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Sunday, Sept. 30, 2007

China might still the hands of the junta

BANGKOK — In 1989 Chinese troops, on orders of the government, mowed down demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. It was a sad spectacle that China is still living down, though memory fades with every year of spectacular economic development — and with the nation's steady prideful movement toward hosting the Olympic Games next summer.

In Myanmar (but let's still call it by its former name, Burma), protesters, led by monks, have marched through the central streets of the capital in somewhat the same way, and the killings have started. Will Yangon in the end meet the fate of Tiananmen?

Will the Yangon of 2007 look like the Burma of 1988, when street protesters were smashed like so many toy figurines, 3,000 people dead in the streets?

Without a doubt, this junta has a voracious appetite for killing and repressing its own people. It's hard to see how some measure of bloody violence could have been avoided. Burma is, after all, the North Korea of Southeast Asia. And one common quality of Burma and North Korea is that their best friend — and significant ally — is China.

Logically, therefore, it may be that the only outside force that can stay the trigger-happy junta is China. Its influence over the Yangon government is not immense, but applied properly, it could prove decisive at the margins. Without China's aid and investment, Burma would be nowhere, just like North Korea.

Don't get me wrong — the government of China does not possess a humanitarian bleeding heart that pines for better days for the Burmese people. Still, we must understand — if we are to be realistic — that China cares only about China.

China does worry about avoiding a massive mess on its border, which is what it surely faces if Burma implodes. At all costs, China prefers stability, at home, and on its edges.

Consider the North Korea analogy. China preaches — and mainly practices — a foreign policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. It takes this stance mainly for two reasons: It understands that people who live in glass houses are unwise to throw stones. It is not going to go around the world criticizing the human-rights practices of other countries when it is not exactly racking up Amnesty International good-guy brownie-points. The other reason is — again — that China cares about China.

Perhaps two factors would move China to bother about whether Burmese monks are mowed down by Myanmar soldiers:

China has invested heavily in Burma, has countless Chinese workers inside the country and draws out endless natural resources from that bountiful geography. It would hurt China economically and in other ways to have to kick the Burma habit.

The world now expects more of China than before. Prior to the establishment of the six-party talks in 2003, for example, almost no one had predicted a significant measure of involvement by Beijing in the North Korean question. But what happened? China not only created but also hosted the six-party talks, and has a bit of recent hopeful effects to show for its troubles.

China now might wish to configure something comparable to alleviate the Burma crisis. Perhaps a let's-talk setup could be organized in Beijing, where the junta's generals — assuming they don't decide to shoot or run (or both) — can feel secure while facing the other side across the table.

Perhaps they can convince the generals inside Burma that negotiations with the camp of Aung San Suu Kyi are unavoidable. She or her designate(s) need to be at that table, hammering out some power-sharing arrangement for the country's future.

Make no mistake about it. The sandal-clad monks braving both the rain-forest weather and the always-imminent threat of a hellish rain of bullets are firmly camped on the side of the daughter of Burmese independence hero Aung San. They have been passing out commemorative pictures of her historic, sainted father as they stroll through the streets.

The junta is made up of mostly bad generals. But in the pile there are a few good ones, relatively speaking — in the tradition of true patriots in military garb, rather than greedy stealing thieves hiding behind their patriotic uniforms and socking millions away abroad.

A few good generals and the Suu Kyi faction together could form a government that could move Burma toward representative democracy without ignoring a role for the army.

Only a formula of this nature is going to save Burma from tragedy. Yes, they may well shoot more monks. But if they don't, it may be China, ironically, that proves to be the hand that prevents a Burmese Tiananmen.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a veteran American journalist, is traveling in Southeast Asia. Copyright 2007 Tom Plate

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