Diplomacy is a tough game in Burma. But former Australian ambassador to the country, Trevor Wilson, thinks more could be done to prevent the current unrest from ending in a bloody repeat of the crackdown that killed some 3,000 pro-democracy advocates in1988. So far, the monthlong protests have claimed a relatively low toll: the ruling junta today acknowledged one death after security forces fired on antigovernment protestors in Rangoon; dissident groups say the fatality count is at least five.
Wilson believes that the United Nations, which plans an emergency Security Council meeting on the country, needs to act fast to de-escalate the tension. The trick is to engage junta leaders for whom "the usual solution is to apply force," he says. And the key player—and perhaps the only foreign power with real influence inside Burma—is China. Wilson was his nation's top diplomat to Myanmar (the junta's name for Burma) from 2000-2003 and is currently a fellow at Australian National University in Canberra. He spoke by telephone with NEWSWEEK's Hong Kong Bureau Chief George Wehrfritz. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What's being done diplomatically to defuse the crisis in Burma?
Trevor Wilson: Things have unfolded slowly there, making it a classic case where you could employ preventive diplomacy. So far the world has stood by. There have been few statements made and nobody is visiting Burma at the highest level. Organizations inside Burma, like the various United Nations agencies or the International Red Cross, are constrained in what they can do. China has the most influence but has been reluctant to criticize its client state. We've missed opportunities. I'm not saying anybody in particular is to blame, but there is no process, no mechanism, by which the international community can initiate conflict resolution with Burma's military government to prevent another 1988.
Is it already too late?
Whether it is too late or not depends, obviously, on what happens, and whether the military authorities have started the process of suppressing [demonstrations]. If the curfew and moving [Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident] Aung San Suu Kyi to jail are part of a strategy to suppress the whole demonstration, I don't know. If things unfold slowly there might still be time.
What should United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon be doing now?
The most important thing is to see what the Chinese will agree to [that would] bring the various parts of U.N. together. You need economic experts [and] U.N. human rights people to check on the welfare of individuals arrested during the demonstrations. The regime is totalitarian, so it doesn't have ready mechanisms for consultation or problem solving. Their usual solution is to apply force. The presence of a U.N. team of some kind would have a calming effect, and therefore de-escalate tension. That could move things back off the knife-edge.
Monks are leading today's demonstrations. How different is that from 1988, and what does it signify?
Monks were involved in 1988 but didn't have the lead role. This time things started off with grass-roots demonstrations by ordinary people affected by higher oil and gas prices. They were quickly picked up on by opposition groups. When that happened, monks started to join. Then the regime sent its thugs in and they beat up monks in one city. People with satellite television access or radio heard reports of that, and at monasteries larger protests began almost immediately. It's not clear whether there has been a strategic group of monks leading this. Indeed, there are suggestions that there are differences of opinion among monks and factions that are more pro-government than others. It was only after a week or two that [monks] started raising political demands. So the monks' role was very much a pacifist, peaceful expression of their views but very quickly they found themselves demonstrating alongside normal people in a symbiotic uprising.
The junta has spent large sums of money building monasteries in an effort to cast the military government as guardian of traditional Buddhism. What leverage or loyalty has that gained top leaders?
The Buddhist clergy would view military donations to build religious monuments rather cynically. That's not to say that the generals themselves are not extremely religious. Army officials sometimes go into the monkhood for a time, just as ordinary people do. The minister of religious affairs, who is a general, is a devout Buddhist. I've met him. They are not misrepresenting their position as Buddhists, but ordinary people joke about it. The most common joke is that government-owned television stations don't broadcast in full color, only green and gold. Green for the Army and gold for the monks.
What is [junta leader] Senior Gen. Than Shwe like? Have you met him?
It's a very hierarchical system, very old fashioned, and he is used to having every little whim of his carried out as an instruction. I have only seen him face-to-face once, when the Australian foreign minister visited in 2002 and paid a courtesy call. [Than Shwe] said that although he is often referred to as a military dictator, he didn't regard himself as one, which I thought was a pretty strange comment, because he is a dictator.
Did human rights come up in that discussion?
They did come up, and he gave standard responses. I shouldn't really talk about this publicly.
Than Shwe has been called a xenophobe, described as extremely unwilling to take criticism and reportedly grows enraged at the mention of the name Aung San Suu Kyi. Is this the stuff of lore, or accurate characterizations?
Most of those are fairly accurate, but they're not the whole story. He's not that much of a xenophobe, I don't think, but Burma is a very isolated country, and he has not ever lived or worked overseas. I think it's true that he does not like Aung San Suu Kyi to be mentioned, but he has met her on a small number of occasions and realizes that she's a force to be reckoned with.
Is there a compromise solution for Burma that recognized the issues people have raised, stops violence before it escalates and keeps the regime in power? Or have events moved beyond that point?
In theory that kind of compromise could be achieved, but I don't know that steps are underway to work towards one. What I don't see is a regime that's about to fall. There could be a change in leadership, and it could involve Than Shwe being asked to step down by the other senior generals. But I certainly don't see the opposition suddenly winning out. One way or another it's likely to be more of the same. There are differences of opinion amongst the generals, but I don't know that any of them would suddenly espouse a truly reformist approach or take the view that they should move quickly to have elections and hand over governance to whomever wins. I don't think they're given to bold initiatives. They're very cautious, security conscious and risk-averse. And they don't understand the people very well.
In 1988, faced with similar protests, the government killed an estimated 3,000 people as it reimposed control. Nineteen years later they're still in power. If they use force again would they likely succeed again?
It could have the same result. Mind you, it's quite often not mentioned that in 1988 there was chaos on the streets. There were a lot of cases where people took the law into their own hands, and some of the deaths were of police and soldiers being summarily executed. The regime argues they were restoring order. That's not to disguise the fact that the troops had orders to fire, to kill, and they did. And today the troops are already deployed and ready to move whenever the order is given. It's quite difficult to ensure that whatever action they take is going to end without [more] people dying. And that's why I think that, given that this is all happening in slow time, there is an opportunity—maybe—to convince the military government that they ought to allow some kind of international visit.