Thursday, December 20, 2007

China's Role in Burma Crisis

In response to Burma’s ruthless crackdown on pro-democracy protests, which has generated condemnation from the international community, Taiwan Thinktank held the seminar titled “Peace Forum: China’s Role in Burma Crisis” on October 8th at National Taiwan University Alumni Club. Peace Forum invited the following experts as panel participants: Chih-Cheng Lo (Member of Executive Committee, Taiwan Thinktank), Cheng-Yi Lin (Research Fellow, Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica), Juo-Yu Lin (Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Tamkang University), Shih-Chung Liu (Vice Chair, Research and Planning Committee, Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and I-Chung Lai (Director, Department of International Affairs, Democratic Progressive Party).

Professor Lo, who served as the moderator, opened with his remarks on China’s attitude: China’s diplomatic and strategic calculations explain its silence on this crisis. China is currently negotiating the establishment of “Yunnan-Burma” oil pipeline with the military junta. Since the pipeline will allow China to diversify up to 80% of oil transportation risk (from over-relying on the route through Coast of Malacca), China hesitated expressing any negative sentiments against the Burmese junta. Professor Lo further pointed out that, as early as the end of last September, Taiwan’s government has issued an official press release condemning Burmese junta’s repression and advisory discouraging tourists from visiting Burma. Professor Lo saw this as indication of Taiwan’s awareness and concern over regional development. Perhaps Taiwan’s condemnation would not bring any concrete result, but this should not serve as an excuse for Taiwan to remain silent.

Research Fellow Lin viewed China’s response from another perspective. Besides worries over energy diplomacy, China is equally aware of Burmese junta’s long-term violation of human rights against the Burmese citizens. If China condemns the junta’s behaviors, it might incite domestic protests against its own human rights abuse. Lin pointed out that China is surrounded by Burma, North Korea and other Central Asian countries—all of them are authoritarian countries known for their extremely bad human rights records. However, this also acts as a protective shield—condemnation from the West is often “absorbed” by these countries, so the final impact on China is minimal if not non-existent.

Director Lai commented on Taiwan’s response to this crisis. He pointed out that the Democratic Progressive Party has signed onto statements made by several international organizations in additional to official statement that demanded China to adopt a more proactive attitude towards this crisis. Director Lai further suggested that law concerning political asylum, which is first drafted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, is still waiting to be passed by the Legislative Yuan. The latter should quicken its review and passage of this law, which is prerequisite for more complete and comprehensive regulations concerning political asylums.

Professor Lin, a Southeast Asia specialist with extensive field experience in Burma, stated that China is currently playing a two-pronged strategy: while it assists the Burmese junta, it also expresses willingness to transfer its support to Aung San Suu Kyi, if the latter returns to power. Professor Lin further stated that long-term struggles among military junta, democratic force headed by Aung San and minority groups have increased ASEAN members’ incentive to balance Burma and to prevent its internal struggle from affecting its neighbors. The ASEAN’s agreement to establish a human rights body reflects such intention.

Professor Lo concluded that this crisis consists of a dilemma for the international community: the latter is forced to choose between a drastic solution that is risky or a “wait and see” move that does not solve the problem at once but is safer. International community’s call for a talk between Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the military junta seems to indicate the latter. The military junta’s response to international pressure resembles China’s—repressing protests and activists unless noticed or condemned by the international community. Professor Lo stressed the importance of human rights issues. As human rights issues transpire any national border, it is an important topic for Taiwan as well. This crisis should prompt every Taiwanese to come up with ways to use human rights and freedom as basis to communicate with the international community.

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