Somewhere in imponderable nirvana, the Buddha may be exhibiting the faintest of smiles. Or is he? What a heavenly sight – the discreet, barefooted, crimson- and maroon-clad Buddhist monks of Myanmar, formerly Burma, able to affirm publicly their supreme moral authority and righteousness, supported by an exhausted, abused population, against the ravages of a pitiless, pitiful, 45-year-old military junta.
But the Buddha, whose infinite wisdom also includes knowledge about energy wars, would say that as everything is impermanent, the crackdown will come. The question is how.
Few can fail to be intensely moved by the exhilarating images of the “crimson revolution” – thousands of monks chanting “democracy, democracy” or reciting the Metta Sutta – the Buddha sermon on loving kindness, while civilian demonstrators, on a practical level, also call for the release of hundreds of political prisoners and a reduction in the price of fuel (raised 500% last month, the root cause of the protests).
The Asian Human Rights Commission has reported how the monks, in a pre-rally ceremony on Monday, have solemnly refused to accept donations from anyone junta-connected, people they have dubbed “pitiless soldier kings”. This very serious act amounts to nothing less than a Buddhist form of excommunication.
But fear now looms. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi – lovingly referred to all over the country as The Lady – has been transferred from her lakeside home on University Avenue in Yangon to sinister Insein prison, according to a Reuters report. The junta has imposed a dusk-till-dawn curfew in Yangon and Mandalay.
Anti-riot troops in full battle gear now surround the six biggest monasteries in Yangon. Monks run the risk of at least being attacked with tear gas – some reports indicate this has already happened. Internet access (there’s only one state-owned provider) has been cut off. Activists – and even some monks – have been arrested. During the 1988 protest movement – Myanmar’s predecessor of China’s Tiananmen – the regime is said to have killed more than 3,000 unarmed people.
Bush’s Burmese day
The mystery of why US President George W Bush took center stage at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday but did not promote the next neo-con war on Iran was solved when it became evident that the job has fallen to his new European poodle, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who in his speech once again assumed the inevitability of an Iranian nuclear bomb.
Bush instead announced new economic sanctions against the junta in Myanmar and urged the world to apply “diplomatic leverage to help the Burmese people regain their freedom”. Here is Bush engaging in another “liberation from tyranny and violence”, this time in Asia, while trying to start yet another war, as usual, in the Middle East.
The connection is clear: the Bush conception of “human rights” means “oil and gas”. Bush also claimed at the UN that Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq had “asked for our help”. Given the precedents, even the isolated people in Myanmar should be afraid, very afraid.
Myanmar has been in effect off the radar of the international community for years. Why this new, sudden, Bush administration interest in regime change in Myanmar? If the US and the West are so obsessed with “human rights”, why not put pressure on the ghastly practices of the House of Saud? Or the barely disguised repression under the glitz in Persian Gulf petromonarchies? Or the bloody Islam Karimov dictatorship in Uzbekistan?
A vast drug-money-laundering operation, plus full Asian cooperation – to the tune of billions of dollars – helped the Myanmar junta to build its new capital, Naypyidaw, in the middle of the jungle, almost 350 kilometers north of Yangon, in essence using slave labor. The 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, has been very lenient, to say the least, with the unsavory generals, in the name of a policy of “non-interference”. Thailand – for complex historical reasons – would rather co-exist with a weak neighbor. India coddles the generals to get natural-gas deals – like a recent agreement to invest US$150 million in gas exploitation in the west of the country.
Enter the dragon
But Myanmar is above all a key strategic pawn for China. Not only as a captive market for civilian goods in addition to weapons, but as a pawn to keep India in check and assure China of key strategic access to the Indian Ocean. Just like Britain – which twice invaded Burma, as Myanmar was known until 1989 – China’s utmost interest is natural resources. Oil and gas, of course, but also gems and timber: the once-pristine forests at the Myanmar-China border have been practically wiped out. According to the rights group Global Witness, Myanmar exported no less than $350 million in timber to China in 2005 alone, and the bulk of it was illegal.
According to EarthRights International, a crucial project of Chinese multinationals established in Myanmar has been the construction of a 2,380-kilometer oil-and-gas pipeline from the Arakan coast to Yunnan province in China. China needs this pipeline and a vital port in Myanmar for its growing energy imports from the Middle East, Africa and Venezuela.
Myanmar and China are also intimately linked by a $1.5 billion, high-tech electronic-warfare pet project of the junta’s leader, psychological-warfare specialist General Than Shwe, 74, very much appreciated in Beijing. It deals with surveillance of ethnic-minority guerrillas in Myanmar – the Karen, the Chan, the Wa, among others. It deals with surveillance of strategic competitor India. And it deals with surveillance of all naval traffic in the Indian Ocean, US warships included, not to mention the crucial Strait of Malacca. Precious information on the matter can be found in Australian Desmond Ball’s book Burma’s Military Secrets (White Lotus Press, Bangkok).
US sanctions are just for internal American consumption; they will have absolutely no impact. For starters, Myanmar is not under a military embargo. A really different story, for instance, would be the Bush administration telling the Chinese to drop the junta, otherwise no US athletes will be seen at the Beijing Summer Olympics next year. London bookies wouldn’t even start a bet on it. The French for their part now say they fear a terrible crackdown – but in fact they fear what happens to substantial oil business by French energy giant Total. The European Union should have a unified position, but for the moment that is hazier than sunrise at the sublime Shwedagon Pagoda in the heart of Yangon.
Sleepless in Beijing
This year China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the junta’s human-rights record. It’s virtually impossible that the collective leadership in Beijing will let one of its neighbors, a key pawn in the 21st-century energy wars, be swamped by non-violent Buddhists and pro-democracy students – as this would constitute a daring precedent for the aspirations of Tibetans, the Uighurs in Xinjiang and, most of all, Falungong militants all over China, the embryo of a true rainbow-revolution push defying the monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party.
So this seems to be the trillion-yuan question: Will Chinese President Hu Jintao sanction a Tiananmen remix – with Buddhist subtitles – less than one year before the Olympics that will signal to the whole world the renewed power and glory of the Middle Kingdom? If only the Buddha would contemplate direct intervention.