Friday, October 12, 2007

China, Burma, And Western Hypocrisy

The last few weeks have seen a torrent of public condemnation, rightly so I might add, against the activites of the military junta in Burma. Pundits and public opinion across the world (or most of it anyway) have decried the bloodshed and gross human rights violations taking place in that country. For some reason, however, much of this anger is being diverted to one of Burma's primary backers: China. China should do more to stop the killing, they say. China needs to be a responsible player in international politics and not support brutal dictatorships, we are told. With power comes responsibility - don't you understand, you Oriental bastards? With power comes responsibility!

What's more, these criticisms of China are now taking on a threatening shape. Though it is highly unlikely to actually take place, there is considerable talk of an Olympic boycott to protest China's role - whatever that may be - in all of this. It's not like Beijing has enough problems on its plate with the Olympics, what with trying to halve the number of cars on the road because of pollution or trying to get Chinese to stop spitting and jumping lines. No, some in the West would like to boycott the Beijing Olympics to punish China. Let's sample some of these incredibly cogent and thoughtful opinions, shall we? Here's Christopher Hitchens, finishing off a typically pompous article with this paragraph:
Meanwhile, everybody is getting ready for the lovely time they will have at the Beijing Olympics. If there could be a single demand that would fuse almost all the human rights demands of the contemporary world into one, it would be the call to boycott or cancel this disgusting celebration.

Okay, then. Well, Mr. Roger Cohen, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, do you have anything substantive to add?
The nine months to the Olympics present a unique opportunity to shame China into shepherding Burmese reform, beginning with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Hmm, I see. What about you, Mr. Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post? How are you going to contribute to this lively discussion?
And here's something else I would do: Tell China that, as far as the United States is concerned, it can have its Olympic Games or it can have its regime in Burma. It can't have both.

Alright, mister. Maybe this is typical American bombast. Surely Europeans will be more circumspect and measured. Let's see. Would you like to tell us how you feel, Mr. Vice President of the European Parliament?
The Olympics is the only real lever we have to make China act. The civilized world must seriously consider shunning China by using the Beijing Olympics to send the clear message that such abuses of human rights are not acceptable.

Got it. Boycott Olympics, solve global human rights problems.

While I don't actually give a rat's ass about the Olympic games (doesn't everyone use steroids anyway?), I take strong exception to Western attitudes regarding this issue. For some reason, the West feels it needs to lecture the world on human rights abuses. I will ignore for the moment the complete irony of the fact that after Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and myriad cases of torture being exposed in American detention cells all around, Americans think they actually have a leg to stand on when it comes to this. What I want to focus on, instead, is the notion that the Chinese must be taught a lesson, must be embarassed and shamed on the international stage, must be brought around to see the light. Change your vile behavior or lose the prestige attached with hosting the the Olympic games - that's the message. Keep in mind it's not actually the Chinese doing this; it's friggin' Burma. But yet China is (a) held responsible, and (b) threatened with losing the Olympics. So I think it might be fun to, you know, apply this standard fairly. Let us construct a thought experiment where we're allowed to retroactively boycott Olympic games if the host of said Olympic games is either the sponsor or key ally of a state systematically killing, jailing and clamping down on its own citizens. Exciting, yes? Hmmm, I wonder which Olympics I should choose? Wait, I know! For the sake of incisiveness and casting light on hypocrisy, I'll go with 1984! Yay!

Los Angeles Olympic Games, 1984
Ah, 1984. One of the greatest years ever. First of all, in honor of George Orwell, the Deciders Of Time named the year after one of the best books of all time. More importantly, however, I had been alive for almost a year, thus treating the world to general bliss and harmony. The Olympics were to be held in Los Angeles, and since no one threatened a boycott, it must have meant that the U.S. had not been secretly sponsoring and aiding in the deaths, kidnappings and illegal incarceration of tens of thousands of people. Right?

Maybe, maybe not. It really depends on whether or not you know Nicaragua exists. The late 1970s and 1980s saw the Sandinista government and its supports subject to brutal attacks, assassinations, and indiscriminate violence by the Contras. Civilians were not spared. An estimated 30,000 people died. Did the U.S. have anything to do with this? Well, other than the Iran-Contra affair (where the U.S. illegally sold arms to Iran, then siphoned off the money to the rightist Contras), the millions of dollars of aid supplied, and CIA backing of the entire enterprise, not really. Certainly not enough to warrant a boycott of the Olympics. It was harmless stuff, really. If you don't believe me, here's an excerpt from a New York Times article in March 1985.
A new report by a private group asserts that over the last three years, rebels from one of the organizations seeking to overthrow the Nicaraguan Government have engaged in a pattern of attacks and atrocities against civilian targets...the findings are similar to those in a report issued today in Washington by Americas Watch, a private, non-political organization that monitors human rights in the Western Hemisphere.


One of the witnesses, who was quoted in the report and later was questioned by The Times, described an early morning attack that he said came as he was on his way to pick coffee at a cooperative farm north of here.

Along with about 30 other volunteers, the witness, Santos Roger Briones, 16 years old, said he was was traveling in a Government-owned truck early last December. Nearly a kilometer ahead was a pickup truck carrying armed soldiers who had been supposed to protect the unarmed civilians from rebel attack.

Suddenly, Mr. Briones recalled, the dump truck was peppered with rifle, machine-gun, grenade and rocket fire. Many in the truck were wounded. Those who could jumped down and ran for their lives.

''I was hit in the foot and was covered with blood, so I lay on the ground, pretending to be dead,'' said Mr. Briones. He said he remained motionless as men in blue uniforms robbed him of his boots and wallet. ''Then the contras came and cut the throats of the people who stayed on the truck,'' he said, using a Spanish term for the rebels.

''When they were finished, they set the truck on fire,'' he added. ''From where I was lying, I could hear the groans and the screams of those who were being burned alive.''


Mrs. Barreda said she made no effort to hide her pro-Sandinista sympathies. She is a member of a Christian peasant self-help group that works closely with Sandinista groups and also belongs to the official Nicaraguan Women's Association; her husband fought with the Sandinistas during the insurrection in 1979 that ousted Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

''There were 50 or 60 of them in the group, and over five days they took turns raping me until each had had his chance,'' said Mrs. Barreda.

You see? Nothing wrong with a little covert aid that leads to the death of tens of thousands of people. The aid was covert, people. That means it doesn't really count. Plus, in the early 1980s, in places where the aid and military training actually did count, the body count was much lower. Like Honduras where instead of tens of thousands, only hundreds of political opponents, leftists and ordinary civilians were tortured and killed. All the U.S. did there was provide almost $80 million of military aid a year and extensive training and support of death squads by the CIA. The most notorious of these death squads was Batallion 316 which engaged in, well, I'll let a former member tell it:
He recalled how he nearly suffocated people with rubber masks, how he attached wires to their genitals and shocked them with electricity, how he tore off a man's testicles with a rope.

"We let them stay in their own excrement," he said, his gold front tooth reflecting the dim lamplight. "When they were very weak, we would take them to disappear."


"The Americans knew everything we were doing," Caballero said. "They saw what condition the victims were in -- their marks and bruises. They did not do anything."

Not nearly enough to warrant an Olympic boycott in my book. Not even when you combine it with the 75,000 or so deaths that took place in El Salvador (not to mention torture, beatings, kidnappings, all that good stuff) around the same time. So what if, according to declassified documents, the U.S. "ensured massive and continued support" of the government and its military forces? So what if the CIA funded, organized and trained death squads to go on their rampages? I say it all means nothing, at least if we're talking about the Olympics. Plus, it's not as if the U.S. got involved in any other countries in the region. It was just these three! Promise!

Dear Westerners Who Think There Should Be A Boycott Of The Beijing Olympics Because Of Burma,

Please shut the fuck up. Thank you.


nadirh said...

This may be the single most illogical blog post I have ever read. Just because Hitchens, Hiatt and Cohen believe action should be taken against China for their support of Burma does not make them hypocrites. They would be guilty of hypocrisy if they held China to a standard which they are refusing to apply to the US. Of the three, only Hitchens was writing opinion columns in the 1980s, during which time he consistently denounced Reagan as a war criminal (see For the Sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports.) He also called Clinton a war criminal for bombing Sudan. (see No One Left to Lie to).
When someone like Asma Jehangir speaks out against the Iraq war, is that a sign of Eastern hypocrisy because Pakistan is the largest supplier of military aid to Sri Lanka, which is then used to kill Tamils. And Arundathi Roy should never speak again. After all, the Indian government gives military aid to Burma and Nepal.

Ahsan said...

while i am tempted to respond to hyperbole with hyperbole, i cannot in good faith say this is the "single most illogical comment i've ever seen on this blog". the reason for this is that i have seen many, many illogical comments on this blog, and so it is difficult to rank them with any degree of accuracy. i will then submit the more limited claim, which is that this is "one of the most illogical comments i have ever seen on this blog".

my dear friend, in regards to this post, it matters little to me (a) what hitchens, hiatt and cohen were doing in the 80s and (b) what asma jehangir and arundhati roy say or do. frankly i have no idea why you even brought the latter up, except perhaps to score some cheap "look the east is as hypocritical!" points. in the process you have missed the point of the entire post which can be summed up as follows:

1. many in the west (not limited to the four highlighted here) are demanding a boycott of the olympics for china's "actions" in burma.
2. said "actions" pale in comparison to the conduct of the us in the years before the 1984 olympics.
3. no one (though i would love to see some evidence to the contrary) was demanding a boycott of the 1984 olympics for said conduct. though the soviet bloc boycotted the games, it was in retaliation for the US boycott 4 years earlier, not for its actions in latin america. in any event, no one in the WEST was saying the los angeles olympics should be taken away from a country that aids arms and organizes death squads and torture.
4. ergo, western hypocrisy.

my argument stands irrespective of what hitchens was calling reagan or clinton, what the indian (!) government does and who the largest supplier of military aid to sri lanka (!) is.

if you would like to disagree for the sake of disagreeing, that is your prerogative, just as it is your prerogative to sound stupid. i fear you may have accomplished both here.

Moss J said...

Very well researched commentary i must say.

Might I ask how you came across the articles from Baltimore Sun newspaper? Did Wikipedia point you there? Not that I mean there is anything wrong with that.


Ahsan said...

no, i googled "death squads CIA honduras". i knew these things had happened, i just wanted to provide documentation and sources. when you know exactly what to search for, finding articles from the past isn't terribly difficult.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ego,

Firstly, only a true ignoramus, or someone childishly seeking attention would categorize all "westerners" into one category, and then tell them to "fuck off" ~ oh how powerful a statement that is..... (sigh)

There are many reasons to boycott Beijing Olympics.

Burma is certainly one, Darfur and Sudan is another, continued repression in Tibet (Panchen Lama disappearnce) is another, and let's not forget the continued persecution of Falun Gong, the arbitrary 'justice' system leading to world's highest levels of executions. Oh yes, almost forgot! Gao Zhisheng ~ CHinese human rights lawyer, who has been held incommunicado for nearly 6 months now ~ no-one (other than security services) knows where he is or his present condition....

As for LA '84 and so on ~ the public at large weren't as aware of these abuses as much as they are now. internet has revolutioned awareness ~ If the public at large had have been aware of that then, and therefore initiated a boycott of the Olympics, I would have agreed with that. I think such a celebration of the human spirit (which is what it is at best ~ at least the world comes together for it, steroids or no) should only be held in countries with a good Hr record at the time.

I don't necessarily support a boycott, but the arguments are strong in the case of China. Boycott or not, i hope this will help open the eyes of the Chinese people further to hope.

Ok I've got to go.

Anonymous said...

If the U.S. or Great Britain had hosted the Olympic Games this year, would the Western nations and many Hollywood liberals like Spielberg be demanding the boycott of the games in protest against Western presence in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Anonymous said...

"I don't necessarily support a boycott, but the arguments are strong in the case of China. Boycott or not, i hope this will help open the eyes of the Chinese people further to hope."

Don't you think that Americans and people from other nations need to learn to clean their own mess before they start demanding that the Chinese clean theirs?

Anonymous said...

One side of eastern wisdom is to know when to be reserved, in one's good times. One very western (oohps, Anglo-Saxonly western so I won't over-cover) taste of their politicians is that one can be Overtly hypocratic.

For obvious reasons US and UK politicians won't talk up their own records. Plus they feel for the time being China is unable to hit back on this issue. Wait London's got the 12' Games---so let's waiver the torch relay---cowards.