By Shobhan Saxena
It’s déjà vu all over again. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 -- chipped to small pieces by hammers and bare hands -- the Kremlin honchos watched the bricks in the wall fall one by one, with some unease and nervousness. But they didn’t do anything to make sure that the wall did not fall. The Soviets accepted the inevitability of a collapse that was staring them in the face. Mikhail Gorbachov and his close buddies knew that the end was near. So, they kept quiet. He let a wave of democracy rise from the ruins of the wall that stood at the heart of Europe for 45 years, dividing the continent and the world along an ideological faultline.
The Cold War mist has vanished, but something similar is unfolding in the heart of Asia that may change the geo-political scenario in this part of the world. As Burma burns, with unarmed monks walking in single file with folded hands, facing the machine fire and rifle butts and batons, and the brutal dictatorship refusing to concede any space to pro-democracy movement in the country, guess who is watching the situation with a lot of anxiety? It’s China.
The wall created by the army generals of Burma is under no serious threat. They have managed to crush down the rebellion in Rangoon by firing on unarmed people, ransacking the monasteries, throwing activists in jails, muffling the media and tightening their grip on the country. The generals achieved all this with some help and guidance from China.
It’s an open secret that China considers Burma its backyard. It has huge business and trade interests in Burma. Beijing has been opposing any trade sanctions against the Burmese dictators. Burma’s biggest trading partner is China, with hundreds of Chinese firms doing business there. Burma has huge reserves of natural gas which the energy-hungry China needs for its fast growing economy. China has secret military bases in Burma which give it access to the Indian Ocean. China is the biggest military supplier to Burma.
Even, Western democracies, which have been vocally supporting the pro-democracy movement, have not done anything concrete to put pressure on the world’s longest surviving military dictatorship. Almost every country has its eyes on the Burmese gas and the dictators have used this to make their position strong and suppress the people.
But what really bothers the Chinese leaders is the demand for democracy. They don’t like to hear two words in China – democracy and freedom. And Beijing would really any movement led by Buddhist clergy. Imagine a scenario: one fine day, thousands of monks come out of their monasteries in Tibet and walk silently on the streets of Lhasa and they are joined by common Tibetan people as they move towards the city centre, demanding freedom and democracy. Unlike Rangoon, which is cut off from the rest of the world, Lhasa is a major tourist centre now. If a huge pro-freedom rally takes place there, it will be a big news in all parts of the world. And it can lead to similar demonstrations in other parts of China.
As China’s booming economy grows at more than 10%, there are a large number of Chinese who are falling off the map. According to the Chinese government statistics, last year, there were more than 80,000 cases of riots in the country. In China, in recent years, the police and Communist Party officials have been attacked, beaten, condemned and humiliated by ordinary people – something unthinkable a few years ago. As mindless industrialization pollutes land, water and air in China and more and more people become poor in the countryside, a huge part of China is seething with anger and wanting a change in the system.
So far, the Chinese leaders have succeeded in keeping the demands for democracy under check, but they are not sure how long they can do it. Last week, the former secretary of Mao Zedong, Li Rui, demanded that China should become a democracy to “check instability and corruption”. The statement coming just a few weeks before the important meeting of the Communist Party of China is an indication that the pro-democracy voices are growing in China. The CPC bosses don’t like this. That’s why they don’t like the pro-democracy movement in their backyard. They don’t want the democracy sentiment to spill over to Tibet and then to the mainland. So, they are happy to keep the world’s most ruthless dictators in power in Burma. China finds it easy to do business with dictators. And it doesn’t want the movement led by monks to succeed as it can give ideas to monks and common people in Tibet. No wonder, China is doing all it can to shield the Burmese dictators from external pressures.
Shobhan Saxena is International Editor of the Times of India, Mumbai. He has been writing on the Tibetan issue for the past 12 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com