Earler this week, the Institute for Public Dialogue proposed a new method for diplomacy called Public Talks. Nations in conflict would put “challenge documents” on the Internet for their populaces to read, and access to both sides would create enough public pressure for both nations to mediate their disputes. As I pointed out at Heading Right, it sounds great — but since open societies never go to war with each other, their electorates already have access to government positions and much more.
Burma today showed why “challenge documents” won’t work with tyrannies (via Michelle Malkin):
Soldiers in Myanmar pounded down on dissent Friday by swiftly breaking up street gatherings of die-hard activists, occupying key Buddhist monasteries and cutting public Internet access. The moves raised concerns that a crackdown on civilians that has killed at least 10 people this week was set to intensify.
Troops fired warning shots in the air and hit protesters with clubs to break up a demonstration by about 2,000 people, witnesses said. Five of the protesters were seen being dragged into a truck and driven away. The clash in an area near the Sule Pagoda was the most serious of the several sporadic — though smaller — protests that were reported in Myanmar’s biggest city.
By sealing Buddhist monasteries, the government seemed intent on clearing the streets of monks, who have spearheaded the demonstrations and are revered by most of their Myanmar countrymen. This could embolden troops to crack down harder on remaining civilian protesters.
Efforts to squelch the demonstrations appeared to be working. Daily protests drawing tens of thousands of people had grown into the stiffest challenge to the ruling military junta in two decades, a crisis that began Aug. 19 with rallies against a fuel price hike, then escalated dramatically when monks joined in.
Western diplomats in Burma (Myanmar) now believe the military has killed dozens of protestors. The junta that has run Burma for decades has completely ignored the international community, continuing its brutal crackdown on monks without any concern over global outrage over their methods. The non-violent nature of the protests has not moderated the government response to the demonstrations a whit.
This demonstrates the point I made in earlier posts about the nature of negotiations with tyrannies for real change. It applies to Burma, but also applies to Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba, and the entire range of oppressive, top-down dictatorships and kleptocracies. These regimes exist in part by tight control of information. When negative information flows into or out of these nations, the dictators simply ensure that the channels for that information either stop transmitting unapproved communications — or get shut down entirely.
The end of Internet access will damage the ability of the activists to get images and stories of brutality out to the world. However, that will probably make little difference, because the world hasn’t exactly rushed to the aid of the Burmese. Oh, the world has issued their own version of “challenge documents” in condemning the actions of the military junta by condemning them in diplomatic terms for their crackdown on peaceful demonstrations — but they have done little to put pressure on Burma to end it. The Washington Post’s Edward Cody is shocked, shocked! to find Burma’s neighbors acting in their own self-interest:
The United States and Europe have fiercely criticized Burma’s military rulers for clinging to power during another round of pro-democracy protests, this time led by unarmed monks. But closer to home, the junta’s Asian neighbors and trading partners — China chief among them — have walked a distinctly more cautious line, expressing distress over the violence and, after long hesitation, renewing calls for reconciliation and eventual transition to democracy.
The discretion by China and Thailand in particular reflects sensitivity over their own political systems. China has been a one-party dictatorship for more than half a century, and its Communist rulers have given no sign they are willing to change anytime soon. In Thailand, a military coup d’etat gave power a year ago to a uniformed junta with different policies but the same origin — the barracks — as the one putting down marchers in Rangoon. …
As a result, neither government can afford to be seen applauding as the Burmese monks cry out for an end to dictatorship. Were they to join the United States and Europe in clearly urging Burma’s generals to step aside for democratic elections, the question in Beijing and Bangkok would be obvious: Why is democracy not also the right path for China and Thailand?
Partly out of these concerns, the main regional grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, had for two weeks reacted to the crisis by citing its doctrine of noninterference in the affairs of member nations, which include Burma. Like China, ASEAN limited itself to deploring the violence and urging some kind of peaceful settlement.
And that explains why “challenge documents” and international debating societies like the UN and ASEAN matter little to tyrannies. Their associates in these organizations join to broaden economic ties and solidify their own political positions. They don’t support liberty or democracy, because the members of these organizations aren’t liberal democracies or open societies themselves. The only measure of concern from China on Burma has to do with whether the violence will disrupt their economic ties. With China’s suppression of the monks of Tibet, they’re the last nation who will act in defense of Buddhist monks agitating for freedom anywhere in Asia.
One might think that the overwhelming naiveté that afflicted 1930s Europe on handling dictatorships would have taught these lessons to the West permanently. Unfortunately, we continue to learn the hard way that shame doesn’t work with tyrants and kleptocrats.
UPDATE: Tom Shipley asks in the comments, “You say this is not a good idea because tyrannies won’t take part. First of all, you don’t know that for sure. Second of all, what harm would come from trying?” It’s not an unreasonable question, and it deserves an answer. The harm comes from people believing that it will actually result in change — and the focus it shifts from that change to winning a silly debating contest. The point of diplomacy should be to free people from bondage, not essay contests that will have no impact on thugs and tyrants.
This process enables people to change action for rhetoric. We do that often enough already. In the case of Burma, even the testimony of diplomats attesting to dozens dead in the streets hasn’t convinced China, Thailand, or India to cut off Burma and close down trade with them. Are we to believe that a strongly-worded letter from the State Department recapping what everyone already knows about the Burmese military dictatorship will exceed the power of those images?
Reliance on challenge documents just lets everyone off the hook. It seeks to embarrass governments that have no accountability to their people. Shame doesn’t work in that setting, and for those who think that is the ultimate in diplomatic offensives, it keeps other solutions off the table. That’s the harm.