Burma's Bloody Silence

Friday, October 5, 2007

THE SITUATION in Burma seems to be returning to normal. That is to say, the harsh repression that has prevailed since military rule began in 1962 has been restored, after a brief wave of protests that had offered the first hope for change since the crushing of a similar uprising in 1988 and the subsequent cancellation of a 1990 election won by the democratic opposition. Troops wielding guns, clubs and tear gas have cleared the streets of Rangoon and other cities of the courageous Buddhist monks and ordinary citizens who had taken them over for the past several weeks, chanting a simple, modest demand: "dialogue."

But Burma's generals do not talk with their people. They prefer to subdue them, or occasionally to shout threats, such as the chilling words blasted from sound trucks that circulated in Rangoon on Wednesday night: "We have photographs. We are going to make arrests." This Orwellian pronouncement was apparently aimed at people who had tried to block a military raid on a pagoda earlier in the week. At last count, media reports said 2,100 people had been arrested, two-thirds of whom were still in custody, and the government acknowledged 10 deaths -- though both figures are probably considerably understated.

Burma's strongman, Gen. Than Shwe, finished crushing the "Saffron Revolution" while a United Nations envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, was cooling his heels for three days, waiting for a dialogue of his own with the general. After he finally consented to listen to Mr. Gambari's expressions of deep concern, Gen. Shwe made an offer to speak with Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, but only if she gives up her "confrontational" position first. Such are the fruits of the international community's engagement with the regime so far.

There will be more talk at the U.N. Security Council today as Mr. Gambari delivers his report, four unhurried days after leaving Rangoon. But it's unlikely that the council will agree on sanctions or even an unambiguous condemnation of the regime; for that, thank veto-wielding China, Burma's chief economic and political patron. The response of the Bush administration and European countries has been relatively tough: The U.S. Embassy has been authorized to provide honest reports on the crackdown to the outside world, and Europe is working on a tightening of its visa restrictions and other sanctions against the junta.

The United States and Europe say they want to engage China on the issue, but it remains to be seen whether the West is willing to provoke a serious fight with Beijing. China could be offered a choice between ending its defense of the regime on the Security Council and spoiling its own intended debut as an emerging superpower at the 2008 Olympics. That would be appropriate enough: After all, shouldn't the world reject a would-be superpower that insists on shielding the world's most criminal regimes from U.N. sanction? In the absence of such an initiative, the United States, Britain and other governments that claim to care deeply about Burma will be reduced to listening to reports from Mr. Gambari.

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