The Burmese Crackdown & the Chinese Connection

by Laura Snedeker

The Burmese military junta discovered the power of the media one day too late when news of the state’s violent crackdown on protesting Buddhist monks circulated around the globe, prompting foreign governments to sever ties with the rogue nation.

The junta’s disproportionate response and its failure to cut communications before the international media and domestic bloggers documented the carnage demonstrate the regime’s lack of preparation to deal either with its own citizens or the overzealousness of its military. The Burmese government isn’t known for dealing subtly with undesirable pro-democracy activists, such as imprisoned Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but its actions nevertheless shocked the world, its allies most of all.

Burma’s strongest military and economic ally, China, hasn’t gone so far as to condemn the junta’s actions, but the government did express concern about the political turmoil. China’s real concern isn’t with the plight of the protestors whom the military clubbed to death or spirited away, but with its own reputation.

Timing is everything, and this crackdown couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Chinese government, which is attempting to project a kindler, gentler image in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Much has been made of China’s own dubious human rights record, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to fear a boycott by Western nations.

The Chinese government is painfully familiar with the dangers of failing to properly control the media. Tiananmen Square is synonymous with violent repression, thanks to the non-stop news coverage. The iconic image of the lone protester facing down a line of tanks hurt China’s standing more than a dozen State Department reports or official proclamations could have.

The Tiananmen Square massacre drew condemnation from around the world, and since then the government has been increasingly image-conscious and extremely wary of the proliferation of dissident internet media. The government hasn’t fared well on that front, but if it faced a similar pro-democracy movement today it wouldn’t hesitate to bring the whip down on the media before taking out the guns.

A military dictatorship’s only response is violence; it is in a constant state of war with its own people and is incapable of solving problems without resorting to brutality. The Burmese military junta flew into a panic during the crackdown and cut internet connections, hoping to stem the tide of eyewitness reports flowing across the country’s borders. Killed in the violence was Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai; his death symbolizes the regime’s desire to remain closed to the outside.

The mere fact of a military crackdown in a dictatorship is rarely enough to prompt foreign governments and citizens alike to express their outrage. The Western world was not unaware of the Burmese junta’s brutality prior to this week’s violence. But foreign leaders failed to tighten sanctions or deny visas to military officers before it became obvious that anything less than those actions looked like further acceptance.

The images of hundreds of Buddhist monks dressed in red and marching peacefully drew the attention of the world because they showed us determined resistance and foreshadowed the coming crackdown. The accounts of Burmese soldiers killing protestors bring to life the regime’s horror; the picture of Nagai dying as he snaps his last photos demonstrates the regime’s panicked response to the momentary opening up of their secretive state.

(Photo by racoles of New York via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a political cartoon about the Burmese junta from The Washington Post, please check here. To see a report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about the Burmese protests, please check below.)

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