Last month’s ruthless suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations by Burma’s junta fittingly drew international outrage. But the indignation and new wave of US-led sanctions also obscure an inconvenient truth: promotion of freedom has become a diplomatic weapon to target weak, unpopular, isolated nations, not a China hewing to a totalitarian political system or a Russia sliding away from democracy. Look at the paradox: the principle that engagement is better than coercion or punitive action to help change state behaviour is applied only to powerful autocratic countries, while sanctions are a favoured tool to try and tame the weak.
In India’s neighbourhood, the diametrically opposite Western approaches toward military-ruled Pakistan and Burma are as jarring as the assiduous courting of the world’s biggest human rights abuser, China. Such double standards put undue pressure on India, as exemplified by the unwarranted calls that it suspend all ties with Burma (renamed Myanmar by the junta). Should the world’s most populous democracy have one freedom-related standard in foreign policy or a different one for each of its four large autocratically governed neighbours — Bangladesh, Burma, China and Pakistan?
Having depleted their leverage against the Burmese junta, distant powers now advise Burma’s immediate neighbours like India and Thailand to follow their failed sanctions policy. Yet they persist with their own two-facedness on democracy. What stinging sanctions have been slapped on the Thai military council and its leaders for overthrowing Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last year and for recently extending martial law in parts of Thailand? Which major democracies have winked at emergency rule in Bangladesh and played host last week to its army chief, Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed?
From the one-party, self-styled meritocracy in Singapore to the absolute monocracy in oil-rich Kazakhstan, some Asian States have faced little pressure to build genuine democratic norms and practices by making themselves useful to Western economic and political interests. As a result, we know why a marketplace of goods and services does not necessarily lead to a marketplace of political ideas.
Sanctions, however, are a blunt instrument to promote political freedom. By ignoring humanitarian concerns, they may actually help a regime to instill a sense of victimhood and shore up domestic support. International sanctions after 1988 did drive an isolated Burma into China’s strategic lap. And in more recent years, they have helped fortify the junta’s determination to stand up to Western pressure.
In fact, the more you punish and isolate a weak scofflaw state, the more the big bad countries gain. Nothing better illustrates this than the way Beijing has signed up tens of billions of dollars worth of energy and arms contracts in recent years with pariah regimes stretching from Burma and Iran to Sudan and Venezuela. With its predator-style hunt for opportunities, China eagerly awaits the international isolation of any regime. It then uses its status as a UN Security Council permanent member to provide political protection in return for strategic and commercial favours. Today, the world’s despotic regimes, from Harare to Pyongyang, have one thing in common: they are all defended by China’s UN veto power.
International calls, as on Burma, that urge Beijing to join in on the pressure are ironic. The world’s largest autocracy is exhorted to help promote democracy or, at least, help check political suppression in another state. Is state repression greater in Burma or in China?
China still executes more people every year than all other nations combined, despite its adoption of new rules requiring review of death sentences. When the Burmese regime killed at least 10 demonstrators last month, the outside world could watch some images of brutality, thanks to citizen reporters using the internet. But China employs tens of thousands of cyberpolice to censor websites, patrol cybercafes, monitor text and video messages from cellular phones, and hunt down Internet activists.
International pressure after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators did not last long in the face of the argument that trade sanctions punished ordinary Chinese. So why should we today turn a blind eye to how sanctions are hurting impoverished Burmese? Even the opening provided by the 2008 Beijing Olympics is not being seized upon to gently warn China to improve its human-rights record or face an international boycott of the Games.
If democracy is to become a truly global norm, greater consistency in approach is not only desirable but also vital. Drawing a specious distinction between good autocrats and bad autocrats on the basis of international politics can hardly advance the cause of democracy.
At the same time as the Burmese junta was quelling demonstrations, another military regime in southern Asia was battling pro-democracy protestors on the streets of Pakistan. But the approach of the world’s most powerful democracy, the US, was one of stark contrast: breathing fire at the generals in Burma while going along with an overtly sham poll to re-elect General Pervez Musharraf as president for another five-year term.
Does Pakistan or Burma pose a greater challenge to international peace and security? In the eight years that the US has helped prop up an increasingly unpopular general into power, Pakistan has sunk deeper into fundamentalism, extremism and terrorism. Yet the US still seeks to retain Musharraf through a power-sharing deal with Benazir Bhutto. Indeed, by selling increasing quantities of lethal, India-directed weapons to Pakistan, it has helped a quasi-failed State to emerge as the world’s largest arms importer.
The result of such contrasting approaches has been to undermine the credibility of democratic values by turning them into a vehicle to promote narrow geopolitical interests. In fact, nothing has blighted the spread of freedom more than America’s invasion and botched occupation of Iraq, where spreading democracy became a convenient raison d'être after the failure to find the promised weapons of mass destruction.
Is it thus any surprise that in the contiguous arc from Jordan to Singapore, India stands out as the only democracy? With Bangladesh’s tacit addition to the list of ‘good’ autocracies, the retreat of freedom from India’s neighbourhood appears nearing completion. It is as if some powers are determined to repeat their Pakistan mistakes in Bangladesh — and let India bear the brunt yet again. They now also goad India to make its own mistakes on Burma.
Fortunately, New Delhi has no intent to oblige them, having learned a sobering lesson from years of foreign-policy activism on Burma post-1988. Today, with a rapidly rising China to the north, a China-allied Pakistan on the west, a Chinese-influenced Burma to the east, and increasing Chinese naval interest in the Indian Ocean, India does not wish to get encircled by handing Burma on a platter to Beijing and becoming security-dependent on the US. Home to a majority of exiled Burmese dissidents, India correctly believes that engagement, not severance of ties, is the way to promote political reconciliation in Burma, where its sympathies lie with the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi and her democracy movement.
If freedom is to bloom in more countries, it is imperative to fashion a more principled, coherent, forward-looking international approach that relies less on sanctions and more on allowing outside actors to actively influence developments within.