It’s become commonplace in foreign capitals to pronounce that democracy can never be imposed by force. It’s also frequently stated that unilateral diplomacy and sanctions are doomed. Now comes a proposal to encourage democracy in a country suffering under a dictatorial yoke and to use only peaceful, multilateral diplomacy to do so. It’s difficult to imagine how any of those foreign capitals could object.
The proposal originates with two of the most respected apostles of nonviolence, former Czech president Vaclav Havel (who helped manage the peaceful transition from communism) and South Africa’s retired archbishop Desmond Tutu (who helped bring about the equally miraculous peaceful transition from apartheid). The country in question is Burma, now called Myanmar by its dictators. The proposal is that the U.N. Security Council pay attention to Burma’s plight and instruct Secretary General Kofi Annan to negotiate with Burma’s leaders for a freeing of political prisoners and a restoration of democracy.
Why the United Nations? A 125-page report commissioned by Mr. Havel and Archbishop Tutu, and prepared by the Washington law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, makes the case that Burma’s plight, while most acute for its 50 million people, is no longer simply an internal matter for Burma to solve. It’s a case that the Bush administration itself has made, as when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Burma “an outpost of tyranny.” The war that Burma’s generals have waged on their own citizens — featuring ethnic cleansing, rape used as a weapon of war, and enslavement of civilians to perform dangerous work — is as vicious as the fighting that seized the world’s (and the United Nations’) attention in Sierra Leone; the difference is that Burma keeps CNN’s cameras away. The same war has forced some 700,000 refugees into neighboring countries. The dictators’ corrupt tolerance of heroin production has made Burma a leading source of illegal drugs.
In other words, Burma features many of the emergency factors that prompted the Security Council to intervene in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Haiti, Liberia and elsewhere. And unlike some of those countries, it also features an obvious and legitimate alternative source of governance: Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, which overwhelmingly won a parliamentary election in 1990 but has been barred from ruling ever since. Although Aung San Suu Kyi (like Archbishop Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient) remains under house arrest, and many in her party are imprisoned, the league nonetheless had the courage to endorse the call for Security Council action. Yet so far, a number of governments that should find the choice far easier, including traditional friends of Burma’s democrats such as Britain, have been reticent, and the Bush administration, while supporting the initiative, has been less than forceful.
A humanitarian and human rights catastrophe; a threat to neighboring countries; a proposed peaceful and multilateral response. What objection could there be?