BURMA' S BRAVE monks and the thousands of people who support them have been chanting a simple demand to the country's military rulers: dialogue. Instead, the peaceful protesters in Rangoon were attacked yesterday with tear gas, water cannons and gunfire. By the regime's own account, at least one person was killed when troops fired on a crowd near the venerated Sule Pagoda; opposition accounts said as many as eight people died and hundreds of monks were beaten before being hauled onto trucks and driven away. The corrupt and paranoid generals in the ruling junta have clearly decided to face a popular uprising with the same methods used to put down a similar revolt in 1988. That means the world can expect mass bloodshed in Burma in the coming days -- unless something is done to stop it.
The United States and the European Union acted with admirable cohesion and aggressiveness yesterday, calling for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council and asking it to consider sanctions. The Western governments issued a blunt joint statement that condemned the violence and told the Burmese generals they would be held individually accountable for their actions. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was eloquent: "The whole world is now watching Burma, and its illegitimate and repressive regime should know that the whole world is going to hold it to account," he said. "The age of impunity in neglecting and overriding human rights is over."
The problem is that the "whole world" is not yet prepared to prevent a massacre of monks. Several countries that like to think of themselves as strategic partners of the West -- in particular, Russia and China -- are blocking concerted international action against the regime. China, which has taken advantage of Burma's pariah status to turn it into a virtual economic colony, came out against U.N. sanctions yesterday. Russia's foreign ministry issued a statement rejecting "interference in the domestic affairs" of Burma and predicting that "the situation will be back to normal soon" -- chilling words considering what the troops in Rangoon would have to do to return the situation to "normal."
Yesterday, Russia and China prevented the Security Council even from condemning the violence against protesters. In effect, they are giving the regime a green light for brutal repression. We can hope that the generals will be deterred by the warnings about the war crimes trials that could await them, or that their officers and conscripts will refuse to carry out their orders. If the repression proceeds, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao will have Burma's blood on their hands.