Editorial: Repression in Burma May Define an Obama Freedom Agenda

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Monday, November 24, 2008

BARBARITY IN Burma last week served as a reminder that, with or without President-elect Barack Obama, the global struggle for liberty will rage on long after George W. Bush takes his "freedom agenda" home to Texas.

Some of Mr. Obama's foreign policy advisers are nearly as impatient to deep-six that policy as they are to bid farewell to its author. They believe that Mr. Bush's extravagant rhetoric overpromised and underperformed. Dissidents were encouraged and then abandoned. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay mocked Washington's pretensions to lead or lecture.

The critics are right on all counts. If Mr. Obama intends to govern with more humility, caution and realism, we say, bring it on. U.S. foreign policy could use a healthy dose of all three.

But abandoning the promotion and support of democracy as core American goals would be a terrible mistake. Mr. Bush was right to see freedom as integral to all other foreign policy objectives. The stifling of democratic alternatives in Arab countries fuels terrorism. China's succor of dictators in Africa impedes healthy development in poor countries. Democracies are more likely, over time, to cooperate honestly with each other on global challenges such as climate change and disease control. And the United States can regain and retain the stature to lead in the world, on any issue, only if it is using its power on behalf of universal ideals.

No doubt these principles will feature somewhere in the new administration's rhetoric. But because other, seemingly more hardheaded considerations will always compete, the rhetoric will not mean much unless democracy promotion is baked into the administration's structure, budget and personnel.

The need is especially urgent when global recession could undermine democracy and stoke bellicose nationalism. It's urgent, too, because in the past decade, dictators and authoritarian ruling parties have learned to fight back. When Vladimir Putin seeks to extend Russia's influence, he doesn't just want more people watching Russian movies or buying Russian MiGs. He wants to replicate among his neighbors the kind of one-party rule he has imposed on his own country. His efforts will continue whether or not the Obama administration chooses to push back on behalf of the budding democracies Mr. Putin would target.

The spasm of repression in Burma last week similarly is not just about one country. In secret trials hidden away in fetid prisons, the ruling junta of that Southeast Asian nation of 50 million people sentenced more than 150 activists, Buddhist monks, bloggers, students and others to decades and decades in prison.

U Maung Thura, a comedian better known by his stage name of Zarganar, was sentenced to 45 years, with several charges still pending. His crime: attempting to deliver aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis last spring, when the regime did not want reminders of its own failure to help.

U Gambira, a monk who helped lead peaceful demonstrations against the regime 14 months ago, was sentenced to 68 years. A journalist was sentenced to 14 years for taking photographs during a sham referendum last spring. Lawyers have been sentenced for seeking to defend these activists and for resigning from cases when they were not permitted to mount serious defenses.

As news of these sentences spread from anguished relatives to supporters across the border and so around the world, another development was more openly announced: China's plans to proceed with a $2.5 billion pipeline to bring Burma's oil and gas to its Yunnan province. For China's Communist Party, repression in Burma is not an obstacle but a convenience, enabling the exploitation of natural resources with a minimum of well-targeted corruption.

The regime's ferocity last week, unexpected even by its dismal standards, came as something of an embarrassment to Western humanitarian groups, which have been revving up a campaign to convince the Obama administration that Burma's regime is moderating and that engagement, rather than isolation, is the right policy. Supporters of engagement argue that it helps neither the United States nor the long-suffering people of Burma to leave the field to the Chinese.

This may be true. But public opinion and, we trust, a sense of self-respect will never permit the United States to outbid China for the junta's affections. And in Burma, unlike in many dictatorships, there is a clear alternative authority: the National League for Democracy, which overwhelmingly won an election two decades ago. The regime negated the results, and the league's leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest for most of the time since. Like Nelson Mandela in his long years of imprisonment, she remains the legitimate leader of her people. Like South Africans, Burmese will remember who sided with her during their years of oppression and who sided with the oppressor. And as the world watched and measured America's shifting stance on apartheid, so it will measure the next administration's commitment to democracy in Burma and beyond.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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