Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dictator Dressing

There was a time when nations stood for an ideal. There was a time when governments believed in the values of democracy. There was a time when politics was not only about self interest but about the common good. There was a time when nations around the world worked together to see that power was decentralized for the benefit of humanity. Or was there ever such a time? Was the gift of democracy ever delivered to us with transparency and promise?

As the world's largest democracy rolls out a red carpet to welcome one of the world's foremost violators of human rights and democracy, one wonders if there is hope for change. The President and Prime Minister of India play host this week to General Than Shwe, the head of the Military Junta that has ruled Burma with brutality for the past forty years. India has cultivated close diplomatic and military ties with Burma over the past decade to pursue economic and security interests and counterbalance China's growing clout in the country, which sits between the two Asian super powers.

Working with dictators has always been seen as a strategic move and has been rationalized by democracies through out history. The idea that isolation makes dictatorships dig in, there by punishing their citizenry even more has been a very valid argument. The people of Iraq during Saddam Hussein's regime had suffered a great deal due to sanctions. Most often dictatorships are measured by the rhetoric and policy of their leadership. If they are pro-western or pro-business they are often welcome. If they are hard line communist, left wing or overtly megalomaniacal they are shunned and isolated.

Being a beacon of democracy, America has had a very disturbing and complicated relationship with dictators all around the world. It has worked with the worst violators always justifying by using the phrase "national interest". Saddam Hussein, Augusto Pinochet, Suharto, Mobutu, Papa Doc,
Zai-Ul-Haq, Parvez Musharaf are just a few the American government has toyed with. There is also evidence that the United States business establishment had dealings with Nazi Germany, before they were dragged into the war. The problems America faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan are partly because of their policy of dictator dabbling. Through the past two centuries, European nations have propped up dictators through out Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The repercussion of those actions are felt even today with disastrous consequences.

Working with a dictator is always easier than working with a democracy as there is no approval process involved. There is no lag time. There is no congress, senate or opposition party to ratify agreements. All you need is to convince that one man at the top, lure him with either money or political support and he will get the job done. Or offer a cozy business relationship as in the case of China (a communist dictatorship) and lo and behold you have a win win situation. But as we have seen through out history any relationship based on pure selfish interest, comes at a great cost, most often a genocidal cost.

India sites three main reasons to be doing business with a despotic regime. It wants Burma's huge natural gas deposits to support its burgeoning middle class' hunger for an American lifestyle. It wants influence to counter China's unilateral push for dominance in the region. Political instability in its north western states are fueled from Burmese territory and India wants that stopped. For this India is willing to undermine its own history and character, and is willing to turn a blind eye to an individual it has given its highest civilian honor. The undisputed leader of the democratic movement, Aung Sung Suu Kyi, 14 years later, is still under house arrest and has been barred from taking part in a sham election that takes place this year. She has dissolved her party in protest as the world looks on.

By giving the Burmese dictator legitimacy, India compromises the very foundation it was built upon. By having a business/military relationship with a dictatorship India lowers its standing as a democracy. Apartheid ended in South Africa because nations around the world banded together and refused to do business with a repressive regime. Mahatma Gandhi brought the British regime to its knees by partly disrupting its business enterprise. And here is a nation founded on a legacy of fighting oppression, providing business opportunity to a Military Junta that grossly oppresses its own people.

The ruling party in India today, The Congress Party, was spearheaded during the freedom struggle by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who are considered the founding fathers of the nation. It is their party that is appeasing this dictator today. With this decision India might as well abandon referring to Mahatma Gandhi as its founding father. As this desecrates the ubiquitous garlanded photo frame of Bapu, that dresses every government establishment across the nation. By rolling out a red carpet to a dictator, India dishonors all those who have sacrificed to uphold the one quality that defines us as humans "freedom". It is what it is.