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14 Oct, 2007

If the Burmese are entitled to freedom, aren’t the Palestinians?

Originally Published: 14 Oct 2007

It is hugely inspiring and uplifting to see the passion and energy being poured into the efforts to gain freedom for the people of Burma from the military dictatorship.

There is justifiably enormous sympathy for the oppressed people of this strategically-important and resource-rich country which has produced international public figures like former UN Secretary-General U Thant.

Global pressure is being bought to bear on the junta across all fronts. The media is providing saturation coverage, intense diplomatic activities are under way and further sanctions are being sought.

Regional superpowers India and China are both being accused of deliberately looking the other way in order to support their commercial and energy interests. China is being threatened with a potential boycott of the Olympics.

All well and good. In the modern era of freedom and democracy, nobody should have to live under a government that deprives its people of basic human rights.

But while the world sees a clear opportunity to oust the junta, I see yet another example of the hypocrisy and double standards that pervades global geopolitics, especially amongst Western governments.

If the Burmese are entitled to freedom and independence, shouldn’t the same apply to the Palestinian people who are also the victims of a 40-year occupation — not by a military dictatorship but by Israel, a supposed “democracy”?

As human beings yearning to be free, are the Burmese any different from the Palestinians? If Burma should face world pressure and sanctions, why shouldn’t Israel?

Many anti-junta agitators are frustrated and angered by what they construe to be the stonewalling by China and India to put pressure the junta. Now do they understand how the Palestinians feel when they call for Western pressure on the Israelis – and are similarly stonewalled?

The monks’ peaceful “saffron revolution” enthralled the world. Parallels were drawn with the role of the Christian clergy in ousting former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and Pope John Paul II in inspiring the then Polish union leader Lech Walesa to energise the Solidarity movement that eventually led to the fall of the Iron Curtain.

How loud was the applause when these great movements were under way.

But how quickly we forget that the first peaceful religious revolution that shook the world was mounted in Iran – yes, Iran — by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978-79 against the former Shah of Iran, one of the most despotic dictators in history.

His primary backer was none other than the United States, which he kept happy by buying billions of dollars in US weaponry and allowing Iran to be used as a base for sophisticated electronic listening posts to the south of what was then the Soviet empire.

In those pre-Internet days of 1978, Khomeini’s weapon of choice was the tape recorder. Cassettes featuring his sermons were smuggled into Iran and played in the mosques, inspiring the Iranian people to launch massive demonstrations that overwhelmed the autocratic Shah and his feared secret service, the Savak.

Do you know where were these messages being taped? In France, where Khomeini was located at the time. Yes, France, the same country that is now looking to drum up support for an attack on Iran.

In the eyes of the West, the only “good” revolutions are those which oust leaders who do not wish to become flunkies of the West.

If religious revolutionaries are held in such high esteem, listen to the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Returning from a recent visit to Syria and meeting hundreds of Iraqi Christian refugees generated by the conflict in Iraq, he told the BBC: “When people talk about further destabilisation of the region – and you read some American political advisers speaking of action against Syria and Iran – I can only say that I regard that as criminal, ignorant and potentially murderous folly.”

How about South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the pillars of the anti-apartheid movement, whose appearance to speak at a function organised by a peace and justice group at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota was cancelled because they found his views on Israel somewhat unpalatable.

According to one report, the university president, Father Dennis Dease, decided against Tutu’s appearance after consulting one representative from the local Jewish Community Relations Council and several rabbis affiliated with the university.

Thanks to counter-pressure, including by the university’s law faculty and moderate Jewish groups fed up with the policies of the Israeli government, the cancellation was rescinded.

Indeed, the real test is yet to come in Burma.

Any day now, I wager that the anti-junta protests will escalate into acts of violence that would be otherwise defined as “acts of terrorism” by the West.

This violence will be motivated not out by any desire to wantonly kill people but in pursuit of a cause — freedom for the Burmese people. It will be driven by frustration, despair, anger, bitterness and hopelessness stemming from a suffocating military oppression.

Then, I will wait to see the reaction of the so-called civilised world. Will they denounce the perpetrators as “terrorists” and condemn the violence as “totally unjustified”?

Or will there be an outpouring of sympathy and sorrow, coupled with even more denunciations of the military regime for having created the conditions that led to violence? And how will they “differentiate” and “justify” the violence of a “Burmese freedom-fighter” against the “unjustifiable” violence of an “Islamic terrorist?”

Do they think such violence will not occur? Wait and see. Wasn’t it a great American revolutionary leader, Patrick Henry, who said: “Give me liberty or give me death”?

Watching the agitation for freedom and democracy in Burma reminds me of a similar campaign in favour of East Timor, then a part of Indonesia ruled by military dictatorship of ex-President Suharto.

Once free, thanks to a well-orchestrated campaign heavily backed by Western governments, the East Timor revolutionary leaders conveniently forgot the other oppressed people also seeking freedom from occupation, namely, the Palestinians.

One waits to see if Aung San Suu Kyi will turn a similar blind eye upon attaining her objective.