Sunday, October 14, 2007

What's Happening with Burma?

Just a couple weeks ago, I was so heartened by the buddhist protests that were shaking Burma and calling for a regime change. What happened? All the news that trickles out is basically about the last few remaining activists being arrested. The Web is restricted which means that another portal through which the world could catch up on what is going on through accounts of web-users is now frozen. The military regime has had a lot of experience making sure they have a choke-hold on this nation. Its resources are being slowly siphoned off to fuel international demands (well mostly Chinese) and its people are slowly being made poorer and hungrier even as the military gets richer and displays its wealth more and more ostentatiously (temple gilding, city building and weddings of family are some gaudy displays of wealth that have trickled out even as reports of people looking more needy are being made).

Nothing really happened despite newspaper editorials and the "little person" voices that were raised all over the world in solidarity with the Burmese. The Security Council made its usual ineffectual noises and ended up accomplishing nothing- but that is business as usual for the UNSC. China felt no pressure despite other nations and organizations singling it out as the single largest supporter of the military regime. An email petition arrived in my inbox asking people to sign up to ask China to change its attitude toward the military rulers or else face the consequences of the international consumer/ olympic fan. All this talk of the Olympics and the pressure China feels to look and sound humane in case it hurts tourism is bunkum. Of course, China would be very happy if many foreign tourists arrived to make China a legitimate international venue for world events. But enough people will be going anyway and in addition, there is plenty of audience within China to sell the tickets and make sure that the Olympic events don't look sparsely attended as happens when they are held in the developed world now. So no, the Chinese government is certainly not spending sleepless nights wringing its hands over the pressure(!) it is facing on the Burmese issue.

The Indian government didn't even acknowledge at any point that it had any real role to play in the Burmese revolt (this is typical of the hubris with which Indian politicians have wasted opportunities to help their own nation and another). It started out by going ahead as usual with its plans to hold talks about resource development with Burma. When Indians protested the duplicity of our government, one could almost hear the cogs spinning in the heads of the Indian politicians on how to spin this. They went with the tried and tested approach to dealing with things. Hypocrisy. On the one hand they changed their tune on the international stage by calling for political reform (too little, too late, but what is worse...) while on the other hand they finalized a deal to invest $103 m to develop the port of Sittwe for quite selfish reasons.

The north eastern states of India are beautiful and home to some unique cultures and tribes (not to mention resources as well). These people have been marginalized from the mainstream of India since Independence. No mainstream politician has ever done anything for these states other than make photo-op visits and send in the army to squelch the nascent secession movements that exist in these states (itself a result of long neglect and lack of economic development). Human rights violation are common in these states. Instead of bringing them into the mainstream by allocating resources to help the populace, the Indian government threw money into the army and developed specialized schools of counter-insurgency and guerrilla warfare in the NE states. Decades of military presence in the border regions have however, still not succeeded in killing the insurgency (fueled by high unemployment and feelings of desperation and alienation in the youth of these states). Recent attempts by China to claim some of these far eastern states as part of "One-China" may have also contributed to the Indian government's sudden sense of urgency in reclamation and development efforts that are economic in nature rather than military. This is where Sittwe and Burma come into play.

The port of Sittwe allows the Indian government to transport goods and services into the NE states more easily than the narrow land corridor which restricts such movement presently. It will also cut transportation costs significantly (some claim by upto 50%). In itself, this is not a bad idea. However, India has done itself and Burma a huge disservice by dealing with the devil in its short-sighted policy of "non-interference" and mutual "self-help". India would be served well by having and supporting a democracy in Burma for a few very important reasons. One. Democratically elected leaders are more reliable partners (for trade and policy) than military ones who are answerable to no one. Two. Democracy in Burma would staunch the massive centrifugal forces acting on the population and creating refugees along all Burmese borders. India should remember that it shares a 1000 mile border with Burma. Three. Democracy in Burma would mean economic development and growing prosperity (both non-existent in the Burma we know of now) and if our neighbor does well, it bodes well for us too as its trading partner. Four. Democracy in Burma would alleviate the ethnic insurgent movements that are located in the border regions of the nation and which complement and strengthen the insurgency across the border in India. The rebel bases are located in north western parts of Burma and legitimize cross border guerrilla warfare by demonizing the military rulers and their associates who are represented by the Indian army in NE India. India would do well to reevaluate and reassess its partnership with such a regime and rethink the gains to be had were it to openly stand on the side of democracy, as it should. Supporting the Burmese people will have a positive payoff. It is no longer if, but when the regime will crack.

The Russian politicians are too preoccupied with regaining their position as the other "superpower" to be useful as a sane voice in the international arena. The paranoia and heavy handed governance of the Soviet era is making a come-back but this time hand-in-hand with a nationalism that smacks of 1930s Germany. Russia is no good to anyone, least of all its own impoverished citizens having taken on the worst of capitalism and merging it with a communist-type structure at the top levels of the government. The good things that existed under communism such as an excellent education program in the sciences, sports and arts however, are not to be seen. The Russia of today cannot stand up and speak against some of the atrocities seen around the world because it is either complicit in them or is trying its own brand of atrocities at home.

The USA with its sanctions is at best ineffectual as Burma is a cut-off country that does not rely on foreign trade. If the USA wanted to it could still have influenced the military regime by trying to strong arm those nations that support the Burmese regime but this would take a lot of political will and legitimacy- neither of which the USA has to spare under the current administration. The USA has a nuclear deal in the works with India and it should have held the Indians over the barrel. Similarly, it could have found ways to make the Chinese and Russian cooperate on the issue of Burma. When it needs to, the USA has not been afraid to go it alone or to force the world to see its way. Burma however, is small fish and one with little to offer the USA.

[Free Burma picture from REUTERS by Cheryl Ravelo. China Olympic picture found on multiple internet sites, no source listed. Map of India, China, Burma on BBC. Thanks.]

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Mistake

Since I moved to America in the early 1990s, I have heard it said so often that America is a christian nation. The oft-repeated statement, not only by common citizens but also by others in prominent positions of influence, overrode the geography and civics lessons of my junior school days where I had read about the American constitution and its secular nature. It came back to me only in a slightly embarrassing way.

When I was in England for my post-doc, a bunch of us friends used to go for lunch together and we would end up talking about all kinds of things. The conversation turned to religion and from there on to the separation of church and state. I knew that India was a secular country but I stated that the USA was a christian country. I expected the UK to be secular since it seemed like I heard a message of religious freedom often. As my Scots friend, Craig, had to remind me, in the UK the Monarch is the head of the Church of England. However, the UK still functions more or less like a secular state (since practicing christians are on the decline in the country and there aren't as many foaming-at-the-mouth born-again-christians as in the US). Craig also had to correct me about the fact that he thought the US was a secular country. I couldn't reconcile what he was saying with everything I had experienced since moving to the USA. But he was right. The USA is indeed a secular country but anyone living here at this time in history may get the mistaken impression that we do indeed live in Jesus-land (a little to the right of la-la-land). And I was no exception. Americans can be overtly religious in their convictions. However, this nation's founders were not, as many claim, religious and they certainly did not intend to form a christian nation.

Pan to the present times. Recently, for the first time ever a hindu clergyman was invited to offer the morning prayers at the Senate (why a government institution even needs prayer to get down to its business in a secular country is one question I haven't been able to answer satisfactorily for myself- I will have to wait till I meet my first senator). The prayer generated protests from the galleries and three people had to be removed before the prayer commenced. They felt that the hindu prayer was an abomination to the one true god and as christians and patriots, it was their duty to stop it. This country is being overrun by religious fundamentalists who blur the line between church and state with all kinds of equivocations such as confounding nationalism with religious duties (protecting the country, and more recently the environment too, in the name of Christ), health care issues with those of murder (look at abortion and stem cell research) and education with those of personal belief systems (teaching science is seen as an attack on christianity) . This is a slippery slope and one which takes the country back to a more savage state of development.

Religion should, at best, serve as a personal salve for those who can't get by with belief in self and reality. It cannot and should not be imposed upon others and a state should certainly not take moral lessons on policy and treatment of citizens from any holey book. We have some examples of places where the religio-moral principles from old texts have been used as law. We can see how inhumane such laws are in regions of the world where the sharia is applied. And yet, many in the USA, who would decry the atrocities of another religion continue to prevaricate and hold up an archaic text as their ultimate guide. They also perhaps believe that those who wrote the constitution of this nation held this text in the same regard (which they may well have) and used it as a guide for the document they wrote (which they did not). The constitution of the USA is a document of much sophistication and superior to the bible in that it is a living document, i.e., one that can be amended. It was my mistake to let the loud voices dripping with religion drown out the centrality of this document to the American polity.