EDITORIAL: China the key to Burma crisis
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, October 13, 2007
The Australian Government has ignored China's role in the current Burmese crisis.
While TV images have shown Burmese troops assaulting pro-democracy demonstrators, including many Buddhist monks, little or nothing has been said by the Australian Government or media about the role of the Chinese Government - a long-time supporter of the Burmese military junta which has held sway over the country for the past 40 years.
Without Chinese support over many years, the military regime in Burma would have collapsed. Faced with international isolation as a result of its overthrow of democracy nearly 20 years ago, the secretive military regime in Burma has survived largely on unstinting Chinese support.
The web site of the Chinese Foreign Ministry emphasises these connections.
Under the heading "political relations", it says, "China and Myanmar [Burma] are friendly neighbours, and the people of the two countries have enjoyed traditional long-standing friendship", and cites extensive visits of leaders of both countries.
It adds: "Over the recent years, economic and trade cooperation between China and Myanmar has developed soundly, whose areas expanded from pure trade and economic aid to project-contracting, investment and multilateral cooperation. The agreement on investment promotion and protection has been signed between the two countries and the working committee on economic, trade, scientific and technological cooperation set up."
Largest trading partner
China is Burma's largest trading partner, and has a key role in developing the petroleum resources of Burma.
Burma's proven gas reserves were 19 trillion cubic feet at the end of 2006, according to BP's World Review of Statistics.
While that is only about 0.3 per cent of the world's total reserves, at current production rates and Thailand's contract price for gas, the deposits are worth almost $2 billion a year in sales over the next 40 years.
Apart from its economic partnership as a recipient of natural gas and oil, China is also interested in constructing an oil pipeline from the Indian Ocean to southern China, entirely by-passing the Straits of Malacca.
China's role in propping up the tyranny in Burma is similar to its role in supporting the reclusive totalitarian state, North Korea, and Sudan which is perpetrating genocide in Darfur.
China claims to be a good international citizen, but its continued sabre-rattling towards Taiwan, and its actions in protecting Burma, North Korea and Sudan, show that its claims to be a responsible nation state are just propaganda.
In relation to the recent crackdown, China's request to the Burmese authorities to act with restraint means cracking down on protesters without mass killings - which is exactly what the regime has done.
In the meantime, China's credentials for holding the Olympic Games are under further strain.
The international human rights group, Human Rights Watch, has documented a major clampdown on journalists in the run-up to the Olympic Games, in violation of specific pledges given when it secured the Olympics.
"The continuing harassment and physical abuse of journalists in the countdown to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing raises serious questions about the sincerity of government pledges to greater media freedom," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The Chinese Government seems to see a free media as an enemy rather than a watchdog of public safety and social stability."
Human Rights Watch also documented the enforced demolition of a settlement housing 4,000 people in Beijing, where people from throughout China come to raise official grievances with the Government.
"Petitioners are some of China's most vulnerable citizens, and they have a right to housing while they pursue their legal claims," said Sophie Richardson. "Demolishing the Fengtai settlement only adds insult to injury."
The Australian Government response to the Burmese crisis has been to deliver a mere slap on the wrist to the junta, but to ignore China's role.
It has supported UN initiatives to bring about a dialogue, and revealed that several months ago it refused to accept the appointment of a top Burmese general as Ambassador to Canberra.
However, as Trevor Wilson, Australia's former Ambassador to Burma, said recently, "The crisis confronting Burma is dramatic testimony to the comprehensive failure of international policy towards a ruthless regime."
He added that "so far the international community has not convinced the one country that has real influence in Burma, namely China, to support an internationally-monitored process of political and economic transition aimed at genuine and lasting national reconciliation." (Sydney Morning Herald, 2 October 2007).
With the Olympic Games to be held in Beijing next year, Australia and other Western countries are now in a position to put real pressure on Beijing to bring about a resolution in Burma.
The unresolved question is whether they have the courage to try.
- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.