Burma deserves better by Philip Delves Broughton

The international community is good at moral outrage when dealing with the rangoon junta but always meets a stumbling block in geopolitical reality. Change in Burma will come only when the west decides to replace ineffectual sanctions with attempts to shape the economic landscape. Perhaps then Aung San Suu Kyi can be more than just the generals’ political pawn.

Fans of Fawlty Towers will recall an episode called Gourmet Night, in which Basil and Sybil try to woo a better class of diner to their hotel with the promise of elegant French food. The chef falls down drunk and Basil is left scampering around town in pursuit of various forms of roast duck. In the midst of the mayhem, Basil’s car breaks down.

“Come on, start, will you!?” he screams. “Start, you vicious bastard!!” He tries again and again, before saying “Right! That’s it! You’ve tried it on just once too often! Right! Well, don’t say I haven’t warned you! I’ve laid it on the line to you time and time again! Right! Well…this is it! I’m going to give you a damn good thrashing!” He disappears, returns with a branch and proceeds to beat his car.

It’s an exercise in futility which comes to mind whenever something new and awful occurs in Burma. Which means fairly often. The international community does its Basil Fawlty act. “Start, you vicious bastard!” and nothing happens. The country remains inert, oblivious to its thrashing.

The recent 18-month extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, punishment for her receiving an evidently unhinged American man who swam to her home in Rangoon in the middle of the night, brought out the usual branch beaters.

“Now comes our greatest test,” said Gordon Brown. “In the face of this arrogance, we cannot stand by and effectively sanction the abhorrent actions of a violent and repressive junta – but show them that the international community is united and coordinated in its response.”

“She should not have been tried and she should not have been convicted,” said Hillary Clinton. Nicolas Sarkozy called the sentencing “brutal and unjust” Ban Ki Moon at the United Nations called on the Burmese junta to release her and “to engage with her without delay as an essential partner in the process of national dialogue and reconciliation.”

But then when the issue reached the United Nations Security Council, a resolution calling for her release was immediately held up by the skepticism of the Russians and Chinese who have always been loath to criticize Burma

And so it goes. Moral outrage meets amoral geopolitics, with outrage losing every time.

One of the greatest frustrations about Burma is that the challenges it presents are so much more interesting than the tug-of-war over Aung San Suu Kyi would suggest. She is symbolic and her treatment is evidently a disgrace. The way the generals have manhandled their opponents, whether monks or democracy activists, merits the strongest criticism.

But to reduce Burma’s problems to a fight between vicious authoritarianism and democracy is to try to play chess using nothing but pawns….

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