and in trying to ramp up the international pressure on the goons in Rangoon. The governments that he singled out were the uniquely repellent ones that consider the citizen to be the property of the state and the uniquely boring ones that have remained in power until their citizens are positively screaming for release. I do not need to specify these senescent gangster systems individually, except that they all have one thing in common. They are all defended, from Cuba to Zimbabwe, by the Chinese vote at the United Nations.
Those who care or purport to care about human rights must start to discuss this problem in plain words. Is there an initiative to save the un-massacred remains of the people of Darfur? It will be met by a Chinese veto. Does anyone care about Robert Mugabe treating his desperate population as if it belonged to him personally? China is always ready to help him out. Are the North Koreans starved and isolated so that a demented playboy can posture with nuclear weapons? Beijing will give the demented playboy a guarantee. How long can Southeast Asia bear the shame and misery of the Burmese junta? As long as the embrace of China persists. The identity of Tibet is being obliterated by the deliberate importation of Chinese settlers. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man who claims even to know and determine the sex lives of his serfs (by the way, the very essence of totalitarianism), is armed and financed by China. It was this way when President Bill Clinton wanted the United Nations to take on Slobodan Milosevic and was stymied (by China, among others), and it was this way when President Bush asked the United Nations to live up to its resolutions on Saddam Hussein. And now I hear human rights activists bleating about Burma and our inaction and simultaneously complaining about the only time that any U.S. president had the nerve to break the hold of China (and Russia, and sometimes France) on the possibility of any international rescue.
China also maintains territorial claims against India and Vietnam (and, of course, Taiwan) and is building a vast army, as well as a huge oceangoing navy, to back up these ambitions. It seems an eon ago, because it was before Sept. 11, 2001, but we should not forget what happened when an American aircraft was involved in a midair collision over Hainan island in the early days of this administration. The Chinese acted as if the accident was deliberate, impounded the plane and the crew for several days, and mounted mass demonstrations of hysterical chauvinism. Events in the Middle East have since obscured this menacing picture, but actually it is in that region that China’s cynical statecraft is most obviously on display. If Beijing had had its way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power. Iran is being supplied with Chinese Silkworm missiles. Most horribly of all, China buys most of the oil of Sudan and in return provides the weaponry—and the diplomatic cover at the United Nations—for the cleansing of Darfur. (“Blood for oil” would be a good description of this bargain, though I have not seen the expression employed very often.)
Meanwhile, everybody is getting ready for the lovely time they will have at the Beijing Olympics. If there could be a single demand that would fuse almost all the human rights demands of the contemporary world into one, it would be the call to boycott or cancel this disgusting celebration.