Erik Martinez Kuhonta
Embassy: Canadas Foreign Policy Newsweekly
03 October 2007
As the world watches in disbelief, it appears that the Myanmar junta has yet again crushed a peaceful push for democracy. Like the 1988 crackdown on demonstrators, in which over 3,000 people were massacred, the military has shown no qualms in shooting down protestors.
() Almost 20 years have passed since the 1988 pro-democracy movement, in which Aung San Suu Kyi inspired the Burmese people to believe that the era of military dictatorship might come to an end. Yet, little seems to have changed in the relationship between the military junta and civil society.
() Yet, despite the lack of change at the domestic level, there have been important developments at the global levelnd it is here that some hope of political reform remains. First, the role of technology has been crucial in transmitting to the world the brutality of the regime. With journalists banned from entering Myanmar, dissidents have used digital cameras and internet websites such as YouTube to keep the crisis on the global headlines. Protesters have thus been able to keep the world aware of the repression in real time, despite the junta's attempts to draw a veil over the country.
Second, Myanmar can no longer assume that its closest ally and trading partner, China, will simply do its bidding. Unlike the Burmese junta, China does crave some degree of international legitimacy. With the Beijing Olympics less than a year away, China does not want to be tainted by the heavy-handedness of its southern ally.
() Third, following the post-Cold War crises of collapsing states, the international community has articulated new norms for dealing with countries where despotism reigns. In 2001, a high-powered International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty published a report entitled The Responsibility to Protect. This report, sponsored by the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa, called for a reconceptualization of sovereignty in terms of "sovereignty as responsibility."
The significance of sovereignty as responsibility is threefold. First, it places the burden on states to ensure the protection of their citizens. Second, it implies that elites are responsible internally to their citizens and externally to the international community. And third, it means that state elites will be held responsible for their actions. The commission underscored above all that intervention should not be based on the right to intervene but on the responsibility to protect. Responsibility for protection thus allows the international community to bridge sovereignty and intervention, such that the failure to act responsibly provides the basis for intervention.
How far one can take this reconceptualization of sovereignty, however, is up for grabs. Will the international community take this idea of sovereignty as responsibility into practice by intervening in Myanmar? It is unlikely that the United Nations would allow for intervention that actually crosses Myanmar's borders. A more moderate form of intervention, however, is the imposition of sanctions.
() Given these relatively more favorable international conditions for some form of intervention, it is surprising that the Canadian government has not been at the forefront of calls for political reform. There are at least two things Canada can do. First, it can review the current sanctions it has imposed on Myanmar. The Canadian government has imposed limits on exports to Myanmar, but it does not go as far as the United States does by banning all new investment and imports. Second, Prime Minister Stephen Harper should make clear to China that it is in its interests to restrain the junta. Even more than sanctions, it is really pressure on China that can make a difference at this point.
Within Myanmar the situation now looks as bleak as 1988. But outside Myanmar there have been changes in technology, geopolitics, and international norms that provide some basis for hoping that the situation this time around will not be a repeat of 1988.
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