Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Time to Do What's Right

A long time ago - another lifetime, really, though only about a decade has passed - I was briefly involved in the "Free Burma" movement. What happened was, there was an article in a "USA Weekend" magazine (the one distributed with newspapers) which had a feature article about a prominent Burmese man directly affiliated with the pro-democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi against the military regime in power in "Myanmar". The end of the article featured the guy's email, and me with my enthusiastic youthful inclinations to change the world for the better sent him a message (I'm pretty sure my email at the time was still "" - yay, youth!).

My email resulted in the start of a lengthy, albeit brief, correspondence with this prominent individual that eventually led to my receiving a package of "Free Burma" postcards in the mail, which I subsequently placed a great number of in an info booth at the public library branch in Tucson in a shopping center near my Dad's house. I had several left over, but don't recall doing much with the extras. I think the correspondence eventually died out out of pure lethargy; even so, in the months preceding my July 2004 departure for Israel, I would still, every so often, in a bag or box find one of the old postcards featuring a red silhouette of Burma and information about how one could help the movement toward freedom for the country's people.

Now, here we are over a decade later and I'm not sure how much progress has been made. Just this past week, a U.N. envoy was able to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi at her home twice, but does that mean anything, other than that an envoy of an organization which long ago abandoned the principles of democracy and freedom enshrined in the U.N. Charter was granted an audience with an effectively imprisoned (it doesn't matter if it's at home or another facility) freedom fighter by a military dictatorship that is a member in good standing with the U.N.? I don't think so. The U.N. likes to make a big deal about such "progress", even if - especially if - it's only imaginary.

And so long as China is one of Burma's benefactors, real change short of a popular uprising that irrevocably overwhelm's the junta's power to put it down, or air strikes against the "Myanmar" regime's infrastructure to help weaken it in the face of a less-powerful uprising, is unlikely. After all, let us not forget that another paragon of human rights in Asia, North Korea, is also one of Beijing's patrons. That regime, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be going anywhere soon either. If only Team America was real...

The recent protests led by monks in Burma was heartening at first; upon my brief return to the Big Apple this past Friday afternoon, while on the subway from 33rd St. to my great-uncle's house in Queens, I spent a good portion of the ride reading the New York Post's coverage of events in Myanmar. Then, of course, the junta wised-up and shut down the internet - killing off a needed pipeline of information not only out of, but into the country. I'd like to think that popular will and international sympathy could win the day in Burma, but given the course of things already happened, I think it doubtful at the moment that such an end is possible.

What, in my opinion, needs to be done? I'm a big proponent of the idea that warfare is, rather than an alternative to diplomacy, actually an instrument of it. Economic sanctions against the military regime's leaders are one form of diplomatic protest; razing to the ground the regime's new capital city by the use of U.S. Navy aircraft and weapons is quite another. Saturating strikes against the junta's assets in Myanmar would, I think, go a long way toward showing the Free World's displeasure with the thugs in charge there.

Why "war"? Spare me the "neo-con" accusations. I'm advocating decisive action, whereas those who fancy themselves human rights activists yet counsel inaction - or "neutrality" - merely empower rulers who violate human rights, enabling them to continue their oppressions and abuses of human rights and dignity under the cover of tacit permission from those who should be their loudest opponents. Though it is only a line from a movie ("Air Force One", 1997), the following is nevertheless true: "Peace isn't merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice."

In other words, I, Jeremy Slavin, am saying that where there is an absence of justice, we have a duty to be in conflict with the forces restricting its emergence. As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, "Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God," but "Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty."

I suggest "war" because, like with their help for Iran, Russia and China feel inclined to back up the military dictatorship in charge of Burma at the U.N. Security Council in New York. Anyone who thinks that Moscow and Beijing proffer this support out of some higher-minded sense of morality is, quite frankly, an idiot. Chinese and Russian obstructionism - hey, did you hear that Russia wants to help the military government of "Myanmar" develop nuclear power? - at the U.N. means that little can be achieved by that compromised body. One is always open to surprises, though, or rather, should be. But I'm not counting on it.

Unlike with other peoples living under dictatorial regimes - say, those in the Arab world - the folks over in Burma are willing to take to the streets, to risk their lives, to try and change their government and thus their country's destiny. Unlike in Iraq or Afghanistan, the thirst for democracy in Burma has been strong and remains strong, meaning there would be little need to "impose" democracy on the populace as existed in the Afghani and Iraqi examples. And while I'm no regional expert, the risk of a wider regional war breaking out following the "softening up" of "Myanmar's" military regime by Uncle Sam isn't as big as it would be were we to take the same course against the "Norks", the North Koreans in charge over in Pyongyang.

To let the Burmese people decide for themselves what to do with their land, their resources...whether with their principle trading partners like India and China, or the U.S., or whomever they wish...this is the goal. Forgive me for thinking that weakening a military government can be accomplished, or at least begun or aided, by military action. Forgive me for suggesting that if the U.N., Russia and China - tainted entities all - are unwilling to do what's right, we must then do it ourselves. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "The time is always right to do what's right."

Like I did a decade ago, the United States and the rest of the Free World have - the Iraq and Afghanistan examples notwithstanding - become lethargic in our defense of democracy and freedom. Why should we worry about Burma when there is American Idol to watch? Who cares about connecting U.S. economic aid to Egypt with meaningful democratic reforms there? It's more important to know whether Princess Diana was pregnant when she died, isn't it? Where can we find the time to be unequivocal in our opposition to rollbacks of democracy in Thailand and Venezuela? In between commercial breaks? When our iPod playlist has run its course?

"All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent." - Thomas Jefferson

If I could go back in time and tell one thing to my 16 year old self, it would be to not abandon the work on Burma I'd just then begun. Then, maybe, today I'd have a little more credibility than a 26 year old who, rediscovering his interest in the matter, can only now be ashamed at his dropping of the ball back when he did. That I was young is little excuse, and that we - as a civilization, as a nation - are "busy" is hardly adequate either. Even if your voice goes unacknowledged, adding it to the din it is far better than remaining silent. If anything, my belated recognition of my shameful silence about this issue - following the briefest of shouts - has taught me that.

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