Asian values have nothing to do with generals in the grip of madness

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The Independent Culture
the four prisoners shared the same cramped cell in Rangoon's Insein jail. It is one of Asia's most notorious prisons. Murder, torture, starvation, sexual abuse. Insein has all of that and more. It is less a building than an all-consuming darkness. The story of the four prisoners - told by a former inmate - offers a brutal illustration of the point.

One night, after the four men had been locked in, two of them made an effort to stay awake after their colleagues had fallen asleep. They then took loosened bricks from the wall and beat the sleeping men to death.

Was this the result of a typical prison vendetta? Had they fallen out over money or drugs? On the contrary. When admitting their crime the two murderers made a point of saying that they had no argument with their dead cellmates. The murders had been carried out simply to establish their status among the wider prison population. The dead men had just been unlucky enough to share the cell with two of the jail's more ambitious criminals. With two "kills" to their credit they immediately rose in the jail ranking, earning the respect of their warders and fellow convicts. According to one survivor of Insein, the two were even appointed to the prison administration board.

Those who know Burma are unlikely to be surprised by this story. It is in fact a useful metaphor for the state itself: a place where kindness and decency are vices, where greed and brutality are virtues. It is more than the law of the jungle. Nowhere among wild animals will you find the specialised cruelty of Burma's torturers.

The country of the Generals is not a nation state; it is what I like to call a psychotocracy, a country in the grip of a madness. This state of mind has been created by a military clique who seem immune to logic and impervious to pressure. Any sane mind can see that if there are no negotiations the Burmese will, sooner or later, rid themselves of these dictators. It may take years but the reckoning when it comes will not be pleasant. The wise, sensible and self-preserving thing for the regime to do would be to talk while there is time. But the Junta has spurned negotiation and relies now on the brutality of places like Insein to keep the population cowed.

Ten years ago today the people stood up against the military and were brutally crushed. On the streets of Rangoon the guns of the army cut down thousands of protesters. There was no live television coverage, what images we did see were smuggled out. The true picture of that awful period only emerged over time as survivors fled to neighbouring countries. They brought stories of massacre and detention but still, they promised, the spirit of democracy was alive.

The point was forcefully demonstrated two years later when the army - against all expectations - allowed free elections and the National League for Democracy of Aung San Suu Kyi won an overwhelming victory. More than 80 per cent of the vote! It was the kind of mandate democratic politicians dream about. And this for a woman with no guns, no goons and no bribes to give. What Aung San Suu Kyi offered was something closer to true Asian values than any of the guff spouted by Mahatir Mohammed and the other apologists for authoritarianism.

Hers was the language of tolerance and gentleness. One had only to spend a few hours in Burma to recognise her extraordinary claim on the people's affections. They call her "The Lady" and whisper her name when they can.

I first met her on the morning after she'd been released from house arrest - 10 July, 1995. It was my first visit to Burma, a hurried dash from Hong Kong along with scores of other correspondents. She gave me her first broadcast interview explaining that she had followed South Africa's transition to democracy by listening to my voice on the BBC World Service. But any temptation to swooning on my part was quickly cut short. Her interview was a concise and powerful political statement. Set the people free, she said, let them enjoy the democracy they voted for. The Junta did nothing of the sort. Instead it has been steadily tightening the repression.

But maybe there is cause for hope now. When I lived and worked in Asia nearly two years ago it was hard to find anyone who believed that a regional economic crisis was looming. That was the age of the gluttons: soaring new skyscrapers, acres of new golf courses, the finest cognacs flowing as one dodgy deal followed another. It was an ugly time and Burma's generals were some of the biggest snouts in the trough. It was party time for the rich and powerful and their western friends. I vividly remember drinking with an American businessman in a Rangoon hotel and being told that only the army stood between Burma and anarchy. An Englishman treated me to lunch at an old colonial club and boasted of the fine standard of living he enjoyed in that land of multiple brutalities. Not that he was short of justifications for his presence. I had to endure the usual twaddle about investment helping the poor, the "constructive engagement" line about dialogue being the best way forward.

Whenever I asked one of these princes of industry if they'd met with the democratically elected leader they looked at me blankly. No, they preferred to do deals with the Junta. Money was their business, not liberty or justice. Some of these foreigners liked to fall back on the "philosophy" of Asian values. The Burmese, like other Asians, wanted strong government, they said. "It is their culture," one investor explained. Culture my eye. For most of these businessmen "Asian values" provided a useful alibi.

One of the most depressing features of that period was the singular failure of western leaders to mount any defence of liberal values. Too many of them were mesmerised by the Asian "miracle". Some of the brightest commentators and politicians fell victim to an intellectual fad that celebrated soaring growth but failed to point up the croneyism, oppression and sleight of hand on which so much of it was built. Now that the bubble has burst and the poor are suffering more than ever we can see "Asian values" for what they were.

When Robin Cook launched his ethical foreign policy, the Burmese people took him at his word. To its credit the Labour government has signalled a much tougher attitude towards the regime. But if Burma is to become an issue that dominates the European foreign policy agenda, then Mr Cook himself must become engaged. Up to now, day-to-day running of Burma policy has been left in the hands of Derek Fatchett. He is both capable and engaged, but he lacks the political clout of Mr Cook.

We must remember the fundamental fact of political life in this former British colony: an armed group is preventing the democratically elected leader from assuming her rightful place at the head of the people. It is very, very simple. There is no grey area here. As the former colonial power Britain should be leading the way in opposing this wretched state of affairs. I don't believe the Junta is entirely impervious to pressure, any more than white South Africans were. The difference, of course, is that white South Africa produced courageous leaders who recognised the need for change. There is no sign of that in Burma. The ultimate test of the regime's sanity will lie in its willingness to change before there is an explosion of anger. After decades of terror the Burmese deserve their freedom without blood.