Liu: Can China Avert a Crisis in Burma?

The televised images out of Burma make me very queasy. Once again, cities are under curfew, Burmese soldiers are beating protestors and gunfire is ringing out in city streets. I was in Rangoon in 1988, one of just a handful of Western reporters trying to comprehend the brutal crackdown on street protests unfolding around us. At one point I brought the group to visit a sympathetic foreign ambassador, to find out what was going on. With gunfire in the distance, the diplomat said he'd received reports of Burmese soldiers firing mortars and machine guns against civilian protestors. Visibly rattled, he whispered, "Imagine that: using heavy weapons against your own people." By the time the killing was over, as many as 3,000 Burmese were dead.

In 1988, the international community had hoped Japan—then Rangoon's biggest patron—would pressure the regime to use restraint. Today all eyes are on China, which in recent years has pumped billions of dollars worth of investments and aid into Burma, making their resource-rich neighbor a pillar of Beijing's energy-security scheme. Chinese-built infrastructure and a sophisticated communications station have popped up in Burma, a critical outpost in China's "string of pearls" strategy in the Indian Ocean and near the Malacca Straits, through which four fifths of Beijing's oil imports pass. International analysts have made much of Burma's virtual return to its traditional status as a "vassal state" on China's periphery. But can China compel the junta to do the right thing?

The short answer is no, not necessarily. True, senior Chinese diplomat Tang Jiaxuan not long ago told Burma's visiting foreign minister that "China wholeheartedly hopes that Myanmar will push forward a democracy process that is appropriate for the country." And in June the Chinese Foreign Ministry brokered an unusual meeting in Beijing between U.S. and Burmese representatives at which the Americans pressed for the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel laureate been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years (and yesterday was reported to have been whisked off to the notorious Insein prison).

Surely China will have to "fix" the problem, analysts argue, because of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. True, Chinese authorities are paranoid about anything that might tarnish the 2008 Games. Over the past year Chinese diplomats have prodded Sudan's government to admit international peacekeepers, trimmed Beijing's much-criticized lending to Zimbabwe and worked overtime to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis under the umbrella of the Beijing-sponsored Six-Party Talks. The Foreign Ministry's biggest nightmare is having next year's Games dubbed the "Genocide Olympics," a slogan adopted by foreign critics.

At the same time, Chinese officials are well aware of how illogical, opaque and truculent the 45-year-old military regime can be. I have no precise recipe for the Burmese endgame; anyone who says they do is lying. Here's what I do know, though: international leverage may be ineffectual, or may even boomerang. Just as Tokyo was helpless to stop the 1988 bloodshed, so might Beijing fail to avert a disaster. Don't forget that today India is wooing Burma, too, keen to snag a piece of the country's energy resources. China's diplomats feel they must navigate the current crisis carefully and quietly or else they may "lose" Burma to India's embrace. (Who better to understand that dynamic than the country that benefited when Japan "lost" Burma in 1988?)

Then again, Burma isn't anyone else's to lose. The generals themselves are fully capable of weird and irrational behavior. The timing of Rangoon's crackdown 19 years ago—on the eighth day of the eighth month of 1988—was based partly on the diktat of numerology. Not long ago the Burmese government decided abruptly—again, on the advice of astrologers—to shift their government offices to Naypyidaw, an obscure district with no cell-phone service. So perverse was the decision that even China's Foreign Ministry briefly posted on its Web site a critical account of the move.

So, let's stop comparing Burma with other countries, shall we? It's wrong to predict a Burmese replay of the so-called "color revolutions" that toppled dictators from Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan. For one thing, with just $200 in per capita income, Burma's an economic basket case, a shadow of the erstwhile rice exporter that it was during British colonial rule. For similar reasons, let's not anticipate a perfect replay of Beijing in 1989, either.

Journalists always tend to revisit past crackdowns when posed on the brink of a new one. In 1988, the media assumed for weeks that Rangoon was experiencing an exhilarating "People Power" peaceful revolution, of the sort that toppled Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. (China's Tiananmen Square bloodletting didn't take place until 10 months later.) I recall flying into Rangoon airport on a weekend—my deadline time—and bumping into a reporter from a competing publication who was on his way out of Rangoon. In the chaotic terminal, I saluted him on his reporting scoop. But by nightfall the uplifting democracy-has-won story changed 180 degrees. Shooting broke out throughout the city, and by morning blood was flowing on the steps of the fabled Shwedagon Pagoda.

Whatever happens in Burma, a quick and clearcut resolution is far from guaranteed. The 1988 protests took months to reach their tragic denouement. Today, the junta courts immense risk by cracking down on Buddhist monks who (in contrast to 1988) are leading the protests and challenging the traditional state-backed clergy discredited by their loyalty to the junta. Unfortunately, Suu Kyi can be put behind bars. But the country's Buddhists—comprising nearly 90 percent of its 47 million people—cannot all be jailed.

Finally, don't assume we're dealing with a modern, middle-class society here. Burma can be downright surreal (worthy of George Orwell, who wrote "Burmese Days" based on his experiences as a police officer there). In 1988, Burmese sources living near a vast cemetery told me they'd heard the screams of injured protestors being cremated alive. Trying to confirm the account, I wound up in a feral, decaying graveyard dotted with colonial-era Western tombs replete with winged-angel statues and Scottish crosses. The necropolis was home to a Felliniesque community of grave robbers, drug dealers, lepers and heavily made-up prostitutes who lived inside the crypts.

Almost as soon as I reached the crematorium, I was in trouble. Menacing thugs twirling sharpened bicycle spokes started closing in. I decided to retreat, and to bring my American photographer and two Burmese translators back to the city. But our escape was blocked by a newly arrived unit of stern, fit Burmese soldiers clutching brand-new assault rifles. After a tense interrogation, we were released—minus the two Burmese youth, whom I never saw again. (I was blacklisted and never got another visa.) Last night I saw the news reports saying two military divisions had arrived in Rangoon, including the 22nd —one of the same units deployed to Rangoon in 1988. I thought of the two Burmese youth shivering with fear, kneeling at gunpoint—and the sickly smell of bones and tombs swept over me again.