kurt's nightmare

Generally, I post once a week. Topics are randomly selected and depend mostly upon whether it's baseball season or not. Other topics will include sex, politics, old girlfriends, music, and whatever else pops into my little brain. If you'd like to read, or ignore, my blog about China: http://meidabizi.blogspot.com/

Location: Dayton, OH, Heard & McDonald Islands

I'm an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. I represent no one but myself, and barely do that. I'm here mostly by accident.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Road to Mandalay

In one country, a hundred thousand people march against an oppressive regime; twenty years ago, when the same thing happened, that regime shot them down, in the thousands. This country has virtually no free speech, is closed for all practical purposes to journalists, and even most tourists can't enter or stay very long if they do. The notion of human rights is unrecognized by the military junta that runs it; the opposition leader has been under house arrest for a decade, and even prevented from being with her husband at his deathbed. She won the Nobel Peace Prize, but is barely mentioned in the American media. Let's call it "Burma" (and let's not call it "Myanmar").

In another country, an oppressive regime invades a neighbor over disputed oil fields. The US invades, destroys its military, and imposes economic sanctions that directly or indirectly lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The US also maintains its rights to that country's air space. Later, this country is invaded again, its tyrannical leader deposed then executed, a dysfunctional government imposed; anywhere from 75,000 to 500,ooo citizens are killed, as well as 4,000 American troops. The monetary cost of this invasion is now most easily stated in the hundreds of billions of dollars, approaching a trillion; hidden costs have led some economists to suggest two to three trillion dollars is a more accurate sum. The invasion also led not just to increased instability in an entire region, it opened up a power vaccuum into which one of our "sworn enemies" has entered. Let's call it "Iraq."

While Harding, Grant, and Nixon may give him a run for his money, George W. Bush has worked quite hard to get on the list of worst US Presidents. But to his credit, he has imposed and increased sanctions against the first country, although clearly the second country has received a bit more of his attention.

More disturbing, still, is that much of the American media feels content simply to mention the first country, as if it is having a bit of a tussle; indeed, the other night, Chris "Tweetie" Matthews treated the entire thing as a joke. Noting that Bush may have overstated things a bit by claiming that the political fight in Burma is on all Americans' minds, he then went on to indicate that this was, more or less, not worth thinking about, given that Americans really just think of Burma Shave in this context. More disgusting was that the three "journalists" discussing the topic laughed and agreed. Odd one might hope that such time could be devoted to discussing what was actually going on, but somehow watching the mainstream media, I know much more about OJ's recent escapades, Michael Vick's recent escapades, Lindsey Lohan's recent escapades, Britney Spears's recent escapades, and, no doubt, some equally important escapade will be the hot topic on such shows. If I were to rely on such shows--beyond a perfunctory headline and mention of the issue, I would think maybe Bob, Bing and Dorothy had done another road movie, "The Road to Mandalay."

One of the few readily-accessible discussions of this comes at Truthout.com, from J. Sri Raman, who makes an important point about lip service to sanctions vs. companies whose business maintains the status quo and, by increasing the wealth and power of the reigning junta, exacerbates the problem:

President George Bush himself has decided to take a hand in the matter and take on the junta. On September 24, US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley proclaimed that the president was to "unveil new steps" against the junta and "try and force the regime into a change." The new steps, however, did not seem to include any sanctions against US or other foreign big-money operations aimed at profiteering at the expense of the Burmese people.

Hadley told the media: "He (President Bush) is going to announce that there will be additional sanctions directed at key members of the regime, and those that provide financial support to them." But Hadley, however, acted coy about further details, pleading that he needed to preserve "a little element of surprise" so that those targeted "don't, quite frankly, hide their assets before the sanctions come into force.... So we're going to be a little bit - intentionally a little vague on what is intended, so that they will have their intended effect." The statements of Bush and his administration on the subject are even more intentionally vague about the most important source of the ill-gotten wealth of the members of the junta. The pro-democracy movement in Burma has repeatedly pointed out that the military rulers have allowed ruthless exploitation of the country's coveted oil and gas resources by multinational corporations and, in the process, enriched themselves.

The offshore activities of these corporations have made no difference to the grinding poverty of the people. Ironically, in fact, they have led to a situation where the junta ordered a 500 percent hike in fuel prices, triggering a revolt in August 2007.

The contribution of a giant US corporation to the situation has been conspicuous, according to the anti-junta camp. Prominent among the multinationals included in a "Dirty List" of such companies, brought out by the camp in December 2005, was Chevron, formally Unocal. Authors of the list noted that Chevron was one of the joint venture partners developing the Yadana offshore gas field in Burma, which earns the military regime millions of dollars. (Chevron also owns Texaco.)

The Unocal Corporation figured earlier in internationally backed Burmese campaigns against forced labor, land appropriation and similar other gross human-rights violations in the gas and oil projects initiated by the junta behind the people's backs. The affected villagers came together in 1996 and sued Unocal and France's Total for complicity in the abuses. The villagers charged that the companies knew about and benefited from the Burmese army's use of torture, rape and unlawful land seizures to uproot people from areas slated for "development." The lawsuits were settled after the companies agreed to make due compensation only eight years later, in 2004.

The Bush regime has not cared all these years to persuade either its old or newfound allies to discipline their own corporate giants in the cause of Burmese democracy.

Appearances, of course, were kept up. In December 2005, Britain's former prime minister and fervent Bush backer Tony Blair called on companies not to trade with Burma. A survey released then, however, showed that, since Labor came to power, imports from Burma had quadrupled, rising from 17.3 million pounds in 1998 to 74 million pounds in 2004.

It was also found that Britain ranked as the second-largest investor in Burma, as it allowed foreign companies to use the British Virgin Islands to channel investment. The Blair government remained deaf to repeated demands from Burma's democracy movement and the British trade unions for discontinuing this investment. No one expects any improvement in the official British attitude in this regard during the Gordon Brown regime, despite its lip service to the cause of democracy in Burma.

I think it is a sad commentary that Aung San Suu Kyi is virtually unknown and unmentioned in the US media. I think it is an equally sad commentary that I even have to note this, and that anyone reading this knows just how sad it is. I saw over 30 minutes on three different news channels discussing the phenomenon that Bill O'Reilly said some things about black people in restaurants being surprisingly like white people in restaurants. Do we really need this kind of proportionality?

For those interested in the apparently peripheral issue of people marching in the streets, risking and losing their lives to challenge a 20 year old regime as oppressive as virtually any--including those nasties on the Axis of Evil--here's a place to start:

US Campaign for Burma


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