The hypocrites who say they back democracy in Burma

26 October 2007

Addressing a London meeting, 'Freedom Writ Large', organised by PEN and the Writers Network of Burma, John Pilger pays tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi and the writers of Burma, 'the bravest of the brave', and describes the hypocrisy of Western leaders who claim to back their struggle for freedom.

The news is no more from Burma. The young monks are quiet in their cells, or they are dead. But words have escaped: the defiant, beautiful poetry of Aung Than and Zeya Aung; and we know of the unbroken will of the journalist U Win Tin, who makes ink out of brick powder on the walls of his prison cell and writes with a pen made from a bamboo mat – at the age of 77. These are the bravest of the brave.
What honour they bring to humanity with their struggle; and what shame they bring to those whose hypocrisy and silence helps to feed the monster that rules Burma.
When I began to write this, I had planned to quote a moving passage from my last interview with Aung San Suu Kyi, but I decided not to - because of something Suu Kyi said to me when I last spoke to her. “Be careful of media fashion,” she said. “The media like this sentimental version of life that reduces everything down to personality. Too often this can be a distraction.”
I thought about that, and how typically self effacing it was, and how right she was. For the greatest distraction is the hypocrisy of those political figures in the democratic West, who claim to support the Burmese liberation struggle. Laura Bush and Condaleeza Rice come to mind. “The United States,” said Rice, “is determined to keep an international focus on the travesty that is taking place in Burma.” What she is less keen to keep a focus on is that the huge American company, Chevron, on whose board of directors she sat, is part of a consortium with the junta and the French company, Total, that operates in Burma’s offshore oil fields. The gas from these fields is exported through a pipeline that was built with forced labour and whose construction involved Halliburton, of which Vice President Cheney was Chief Executive.
For many years, the Foreign Office in London promoted business as usual in Burma. When I interviewed Suu Kyi a decade ago I read her a Foreign Office press release that said, “Through commercial contacts with democratic nations such as Britain, the Burmese people will gain experience of democratic principles.” She smiled sardonically and said, “Not a bit of it.”
In Britain, the official public relations line has changed; Burma is a favourite New Labour's "cause"; Gordon Brown has written a chapter in a book about his admiration of Suu Kyi. How well his platitudes reflect on his counterfeit liberalism. When the last month’s uprising broke out in Rangoon, he referred to the sanctity of the “universal principles of human rights”. This week he wrote a letter to PEN about Burma's writers; it waffles about prisoners of conscience and is a distraction: indeed part of his current, grand theme of distraction about "returning liberty" when of course none will be returned without a fight. Hands can be wrung; letters to PEN can be spun; nothing can be done. As for Burma, the essence of Britain's compliance and collusion has not changed. British tour firms – like Orient Express and Asean Explorer – are able to make a handsome profit on the suffering of the Burmese people. Aquatic – a sort of mini Halliburton – has its snout in the same trough, together with all those companies that make a nice earner from Burmese teak.
When did Brown or Blair ever use their close connections with business – their platforms at the CBI and in the City London, among the bankers of Brussels - to name and shame those British companies that make money on the back of the Burmese people? When did a British prime minister call for the European Union to plug the loopholes of arms supply to Burma, stopping, for example, the Italians from supplying military equipment? The reason ought to be obvious. The British government is itself one of the world’s leading arms suppliers, especially to regimes at war with their neighbours, democracies or dictatorships, who cares? Next week, the dictator of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, whose tyranny gorges itself on British arms, will receive a state visit. Last night, (On October 25) the Brown government approved Washington's latest fabricated prelude to a criminal attack on Iran - as if the horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan were not enough for the "liberal" lionhearts in Downing Street and Whitehall.
And when did a British prime minister call on its ally and client, Israel, to end its long and sinister relationship with the Burmese junta. Or does Israel’s immunity and impunity also cover its supply of weapons technology to Burma and its reported training of the junta’s most feared internal security thugs? Of course, that is not unusual. The Australian government – so vocal lately in its condemnation of the junta – has not stopped the Australian Federal Police from training Burma’s  internal security forces in  at the Australian-funded Centre for Law Enforcement Co-operation in Indonesia.
Those who care for freedom in Burma and Iraq and Iran and Saudi Arabia and beyond must not be distracted by the posturing and weasel pronouncements of our leaders, who themselves should be called to account as accomplices. We owe nothing less to Aung San Suu  Kyi, to Burma’s writers and to all the bravest of the brave.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library