It would be easy to say that the trouble with Myanmar–Burma if you’re a traditionalist, rebel, or new arrival from the 1990s–is that it’s ruled by an exceptionally undemocratic junta, which is willing to its exploit its citizens, even the clergy, and considers force a perfectly reasonable option in the face of dissent.
And indeed, Burma’s current situation look a great deal like its problems of 1988–when an estimated 3000 protesters were killed. Or like China’s well-documented problem at Tienanmen in 1989. All situations that ended with violent suppression of protests that arose because of the failures of a repressive regime to fulfill the wishes of its citizens.
In these situations, the protesters hope to, if not end the ruling regime, bring more humane treatment for citizens and potentially a dialogue about moving toward democracy. And in all of these examples and more, this does not happen.
By now, in Myanmar, this desirable result seems all but impossible. Even before the UN envoy can make any statement, reports suggest that the protests have been completely suppressed. Through a combination of house arrests, violence, and ending all contact with the outside world, the regime has both stifled dissent and muted international concern.
When George W. Bush joined in the chastising of the junta last week, some hoped the tide would turn. It didn’t. And even though Mr. Bush’s record on human rights is suspect, he’s right to point out that Myanmar isn’t the only country with a problem. Pakistan is constantly on the verge of collapse. Zimbabwe has all but imploded under the “leadership” of Robert Mugabe. Russia and China are both troublingly willing to “shelter” their citizens from all but the most determined dissenters. Which is to say nothing of North Korea’s many issues.
These aren’t the only problems in the world, they’re simply the most prominent. But most of them can be tied back to constant calls for “national sovereignty” from Russia and China. The Chinese government has, with varying degrees of effort and success, made international intervention in such situations all but impossible. Iran and Darfur are perhaps the most notable examples.
There’s no simple solution to these problem. And if Myanmar shows anything, it proves that the United Nations, in its current iteration, is absolutely impotent to stop such events. It’s addled with the twin problems of negligible power and poor organization. The power of the Security Council’s permanent members to veto any resolution brought before them all but assures that nothing will happen. Nor does it help that so many that dislike the UN oppose reforms to this structure.
Perhaps the Chinese are right that national sovereignty should outweigh the moral and ethical concerns of a body like the United Nations. It seems that the United States is willing to at least tacitly support such a view. But I’m still not sold on the idea.