China's frendship with despots

Jody Williams:

With tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators bravely protesting on the streets of Burma, the world's attention has finally turned to that Southeast Asian country and the brutal military dictatorship that controls it. Burma's military junta, which changed the country's name to Myanmar, crushed a nascent democracy movement in 1988, and then refused to cede power to Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party after their overwhelming electoral victory in 1990.

Before the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, President Bush called for tough new sanctions against the Burmese regime and asked member nations to help bring an end to its "19-year reign of fear." But don't expect China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, to add its voice to the call for change. While world focus has rightly been on Chinese economic and military support for the Sudanese government's war against the people of Darfur, its involvement with other despotic regimes goes largely unnoticed. The Burmese people, however, understand clearly China's role in their continued oppression.

China's relationship with Burma is the closest of any it has in Southeast Asia. It views that nation as a strategic ally, coveting the potential use of its ports on the Indian Ocean and easier access to oil from Africa and the Middle East. China has provided economic support key to keeping the dismal economy afloat, and has built roads, bridges, airport facilities, power stations, factories and telecommunications networks. It has also modernized Burma's army, including an infusion of weaponry valued at over $1.4 billion when the junta took power.

In June it was announced that China would begin buying natural gas from Burma, and that the two countries were negotiating agreements on mining in Burma by Chinese companies. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese live in Burma and there have been protests against their increasing economic influence and presence.

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The most recent protests against the regime began in mid-August, after the government doubled fuel prices. They quickly grew into mass, nonviolent protests for freedom and democracy. By the end of August, thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns had begun to join the protests, even as the junta cracked down and arrested untold numbers of protesters and activists.

Less known is that, on Sept. 18, as the protests grew in numbers, Burmese activists (many now in hiding because of the crackdown) managed to deliver a letter to the government of China. Along with protesters outside Chinese embassies and consulates in 15 cities in 10 countries around the world, they asked that Beijing publicly end its support for the junta and instead help achieve reconciliation and democratization in Burma.

If China won't change its policies toward Burma on its own, it must be pressured to do so. Just as there has been public outrage over Beijing's support for the Sudanese government and its ongoing war in Darfur, there should be similar outrage at its involvement with Burmese military junta.

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The writer believes that China can be pressured to put pressure on the junta. She cites recent developments in Darfur as an example, but there are a lot of dead who will never know what may come of those efforts. China has the morals of a communist capitalist. Humanity is not of particular concern in their calculation. China doing something to undermine a supplier who has a similar totalitarian mind set just does not seem likely. However, there should be some consequence for China. Perhaps Walmart can put some pressure on them.

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