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Q&A: ‘China Holds the Key to Democracy in Burma’

Interview with Soe Myint, dissident and former plane hijacker

NEW DELHI, Oct 1 2007 (IPS) - Ever since he hijacked a Rangoon-bound Thai airliner to Kolkata in 1990, to highlight the brutality of its military rulers, Soe Myint has been the face of the Burmese resistance in India – a country with ambiguous policies towards its eastern neighbour and the plight of its people.

Soe Myint, Burmese dissident and former plane hijacker  Credit: Ranjit Devraj/IPS

Soe Myint, Burmese dissident and former plane hijacker Credit: Ranjit Devraj/IPS

Yet, popular support for Burma’s cause in India helped Soe Myint get away with just three months in jail and also set up the Internet-based Mizzima news agency that functions out of a tiny apartment in a seedy corner of the Indian capital. With its network of clandestine citizen correspondents inside Burma, Mizzima is now a major window to a country labouring under one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

In an interview with IPS regional editor Ranjit Devraj, Soe Myint explained why Burma’s neighbours in Asia have continued to let down a long-suffering people, now at the receiving end of yet another round of bloody suppression.

IPS: The response from Asian countries to the crackdown by the ruling junta last week on unarmed civilians and monks protesting against massive price hikes has been lukewarm at best. Most seem ready to leave things to the Western democracies. How do you explain this?

Soe Myint: Asian countries have their own geo-political and economic interests in Burma and won’t sacrifice them for such things as the principles of democracy and human rights. Many benefit from the military regime in Burma in terms of trade, business and investment. And many have their own problems when it comes to questions of democracy, human rights, self-determination, minorities, etc. The governments of these countries are indirectly protecting themselves against criticism or even interference by outside powers. A few are also critical of the claims and actions of Western countries, especially the United States, on questions of democracy and sovereignty. Though they genuinely want to see democracy restored and Aung San Suu Kyi in power, they are not prepared to challenge the legitimacy of the military junta in Burma.

IPS: China is known to have enormous leverage in Burma. How important is the role of Beijing in resolving the present crisis, and in restoring democracy in Burma?

SM: If there is any nation that can influence the ruling military junta in Burma, it is China. Without Beijing’s backing, the present regime will quickly fall apart. China has been its supporter at various levels – political, economic and military – apparent since the brutal 1988 repression. China has huge political, economic and military stakes in Burma. Nothing can be done without Chinese support – short of a full-fledged Western-led invasion and Beijing knows this is not going to happen. China does not care about democracy and human rights in Burma. But it does cares for the stability and economic development of Burma, for its own interests.

IPS: You have based yourself in India, a country whose political parties have been openly sympathetic to your cause, but whose foreign policy has been at variance with popular feelings.

SM: India is still a democracy. However, many aspects of the foreign policy of the Indian government (any government) do not necessarily reflect the wishes, desires and interests of the people. India seems not to have a long-term, comprehensive policy and vision on Burma. On the other hand, there is little awareness of Burma in the Indian media. The Burmese democracy movement has also not been able to convince the Indian establishment that it is capable of taking care of Burma’s future. It has also failed to utilise the support and sympathy of the Indian people and turn it into a strong solidarity movement for Burma. Moreover, Indian democracy itself has been facing challenges, and in some cases, it has been weakened by fundamentalism and expansionism. Geo-political and economic interests have overtaken the principles of democracy, solidarity, freedom and friendship in Indian foreign policy decisions.

IPS: Burma is known as a resource-rich country with impoverished people. Have the policies of countries, particularly those in the immediate neighbourhood, been compromised by their desire to get at those resources?

SM: Many of Burma’s assets and advantages have also proved to be impediments for Burma’s democracy struggle. Having rich natural resources is one of them. When countries, particularly those in the immediate neighbourhood, are in need of these natural resources from Burma for their own development -under competitive globalised capitalism – their first priority is not principles and values or friendship and solidarity.

IPS: Where do you see the democracy movement going from here? What would you say is most critical in ensuring that the momentum built up over the past week by monks and civilians is not lost?

SM: Burma’s movement for democracy, like many other movements for democracy and freedom, has had its ups and downs. It is facing one of the worst and most brutal dictatorial regimes in the world, supported or helped by powerful countries. The fight will continue. It may take another year or it may take another 20 years. But it will win because it is the struggle of a people wanting to be free, democratic and prosperous. However, the resolve of international community to help Burma and its people is critical. The current protests in Burma have gone a long way in mobilising international support and the momentum should not be lost.

IPS: It is generally believed that the role of the Buddhist monks is significant. What is your feeling especially in the light of the fact that the junta has apparently not hesitated to shoot, beat and jail monks in spite of the reverence accorded to them in Buddhist society?

SM: In Burma, there are two powerful institutions – the military and the clergy. The military has guns. But the monks have peace and the people’s respect. By resorting to brutality, the military has lost the support of the monks. The military may be able to shoot, beat and jail the monks (and people), but they cannot do it for too long. The downfall of the military dictatorship seems at hand.

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