Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sleeping with the enemy

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In recent weeks Burmese Buddhist monks mounted a street rally to protest the rise in fuel costs in Burma. The monks were joined by the general population and the protests soon escalated into violence and military intervention as the military junta applied force to return control. Its strategy was to shoot and incarcerate the leaders of the dissidents.
The western reaction to the conflict was to morally condemn the action, though without taking more concrete steps there seems little value in such action. It is apparent that western governments are willing to take action when tyrants breach the rights of a significant number of people, and its fair to say that western governments abhore the Burmese military junta. But historical precedence also suggests that western governments are not prepared to escalate moral outrage to military intervention unless there is a compelling vested interest in doing so. Eg. In the case of Cuba, the US feared regional insecurity and early Russian missile deployment, in Iraq it was concerned about the oil (never mind the press focus on weapons of mass destriuction).

The only benefit from western governments helping Burma would be the goodwill extended by any new government. Given the Buddhist values of Burma, it seems likely that any force applied to the country would likely result in regime change. The question is whether western govrnments are likely to act. The west only applied sanctions the last time this occurred in 1988, when 3000 protesters for democracy were killed. Since then the military junta has retained power. There seems to be little support for the junta within the country, but also little incentive for the west to engage. The likely reason for not intervening in Burma is likely to be Chinese sympathy for the regime. I can see several reasons why the Chinese would support the Burmese junta:
Drug trade through China profits Chinese government officials who likely turn a blind eye to the trade in exchange for kickbacks
China would not like to see a new democratic government in Burma because it would be concerned that any new administration would allign itself with western governments. The implication is that a Burmese government sympathetic with western interests might support US bases. China is unlikely to support any western involvement in the region.

Moral righteousness has never been a compelling reason to engage in military intervention. Morality has become secondary to pragmatic (materialistic) concerns in the global race to advance the interests of your country. Some countries are better than others, and it has to be appreciated that whilst Chinese interests are implicated in supporting the Burmese statist government, they have more at stake given that Burmese is on their doorstep, and not close to western markets. Having said that, the USA gave Cuba’s Fidel Castro a lot harder time than China and Singapore are giving Burma. There are many examples of government duplicity in state politics:

  1. Western countries preparedness to engage in trade and investment with China despite its failure to rectify the debasement of individual rights in the country.
  2. A Japanese company that was recently caught selling intellectual property to North Korea and Syria through a Chinese Malaysian company
  3. France’s provision of weapons to Iraq prior to the Iraqi war
  4. The Singapore government which steadfastly continues to finance development in Burma despite international condemnation
  5. Chinese indifference to the Burmese drug trade which channels Burmese drugs through China to global markets
  6. Western governments complicity in Singaporean and Chinese support for Burmese money-making activities

The latest example is the tacit support of Burma by the Singapore government. The Singaporean government, through its $150 billion state-owned investment house Temasek Holdings, has invested an estimated $3 billion in Burma. Temasek Holdings is controlled by Singapore's powerful Lee family, the most influential being the former president. The question is how should western governments respond to Burma as well as Singapore. Lets consider what the options are:
1. Western governments attack government interests in Burma
2. Western governments apply tighter sanctions to Burma
3. Western governments apply sanctions or freeze Singapore assets. Clearly western governments have a lot of influence here when you consider that Temasek has $3bil invested in Burma, but $20 billion invested in Australia.
4. Western governments doing nothing – ‘minding their own business’

Burma is a very poor country, and it’s a legitimate complaint to suggest that western investments in Burma (such as Singapore’s $3billion go along way to supporting Burma's military junta) play a part in supporting these governments. The question is whether this investment is central to it. Criticism could equally be drawn to China since it effectively helps Burmese by facilitating its drug trade. But don’t expect western governments to undermine their trade interests in China for the sake of Burmese democracy. I would suggest that there is more chance of western intervention if Burmese citizens escalated the conflict. However for cultural reasons I suspect the conflict will ground to a halt. Passivity will return as it did last time.
Singapore's strategy was to build links with Burma in the mid-1990s when other countries were abandoning it. As a result of western withdrawal, Temasek was able to negotiate some very lucrative deals, and were no doubt rewarded for that support. This philosophy of non-judgement and engagement has been characteristic of Asian governments for a long time and is central to Asian attitudes to moral issues. More surprising perhaps is the fact that Singapore has not received any condemnation for its action. The reality is that its not just Singapore that is helping Burma, but a number of other countries interested in its energy resources – offshore gas in particular.

The question is – just what standards should western governments apply to other nations – whether we are talking about brutal dictators or governments that support them. The military junta has a vested interest in most foreign-sponsored investment, so there is no possibility of avoiding junta support. The hotels, airlines, military equipment and training, crowd control equipment and sophisticated telecommunications monitoring devices, are derived from Singaporean inveolvement.
Singaporean companies have provided computers and communications equipment to Burma's defence ministry and army, improving the junta's ability to communicate with regional commanders – thus allowing it to better suppress protesters in Burma’s 20 largest cities. Singapore is the only ASEAN country in a position to provide Burma with this equipment because of its modern armed forces and defence support base. It speaks volumes that Singapore appointed an ambassador to Burma who was previously a senior Singapore Armed Forces officer and prior director of Singapore's Joint Intelligence Directorate. Such a role would be normally filled by a career diplomat. Singapore also helped sponsor the military regime into ASEAN.

But perhaps its worth reflecting on Singapore itself. Its easy to forget that Singapore is itself a authoritarian state, albeit a rich one. There is no question that the Lee family-controlled People's Action Party has been in power for almost five decades because of the economic prosperity it has delivered, but it has also been there because of its entrenched statist policies. Its certain that soft diplomacy was a requirement by Britain, but what about Burma? Is the Singapore leadership adopting any similar standards? Singapore ranks only behind China, Cuba and North Korea in leadership longevity. I don’t think anyone would mind if Burma emerged as another Singapore, but it seems unlikely to tread this path. If Singapore is to profit from Burma perhaps it should be incumbent upon Singapore to act – to turn it into the ‘capitalist state’ that it has become.

Its clear that Singapore plays a greater role than just the supply of weapons and other support for the military. Singapore is a financial base which facilitates trade for Burmese businessmen. By setting up Singaporean accounts Burmese interests are able to evade international constraints such as sanctions. Among these junta cronies are Tay Za and the druglord Lo Hsing Han. Lo is an ethnic Chinese, from the opium-rich Kokang region of East Burma bordering China. Lo is one of Burma's biggest heroin operations, but through Singapore he has been able to legitimatise his activities. Lo's son Steven Han is married to a Singaporean Cecilia Ng. He is also denied permission to enter the US because of his drug links, but they travel without restraint in Singapore. Given the link between Singapore an the heroin trade you might wonder why the USA has not applied more pressure on Singapore to cease and desist in its relationship. Tay Za was last year celebrating the launch of his new airline, Air Bagan, in the company of the Singapore head of aviation.
The question is why is the US and other western governments not pressuring Singapore to end its support for Burmese military junta and drug lords? I think the reason is they don’t do anything without provocation. Otherwise they would have to account for why they didn’t act sooner. You might think that a regime change might end the drug trade, but I suspect they are might conclude it might be worse with private operators. Anyway it will be interesting to see if they act.
I support military intervention in Burma. I think the job could be done quickly. I just don’t see it happening.

- Andrew Sheldon www.sheldonthinks.com

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