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Ruminations on Burma: Why Now?

Publié le 1 novembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires
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The month of September was marked by a flood of interest and attention on the political situation in Burma. As repression and abuse have been common and enduring traits of the military regime, why has this particular round of violence sparked such universal outrage around the world? Various factors could help explain this apparent anomaly, and warn that a simplistic framing of the crisis in Burma as a fight for freedom and democracy risks glossing over the inherent complexities of the current situation, as well as the diverse interests that may not all be benignly working to help the Burmese cause.

 Free Burma
Anna, Free Burma, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

September 2007 will be forever etched in our minds as the month when Buddhist monks in Burma took to the streets in the thousands to protest the rise in fuel prices and the wider problem of an indelibly corrupt regime. It will be remembered because these developments were met with a surprising and unprecedented amount of media coverage in the West (1). While the subsequent outpouring of sympathy and support has aimed at pressuring the current military regime to relent in its authoritarian ways, a question that has elicited surprisingly little debate is: why all this concern now?

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – the unifying symbol of hope for democracy in Burma – has been the subject of government prosecution for decades, and yet has only drawn sporadic attention from the outside world. Furthermore, military chief Senior General Than Shwe’s oppressive authoritarian rule was preceded by a string of regimes with equally grim human rights records. So why has a country that has drawn so little attention worldwide in the past suddenly taken up center stage on the global political agenda?

Three factors might help explain this puzzling phenomenon: an Orientalist-type fascination with Buddhist culture; economic and geo-strategic wrangling between the West and countries like Russia and China; and an opportunistic attempt by the US administration to assume a leading role in the push for democracy, in order to re-assert faith in the spread of global democracy. Taken together, these three considerations suggest that Western conceptions of Burmese politics and culture are overly-simplistic, and that the interests of those working to improve the situation in the state are not always benign. If we are to contribute positively to the ongoing crisis in Burma, it is essential that we gain a clearer understanding of what motivates attention to this case in the media and among our political leaders so eagerly pushing for change.

The West to the rescue!

Edward Said’s classic theory of Orientalism (2) – a term used to explain “Western” constructions of “Eastern” identity based on engrained beliefs and homogenizing characteristics that lend to depictions of otherness – continues to resound strongly through social and political discourses today. Due in large part to the development of multicultural and “ethnic” media marketing in the 1990s, a growing interest in an “East Asian aesthetic” has taken root in popular Western culture. A fascination with the Orient has been reflected in the movies, in advocacy campaigns (eg. Free Tibet campaigns) and even in mainstream trends (eg. yoga, spiritual self-help books, etc.) (3). While these eastern-inspired influences have created a greater interest in non-Western societies, representations of the East continue to be framed in dichotomous relationships of dominance and subordination.

In her research on depictions of Burmese culture and politics in five influential US news sources, Lisa Brooten finds that implicit juxtapositions are made between the Burmese state, which is viewed as an underdeveloped, antiquated and backward system, and the US, which is portrayed as the epitome of dynamism, democracy and equality (4). In framing these binaries in hierarchical terms (namely, the West as advanced, and the East as backward) a strong sense of paternalism develops, something clearly reflected in the way that the media and political elites speak about Burma. US First Lady Laura Bush for instance, made several patronizing comments about the Burmese people, including the statement: “the Burmese I’ve met, they want our affection” (5). Similarly, print media tends to represent Burmese culture monolithically as exotic, innocent and even infantile. In fact, it would seem as though the serene lifestyle of Buddhist monks in the country has come to represent the entire population (6). This paternalistic affection for Buddhist culture could explain the overwhelming responses of disgust as the regime turned violent against the protesting monks in Burma.

Western curiosity and exoticization of a peaceable, childlike Buddhist lifestyle has drawn both attention and sympathy to the Burmese cause. Because an Orientalist perspective has framed this event, a paternalistic response has emerged from the international community, seeking to come to the aid of the ‘helpless’ Burmese people. This simplified and patronizing representation not only removes the agency and resolve of the populace, but glosses over the highly complex and variegated nature of ethnic compositions, interests and relations within the country (7).

It’s all about the oil

Burma may seem to present little to no economic or geo-strategic interest to the West. Or does it? Unbeknownst to many, Burma’s largest source of exports and foreign exchange is natural gas: a resource that has shown to be propping up Than Shwe and his corrupt military elite. Recently, energy analysts have estimated that Burma may have the largest deposits of natural gas in all of Southeast Asia – a speculation that has led to a flourish of on-shore and off-shore contracts by regional private companies to mine these sites (8). Unfortunately for the US and much of the EU membership, strict sanctions that were put in place to deny further investment during the mid-1990s in protest to the repressive, anti-democratic Burmese regime, now precludes the West from taking advantage of these new discoveries. China and India both export military supplies to the Burmese government in return for access to their oil, while Russia signed a deal earlier in the year to construct a nuclear research reactor on Burmese soil. With virtually unfettered access to the Burmese market (and territory), the West has greater incentive, now more than ever, to push for democratic change—which would thereby allow for the dismantling of sanctions and a share of the Burmese oil wealth. At the same time, this current dynamic, that clearly conveniences Burma’s immediate neighbours, provides the rationale for countries like China and Russia to continue towing the same official line; namely, that outside intervention into the domestic affairs of the country is “counterproductive” (9).

Creating a legacy

While Burma now provides a site for modest economic gain and mild geo-strategic wrangling among political foes, there is no doubt that Burma’s future is of little political consequence for the United States. So why has the Bush administration taken such great pains to draw attention to the plight of the Burmese people? In his speech to the UN, Bush called for members “to free people from tyranny and violence, hunger and disease, illiteracy and ignorance, and poverty and despair,” as part of the work of a “larger freedom” (10). As he spoke fervently about this “mission of liberation,” there was a conspicuous absence of references to issues of grave interest to the current administration: namely, Iraq and Iran. Could it be that Bush was trying to detract from the growing pessimism surrounding his War on Terror?

While this proposition strays closer to the lines of a conspiracy theory, one cannot deny, for example, the way in which media depictions of the Burmese situation stand in stark contrast to the divisive and complicated facets of the Iraqi crisis. There is potential in the Burmese case for a much-simplified, clear-cut example of right and wrong (or as Bush would prefer, good and evil): a simple, peaceful (read: good) Burmese society is being viciously suppressed by a violent, corrupt (read: evil) military junta in its desperate attempts at forging democracy in the country.

In a country that stands socially and politically isolated from the rest of the world, there is good cause for propagating this simplistic conception, and for pushing for democracy in Burma; the costs are low, and the potential benefits are high. If the US and its allies fail to pressure the Burmese government into democratizing, few political or economic interests will be harmed in the process. Conversely, if the US does succeed in leading the global community in its pressure against Than Shwe, Bush stands to gain in two respects: one, he would be able to use this accomplishment as a means of reasserting legitimacy for his expansionist ideals of freedom and democracy. And two, as Bush heads into the final stretch of his presidency, a successful bid for democracy in Burma could be held as the crowning achievement for an administration that has suffered monumental foreign policy failures in the past two terms.

With his democratic vision largely deflated after Iraq, there is good reason for Bush to back a fight of a (perceived) simpler order: rallying to free Aung San Suu Kyi, and halting the violence being undertaken against the docile Burmese monks are safe bets for restoring faith in the merits of democracy, at a time of great global uncertainty and ambivalence towards the US administration.

Conclusion

The final weeks of September were marked by an international outpouring of support for the Burmese people suffering under a repressive regime. While poverty and abuse have characterized the lives of ordinary Burmese for decades, the harsh retaliation against peaceful processions of monks sparked particular support and attention, due to a fascination with a perceived mysterious and exoticized Buddhist culture; Orientalist representations of the Burmese created a paternalist pathos which in turn has led activists and the political elite to speak out against government abuses.

Adding to this phenomenon, new economic interests in Burma, and subsequent political wrangling between the West and countries like Russia and China could explain why Western countries are now more outspoken about Burmese democracy than ever before.

Finally, the United States, with no apparent strategic interests in Burma, yet struggling to re-gain global sanction for its democratic ideals, could well have self-interested motivations for leading international diplomatic efforts to remove the military-backed regime in Burma.

These three considerations provide clues, more than evidence, for the convergence of attention surrounding the Burmese crisis in September. They do not preclude other factors that could have led to this apparent anomaly, but they do raise a far more vital point about the importance of questioning the underlying motivations for this kind of attention.

There is no doubt that the Burmese government has used significant violence and repression against its own people; international media has done well to uncover these practices and document them to the world. However, before the global community can have any chance of helping resolve the conflict in Burma, it must look closely at what is at stake for those involved, and remain wary of simplistic conceptualizations of a crisis that has endured since the country’s independence, and will likely continue to plague the Burmese people long after the media appeal wears off.

References

(1) “Monthly Archive”, BurmaNet News, <http://www.burmanet.org/news/>
This online website, that compiles news coverage on Burma from sources around the globe, recorded a spike of 528 news items for the month of September, nearly 2.5 times more coverage than it had gotten in any previous month dating back to 2004.
(2) Edward Said. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
(3) Jane Park and Karin Wilkinson, “Re-orienting the Orientalist Gaze,” Global Media Journal 4, Spring 2005 <http://lass.calumet.purdue.edu/cca/gmj/sp05/gmj-sp05-park-wilkins.htm>
(4) Lisa Brooten, “The Feminization of Democracy Under Siege: The Media, the “Lady” and US Foreign Policy,” NWSA Journal 17(3), 2005, p.144.
(5) “Laura Bush’s Burmese Crusade,” Time Magazine Online, 5 September 2007 <http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1659170,00.html>
(6) One will note the unusually poetic nature that reports take on when speaking of Burma. Time Magazine for example opens one article with: “The burgundy robes of Buddhist monks usually evoke a sense of spiritual calm”. Captions such as “The Saffron Revolution” further demonstrates Western fascination with (its perceptions of) Buddhist culture.
(7) In fact, there are over 25 different ethnic groups within Burma, and all cannot be assumed to be fighting unequivocally for ‘freedom and democracy’.
(8) “Burma: Natural Gas Threatens Human Rights,” Human Rights Watch, 24 March 2007 <http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2007/03/24/burma15557.htm>
(9) “Where the world stands on Burma,” BBC Online, 28 September 2007
<http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7018285.stm>
(10) “President Bush Addresses the United Nations General Assembly,” Office of the Press Secretary, 25 September 2007 <http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/09/20070925-4.html>

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