Madame Secretary acknowledges reality:
“Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta,” she said, adding that the route taken by Burma’s neighbors of “reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them, either.”
The best possible policy the US could pursue at this point would be to connect Burma to American products, ideas and influence, rather than ceding them completely over to India, China and Thailand. While the generals skillfully play off their neighbors over gas and other resource exploitation contracts, America is shut out in the cold with little to show for it.
Pointing our fingers and chanting “Bad, Bad” is not going to dissuade the junta’s behavior nor convince its neighbors to change course.
A more engaged America can find ways to finesse the worst aspects of Burma’s misrule (the rampant drug trade, the hazardous health pandemic incubation policies, increased instability from conflicts within and around its borders) while profitably (in an advancement of national interest sense) exploiting suspicions among its neighbors about each other’s intentions to the hilt.
“We think the Dalai Lama has been too peaceful,” he said. “There is a big discussion now about whether we should turn to violence.”
Another monk at Labrang Monastery here in Xiahe on the Tibetan plateau put it this way: “For 50 years, the Dalai Lama said to use peaceful means to solve the problems, and that achieved nothing. China just criticizes him.”
“After he’s gone,” the monk added, “there definitely will be violent resistance.”
Many observers say that a resurgence of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has played its part in several recent human rights violations.
Meanwhile, in the country’s south—where a Muslim insurgency has been raging for four years—many Thai Buddhists have taken matters into their own hands, forming paramilitary “self-defense groups” with the government’s help. These groups are nominally nonsectarian, but they contain few if any Muslim members, and they often use Buddhist temples as training grounds. Many of the 7,000 volunteers drill using sticks instead of guns, but one expert (who didn’t want to be identified to avoid compromising sources) says that the Thai government purchased a large number of shotguns from Russia last summer to arm them.
and the potential...
One of the most fascinating developments at the moment is the rising appeal of Tibetan Buddhist ideas among the ethnic majority Han Chinese of the People’s Republic. Most Han Chinese belong to the traditional Pure Land or Zen schools of their religion; for a variety of reasons, say experts, the politics associated with these flavors of Chinese Buddhism tends to be politically conservative, beholden to the state. Yet the esoteric Tibetan version of the religion is making notable inroads among non-Tibetan Chinese. Non-Tibetans tend to be fascinated by Tibetan Buddhists’ claims that their faith has a powerful and perceptible effect on their lives. When the Beijing authorities razed an unsanctioned Tibetan Buddhist academy in Sichuan province in 2001, they were shocked to discover 1500 Han Chinese monks and nuns in attendance.
A striking example is the Engaged Buddhism movement, which was founded in the 1960s by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who became an activist during the Vietnam War and was ultimately exiled to France by his country’s communist rulers. He’s since returned to his homeland twice, in 2005 and 2007; on both occasions his countrymen received him like a conquering hero. The movement, which emphasizes nonviolence and social action, has persistently lobbied for religious tolerance throughout the region—most strikingly in Sri Lanka, where members of the local Sarvodaya Shramadana organization hold regular, nonsectarian antiwar demonstrations. The group has also helped 15,000 communities build roads, find clean water and run preschools, says Sallie King, a religion and philosophy professor at James Madison University.
A new narrative may be forming about Buddhism among both Buddhists and non-believers. Long considered a religion of peace and reflection, Buddhists are flexing political and social muscles from India to Burma to Thailand. Its likely most of Asia will have substantial and influential Buddhist populations within the next decade, creating a new constituency for change, patronage and leadership. This is, especially in the case of the middle class adapting Buddhism from China to India, promising news for stability and a development of a social responsibility ethos that can help bridge the divide between the haves and have nots until development more balance.
Yet, as the Tibetans, Sri Lankans, Burmese and Thais know first-hand, Buddhism is also apparently under stress, perhaps even attack.
- Oppressive regimes stifle, censor and hijack Buddhist leaders, traditions and customs, using coercive policies which include violence. (Tibet, Burma)
- Fundamentalists from other faiths assault and kill Buddhists indiscriminately. (Sri Lanka, India, Thailand)
- Globalization and the spread of Western culture threatens cultural mores. (Thailand, Sri Lanka)
The widespread coverage of Muslims suffering in Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia, Chechnya and elsewhere in the 1990′s, as well as the violation of Muslim mores by the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia and Western culture’s spread, helped radicalize a small but potent group of malcontents and true believers. Will something similar happen for Buddhist causes in Asia? What form(s) could it take?
Buddhism joins the 21st Century religious enlightenment that pervades every continent but Europe. It will be marked by divisions and disagreements ranging from the social to the political, not to mention the religious. A narrative of Buddhism under threat will only hasten that divide. As Ralph Peters argues,
We are witnessing an inspiring reinvigoration of faith on one hand and, on the other, a redaction of faith’s complexities to exploit the fear and jealousy abounding — promising vengeance on this side of the grave. Twenty-first century religion will be caught between the saint and the suicide bomber. The nemeses of every faith will be those who can’t tell the difference.
Its obvious Buddhism will be no exception.
Years from now, how will the world recall the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis? How will the abandonment of between a quarter million to a million or more people to certain death by the world be viewed?
Of course, killing fields are all too common so this line of questioning is pointless.
Cambodia, Rwanda, Dar Fur, the Congo. All have witnessed “the treatment”, international hand-wringing and the occasional hiccup of half-hearted measures to stem the dreadful tide of death. History repeats itself, especially in this fashion, early and often.
Burma seems destined to join these ranks. Credible reports of aid theft, continued obstruction and delay of accepting the necessary aid workers and whispered observations of ethnic minorities getting nothing intentionally (we call that ethnic cleansing in some places) mean nothing to the world at large.
What then could be done?
Military intervention is highly unlikely and probably not advisable.
Inaction is preferable to most but morally repugnant.
Begging the junta publicly and privately to accept aid is disgraceful.
Once again, the US finds itself in a position where it could influence events but cannot because it lacks the capacity in most instances to operate on multiple levels of policy and activity. The crisis develops to America’s policymakers as an either/or fallacy, either intervention or nothing, or like Dar Fur, intervention or half-hearted measures.
There is more to the picture. The following are examples of other measures that could be explored, some in tandem, some obviously cancel the other out.
- The US could dangle the prospect of a lifting of sanctions against Burma in exchange for a firm agreement to allow aid and (perhaps) engage in a real dialogue with China, India, Thailand and ASEAN or the UN present with regime opponents. The sanctions have a symbolic effect but little else in a country where the above countries enjoy far greater influence and economic pull than we do.
- The US could muster the “democracies” as John McCain and Robert Kagan are fond of claiming can be “aligned” and push at the UN and through the global media for an ICC related indictment of the junta as war criminals (Crimes against humanity, to include ethnic cleansing). Even if the Chinese and Russians veto it, push and push harder until the Olympic Games are set to begin. Control the narrative of the global media by influencing events relentlessly that builds up pressure on more affected parties like India, Singapore and Thailand. Failure is still likely but lessons learned from this may come in handy in future potential disasters like Bangladesh, North Korea, Laos, Cambodia, etc.
- Find an answer to the question of how influential are the Chinese in Burma? How many of the officers in the junta are in their pocket? What it would take if the possibility existed for China to support a coup in Burma? How could the US push this forward?
- Start arming the rebels in abundance. Such a tactic may be morally dubious at worst (though given the ruthless assault on ethnic minorities via rapine, aerial bombardment, murder of children, food weaponization and enslavement by the regime it isn’t that repugnant) but it will be China, Thailand & India’s mess to clean up after the failed state finally totters over. Their choice to worship the false deity of “Burmese stability” that supporting the generals represents is tantamount to that of an accessory to mass murder.
Is anything else available? Perhaps a long-term goal of opening the regime through trade (again, the lifting of useless sanctions) is the best option to be explored, though its also the most unlikely due to the idea of sanctions being a sanctified sacred cow in bipartisan American foreign policy.
Note none of these require an intervention by the US military. Just as a variety of diplomatic possibilities were not explored before and during Dar Fur, failure to identify the RPF as preferential to Hutu Power (Or even jamming the Hutu Power radio signals) and how realpolitik trumped humanity (supporting the ghastly Khmer Rouge versus the Vietnamese), matters are regularly portrayed in Washington as “either-or” and actual understanding of the problem at hand (and the opportunities open to explore) suffers greatly as a result.
Above all else, the world today and in the near to mid future will likely be as hostile and unpromising to the application of American military power to address such tragedies. The need for potential alternatives besides doing nothing will only increase.
This blogger is not egotistical enough to believe the ideas presented here are the best alternatives for Burma, yet considers the need for options beyond “just do something” or “do nothing” imperative to having a fighting chance at achieving some measure of our goals for Burma and respond to the enormous injustice regularly inflicted upon the many Burmese peoples in the future.
* Besides, stunned silence in the face of such depravity and craven shortsightedness from the generals and politicians in Asian and Western capitals is too much to bear without at least one more post about this.