The Failed Saffron Revolution

In September 1987, the superstitious General Ne Win who headed the military junta in Burma (renamed Myanmar soon thereafter) banned all high value banknotes that were not divisible by nine. People in a country blighted by years of the junta’s despotism and economic mismanagement lost their savings overnight. This triggered Burma’s first massive uprising, with its indelible image of saffron and red clad monks marching with overturned bowls—a refusal to take alms from the junta or its soldiers amounted to excommunication. On Sept. 18, 1988, the army opened gunfire on a crowd of tens of thousands of protestors in Rangoon (now Yangon), and trucked away hundreds more whose fate remains unknown. It is estimated that more than 3,000 Burmese were killed that black September.

On Monday, Sept. 24, this year, the army brutally cracked down on an estimated 100,000 protestors in Rangoon. Foreign diplomats estimate that several hundred, including many monks, were shot or bludgeoned to death by the army. The protests had started a month earlier due to the steep hike in fuel prices, and gathered massive momentum when the junta refused to apologize for firing over the heads of protesting monks in Pakokku on Sept. 18.

The Chinese regime, Burma’s largest trading partner, and no stranger to killing unarmed students itself, was quick to shield the junta from a Security Council resolution. While the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries expressed “revulsion” in a private meeting with the Burmese foreign minister, the refrain for “constructive engagement” followed soon thereafter. Such engagement, since Burma was admitted into ASEAN a decade ago, has overseen one of the worst cases of starvation and disease outside sub-Saharan Africa.

However, India’s response trumped all realpolitik. On Oct. 1, it merely expressed “concern” over the situation, and the chief of Indian Army, General Deepak Kapoor told reporters, “We have a good relationship going with Myanmar and I am sure we will try and maintain that,” and that what happened in Burma was “an internal matter.”

Since 2002, when it restored full diplomatic relations with Burma, India has been playing catch up with China for influence over the Burmese regime. It rolled out the red carpet for the current head of the junta, General Than Shwe, in 2004. India’s then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam visited Burma last year to cement relations.

Like China, the Indians want Burma’s oil and gas and its co-operation in combating anti-Indian insurgencies in North-Eastern states. But most importantly, India is jittery at China’s influence over Burma, especially its “string of pearls” policy of establishing bases around the Indian Ocean, including one allegedly on the Burmese island of Great Coco. India has countered this with its own weapon and radar sales, and training for the junta’s military.

India has witnessed massacres of her own. On April 13, 1919, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer of the British Army fired into a crowd of more than 3,000 unarmed protestors in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. The official number of dead was 379, but independent accounts put the number between 1,200 and 1,800.

Winston Churchill recalled the incident before the House of Commons when asked to defend the Tories’ decision to retire the general: “Let me marshal the facts. The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, the fire was then directed down on the ground. This was continued for 8 to 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion...enough ammunition being retained to provide for the safety of the force on it return journey.”

History repeats itself not just because of short memories, but because of our instinctual self-centeredness. And since nations are but our own amplified selves, diplomacy, from America to India, triangulates for advantage first and asks questions later. Realpolitik, perfected and made honorable in modern times by the likes of Henry A. Kissinger ’50, is something that diplomats aspire to, not shirk from. There is ample evidence that such diplomacy often comes back to haunt its perpetrators–for example, the consequences of America’s abetment of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. However, to use such evidence as an argument against realpolitik is to miss the point. The argument cannot be that morally bankrupt diplomacy is ultimately unprofitable. It must simply be that it is wrong.

Like the previous crackdown in 1988, the latest massacre in Burma remains shrouded in mystery. But there is a tragic changelessness in the scene of a crowd of unarmed people being gunned down by an army. From Jallianwala Bagh to Tiananmen to Rangoon, it must be the most frightful of all spectacles, as Churchill quoted Macaulay, to witness the strength of a civilization without its mercy. And to that we must add, without its memory.

Manish Bhardwaj is a doctoral student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.