Democracies’ double standard

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — The repression let loose by Burma’s (Myanmar) military junta has fittingly drawn international outrage. But the indignation and new wave of U.S.-led sanctions also obscure an inconvenient truth: Promotion of freedom has become a diplomatic instrument to target not China — the world’s biggest human-rights abuser — or a Russia sliding away from democracy, but rather weak, unpopular and isolated states.

Look at the paradox: The principle that engagement is better than coercion or punitive action to help change state behavior is applied only to powerful autocratic countries, while sanctions are a favored tool to try and tame the weak.

Another irony is that the more you punish and isolate a scofflaw state, the more the big bad states gain strategically and commercially. 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 to step in and help blunt the sanctions effect. It uses its status as a veto-armed permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to provide political protection to despotic regimes in return for strategic and other favors. Today, the world’s renegade regimes, from Harare to Pyongyang, have one thing in common: They are all defended by China’s U.N. veto power.

A third striking contradiction is represented by international calls, as on Burma, that urge Beijing to join in the pressure on the weaker state. Isn’t it odd that the help of the world’s largest autocracy is sought to promote democracy or help check political suppression in another state? Is state repression greater in Burma or in China?

The current spotlight on Burma cannot hide the fact that 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 generals in Burma recently cracked down on monks and their prodemocracy supporters in Rangoon, the outside world could watch the images of brutality, thanks to citizen reporters using the Internet. But China employs tens of thousands of cyberpolice to censor Web sites, patrol cybercafes, monitor text and video messages from cellular phones and hunt down Internet activists.

International pressure after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of prodemocracy 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.

At the same time as the junta in Burma was quelling demonstrations, another military regime in South Asia was battling prodemocracy protesters on the streets of Pakistan. But the approach of the world’s most powerful democracy, the United States, was one of stark contrast: breathing fire at the generals in Burma while paying lip service to democracy in Pakistan, even as it went along with an overtly sham poll to re-elect Gen. Pervez Musharraf as president for another five-year term.

Which poses a greater challenge to international peace and security, Pakistan or Burma? In the eight years that the U.S. has helped prop up an increasingly unpopular general in power, Pakistan has sunk deeper in extremism, fundamentalism and militarism. Yet Washington is still reluctant to accept that the fight against international terrorism cannot be won without demilitarizing and democratizing Pakistan.

Rewards for some dictatorial regimes on foreign-policy grounds and sticks for other despots can hardly advance the cause of democracy. In fact, drawing a specious distinction between good autocrats and bad autocrats on the basis of international politics is a disservice to the popular struggle against the Burmese military, which has ruled that resource-rich nation for more than 45 years but whose hold today is threatened by the “Saffron Revolution.”

More broadly, the effect of the contrasting approaches has been to undermine the credibility of democratic values by turning them into a vehicle for promotion of narrow geopolitical interests. Indeed, nothing has been more damaging to the cause of freedom than America’s war in Iraq, where spreading democracy became a convenient raison d’etre after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

Is it thus any surprise that democracy seems to be in retreat in some places, from Russia to Latin America? More troubling is that instead of democracy, it is Islamic revivalism that is spreading.

If the Burmese are to break their military’s viselike grip on power, why has much of the world accepted Burma’s name change to Myanmar by the junta? As was evident from Ceylon’s 1972 renaming as Sri Lanka to give it a distinct Sinhala identity — a move that helped further alienate the Tamil minority and lay the foundation for civil strife — a name change represents powerful symbolism. In order not to unwittingly legitimize the junta’s action, it is important to use the names Burma and Rangoon (not Yangon), as dissidents there do.

It is easy for those who already have burned their bridges with the Burmese regime and thus have nothing more to lose to advise Burma’s immediate neighbors like India and Thailand, and other states like Japan, to further squeeze the junta. Yet those providing such counsel carry on with their double standards 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 still enforcing martial law in parts of Thailand? From the one-party 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.

The world’s largest democracy, India, has had a new neighbor since 1950 — the world’s largest authoritarian state, China — because the international community did nothing to stop the annexation of buffer Tibet. Even today the political oppression in Burma draws more international concern that the continuing systematic Chinese repression in adjacent Tibet that threatens to obliterate the unique Tibetan culture.

Burma was part of the British India Empire until 1937, and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has her own India connection. When the Burmese military ruthlessly suppressed the 1988 prodemocracy uprising, killing countless, India, with missionary zeal, cut off all contact with the junta and gave sanctuary to Burmese dissidents. Such righteous activism, however, cost India dear. By the mid-1990s, China had strategically penetrated Burma, opening a new flank against India.

Today, with China busily completing the Irrawaddy strategic corridor from its Yunnan province down to the Burmese ports on the Bay of Bengal, the once-bitten-twice-shy India has responded with circumspection to the latest crackdown. Its reaction has underscored a desire to apply the same principle to Burma as to Pakistan: While it would like freedom to spread, it will not make democracy the central plank of its foreign policy toward either country.

In fact, New Delhi can ill-afford to isolate Burma, given China’s more recent public hardening of its claim to India’s Arunachal Pradesh state, located at the junction of the borders with Tibet and Burma. In 1962, when the People’s Liberation Army attacked India from two separate fronts, Indian forces in that state found themselves outflanked at some points, spurring speculation that several Chinese units entered not by climbing over the mighty Himalayas but via the plains of Burma. With its new strategic assets inside Burma giving it access to the Bay of Bengal and India’s northeastern land corridor, China is in a stronger position 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 completely encircled by handing Burma on a platter to Beijing. The China factor also prompted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to admit Burma in 1997 and, more recently, has encouraged Tokyo to extend assistance.

What role outsiders can play to help democracy take root in a country remains a difficult issue.

Sanctions by themselves do not usually promote political freedom and indeed, by ignoring humanitarian concerns, may 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, the sanctions have fortified the junta’s determination to stand up to Western pressure.

Nor can just engagement be the answer. The notion that democracy is sure to follow if a country is integrated with the global economy has been disproved by China. The more economic and military power China has accumulated, the more sophisticated it has become in repressing at home, including through electronic surveillance and intimidation.

If freedom is to bloom in more countries, it is imperative to fashion a more principled, coherent, forward-looking international approach that objectively calibrates sanctions and engagement, and allows outside actors to actively influence developments within.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.