Sunday, October 07, 2007

See No Evil

Writers Block is like Arctic Winter…Just when it seems one may never emerge from that long night, a light breaks through and starts the electricity flowing from frontal lobe to finger.

The recent events in Myanmar did it for me. Or rather, it was India’s response to the events in Myanmar.

When one looks retrospectively at state-sanctioned violence worldwide, one thing is strikingly evident: The word “humanity” is possibly the most superfluous in the English language -- besides being an elusive quality in any language.

Because our “humanity” is typically reserved for those who look, behave and believe as we do.

Upon the rest, we bestow the favor of tolerance. Inflict the curse of hatred. Or consign them to the wastebasket of indifference.

The standards that classify a certain type of violence as “an act of terror” are equally subjective. You might think that pursuing and shooting unarmed monks in the back would qualify for that description. But if the perpetrators are members of the state military authority of Myanmar, you refer to them as a “repressive regime.”

The recent 10,000-strong march of Buddhist monks, the state authorities’ temporary show of restraint, followed by their vicious and complete shutdown of dissent – might all have been no more than scrolling headlines to me. It could have been just another of those stories that is received with a twinge of sympathy -- that is easily erased by the memory of clothes to be rescued from the dryer, or the beep of a microwave.

But I had insight into realities largely invisible to the western media and most lay Indians. And for that I can thank the book “From the Land of Green Ghosts; A Burmese Odyssey” by Pascal Khoo Thwe.

Originally from the Padaung tribe, Thwe converted a chance meeting with a British academician in Mandalay into an opportunity to escape his fugitive existence as a rebel fighter in the forests of Myanmar. Reading about his incredible experiences and eventual transformation into a graduate of Cambridge was an equally transformative experience for me.

I was awestruck by Thwe’s resilience and tenacity. And I realized that had this book never been written, Thwe would still have been Thwe -- but my idea of the Padaung people would never have progressed beyond a sort of generic species perspective. It would have remained limited to images of forest-dwelling tribals and women wearing tightly stacked rings to support their giraffe-like necks.

I recently posted a news item on an e-group about Myanmar’s children abandoned by their parents in a Thai border town. Do you remember ever waking up as a child in a railway compartment or an unfamiliar home, and not finding your parents by your side? Do you remember ever feeling a fleeting cold clasp of inarticulate dread when your parents left you in the company of relatives or close friends for a length of time, almost like a premonition of abandonment? If you do, you will understand what is happening to these children:

In that same post, I said that India’s reluctance to speak out against Myanmar amounts to abject political cowardice and misguided opportunism. ( I remember when I wrote about the United States behaving “like a blindfolded rhinoceros” in Iraq, a friend wrote back with good-humored sarcasm “Hey, why don’t you tell us what you really think?” )

In response to my post a friend on that forum referred me to an opinion piece by T.P. Sreenivasan, former Ambassador to the United Nations, ostensibly to present a point of view that is pragmatic rather than emotional.

The thing that struck me about this piece was that it reflects a worldview from behind the safe harbor of a desk.
This is not personal – I discuss Sreenivasan’s views here as emblematic of a general mindset. A mindset that reflects bureaucratic fatalism, the vision of a future crafted and fates sealed by the ceremonial exchange of signed files, and very little acknowledgement of deeper realities beneath the rhetoric.

For instance, he says:

"...Myanmar's history of the last 47 years or more makes it extremely unlikely that change will come to that hapless country through a popular uprising. The military is so well entrenched in Myanmar and the people are so patient that the change has to come through a process of reconciliation between them."

Now, most people who are forced to function with a gun to their head find "patience" -- if they didn’t have it in the first place. The people of Myanmar are not “patient” -- they are in anguish! They cannot speak their minds freely to tourists. They have been betrayed and abandoned by an international community that ducks behind the umbrella of “realpolitik.” Furthermore, to say that change has to come through a "process of reconciliation" is meaningless. What is the incentive for the military to "reconcile" with utterly powerless people -- to voluntarily relinquish or even dilute power -- without being strong-armed in that direction by allies and observers alike?

Sreenivasan then says:

“Militarisation of the country and the absence of a civil society insulate the country against igniting ideas. The international community can, at best, provide the incentives and disincentives for change.”

Yes, but how is that “militarization” financed and abetted? Does anyone dare question China’s role in that process, or for that matter India’s judgment in entering into a Faustian deal to supply armaments to the military? The reason given is that the junta’s cooperation is required in “flushing out” ULFA and UNLF terrorists who launch attacks on Indian citizens from across the border in Myanmar.

I’m willing to be corrected on this, but I believe any sense of fellowship that the Indian administration might feel with the military rulers of Myanmar -- based on equating the ULFA terrorist with the tribal Karen or Padaung rebel -- is seriously misplaced. The roots, raison d’etre and ultimate requirements of Indian rebel organizations are quite different from that of the Burmese. The two administrations differ also in their counter-insurgency strategies. I hope I am not being too naïve when I say that Indian military is still, in my view, held more accountable to a code of conduct that targets terrorists and spares innocent villagers. As far as we know, Myanmar’s military does not burden itself with such niceties when carrying out their operations. Their methods of persuasion include

1. Torture and rape:

2. The use of land mines to maim, not kill
3. And shooting at peacefully protesting monks:

According to the following in-depth account of India’s wooing of Myanmar, General Than Shwe has asked for helicopters, helicopter gunships, heavy rockets, navigation equipment and global positioning system devices from the Indian government. The report states India is willing to supply the equipment, but concerned that Myanmar's security forces are not trained to use it. The greater worry should be the sheer scale of indiscriminate destruction that Myanmar’s security forces could inflict with such equipment.

Returning now to Sreenivasan’s piece, he suggests that the “absence of civil society” is the reason for the insular nature of Myanmar today. But the demise of that civil society was engineered in the first place by the present rulers of Myanmar -- along with a whole sordid interlinked web of vested interests that may not be visible to the lay observer.

He then says:

“India, after supporting the democratic movement in the beginning, has begun to engage the regime for mutually beneficial ties. India's quest for security on the borders and for energy drives its Myanmar policy. Myanmar is a part of India's "Look East" policy.”

A more appropriate name for it would be India’s “Look East and See Nothing” policy.

Sreenivasan rightfully bristles at criticism of Indian policy by the United States:

“… US ambassador in Bangkok openly criticised External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee for India's Myanmar policy recently. But India has many American examples to show that national interests often take precedence over ideology. India does not have to prove its democratic credentials.”
Certainly, the United States is hardly in a position to criticize India for moral turpitude when America’s business – driven foreign policy remains resolutely deaf and blind to the nature and scale of human rights violations in China.

But let’s set aside the defensive squabbling about who’s the bigger hypocrite for a moment. If we want to talk about a policy that places India’s national interests first, then it is my contention that a miltarised Myanmar does absolutely nothing for India’s security. All it provides is yet another captive resource for China’s grand scheme of aggrandizement. Myanmar is bled of timber, gems and mineral resources for the sole enrichment of political and corporate Power Piranhas in China and the West …while India sits on the fence, ready to pick up any crumbs that might escape that feeding frenzy.

A democratic and open Myanmar would be a far better counterweight to China’s expansionism in the region. China already has used its ties with Myanmar to set up an electronic intelligence system at the Great Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal to monitor Indian naval activity in the Andaman Islands.
Do I think the Indian government ought to abandon its policy of engagement with the Myanmar? Actually, no. I do see merit in the strategy of influence through mutual engagement. I am just concerned that in India’s case the outcome of cooperation appears to be all engagement and no influence.

India should not need to adopt an invertebrate posture with respect to what is happening within Myanmar in the name of cooperation and non-interference. There are rather more nuanced ways to communicate disapproval than another “Axis of Evil” speech.

Granted, India must tread gingerly because of its shared border with Myanmar. But consider this.

The Statue of Liberty remains the beacon of choice for “the poor, the weary, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” of this world. But through the ages, the Indian subcontinent has been the final sanctuary of people who have few choices left. That has included Jews, Parsis, Bahais, Chinese, Tibetans, Bangladeshis, -- and now Burmese refugees.

From this perspective, India is directly affected by repressive regimes outside its borders and as such has every right to express an opinion on those regimes. The country cannot just drift about like a battered sponge in a sea of turmoil, taking in wave upon wave of brutalized and destitute refugees. The repercussions of that influx are weathered not by the politician or the bureaucrat with opinions on what’s expedient or what’s possible – but by the people of besieged border states and the desperate immigrants whom they are forced to host.

Sreenivasan advises:
“ (India) has to work quietly behind the scenes to bring about change in Myanmar. No purpose will be served by discarding its gains of recent years in enhancing India's security by open condemnation.”
Realistically speaking, only China has the power to influence Myanmar. And China in turn can be persuaded to do that only if it stands to suffer economic consequences of its own. There is already some indication that China’s influence might have had some dampening effect on the military’s knee-jerk reprisals in Myanmar. The Chinese are concerned about their image abroad as they prepare to host the Olympics in Beijing. There must be some concern that the murmur of voices that advocate boycotting those Olympics might swell into a roar:

What India can do is to apply some limits of decency and principle in bilateral trade with Myanmar and continue to support the forces working to restore democracy there. The seething rage of the populace beneath the surface is a very real factor in the long-term viability of developmental projects such as the proposed oil pipelines running through that region into northeastern India. India should not maneuver herself into becoming even more deeply invested in preserving stability in Myanmar by any means necessary. At least thus far India’s moral morasses have been confined to her borders.

Sreenivasan warns:

“ Stray incidents of protest only result in futile bloodshed as long as they do not snowball into a mass movement. Long years of military rule have numbed the population into a sense of resignation.”

Then again, perhaps it is the clinical indifference, academic detachment, and attempts to rationalize the indefensible by some external observers -- that help the junta in Myanmar to flourish with impunity.

If the populace has been “numbed into a sense of resignation” surely it is because of their being trapped in an endless tunnel of violence and repression.

What’s our excuse for numbness and resignation?

(To Be Continued)


Jeremy said...

Your comments are insightful, and your critique on Ambassador Sreenivasan's comment is right on target. As an expatriate from Burma now living in the United States, I regularly follow the news about Burma. What inspire and encourage me is seeing Burmese people risking their lives and voicing their desire for freedom in defiance of the military oppression. What discourage me is seeing the likes of Mr. Sreenivasan justifying their continued support for this oppressive Burmese military junta.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chitra. Well said. Zafar

Anjana said...

Hypocrisy has many forms. International hypocrisy is large scale stink. The ambassador has a job to do, a tenure to pass without stirring the bog. The votes come from people who can not care because food is getting dearer. To rise to a level from where one can get a perspective of what lies beyond the border - I have to deal with first hand stink first. Till then I can not see the evil. Anjana