What are we to do with Serburmia, the brutal land of lies and violence?

'There's an unpredictability that comes with a silenced people, who one day will cry: "enough"'

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As I basked on the east coast of Australia this August, and then watched the Olympic rings go up on Sydney Harbour Bridge, my summer reveries were disturbed by news from two less fortunate countries that I know and have come to care for. While I snorkelled over the Great Barrier Reef, the Burmese opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was stopped at the side of a dusty road, under makeshift cover against the burning sun, in a stand-off with Burma's military police state. While I walked in the tropical rainforest, the Serbian opposition at last found a credible common candidate for president, Dr Vojislav Kostunica, and was fighting bravely to try to unseat Milosevic in the elections scheduled for 24 September. After a few bottles of Castlemaine XXXX, the two almost merged into one distant problem country: Serburmia.

As I basked on the east coast of Australia this August, and then watched the Olympic rings go up on Sydney Harbour Bridge, my summer reveries were disturbed by news from two less fortunate countries that I know and have come to care for. While I snorkelled over the Great Barrier Reef, the Burmese opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was stopped at the side of a dusty road, under makeshift cover against the burning sun, in a stand-off with Burma's military police state. While I walked in the tropical rainforest, the Serbian opposition at last found a credible common candidate for president, Dr Vojislav Kostunica, and was fighting bravely to try to unseat Milosevic in the elections scheduled for 24 September. After a few bottles of Castlemaine XXXX, the two almost merged into one distant problem country: Serburmia.

And so we come back to the old question: how should we deal with such places? What's to be done about Serburmia? Burma and Serbia are thousands of miles apart, and different in so many ways. Yet the two have cordial relations, recently cemented by an exchange of visits by their Foreign Ministers. And the face of dictatorship, wherever you find it, displays a remarkable family likeness.

There is, for example, the endless lying in the state-controlled media. The New Light of Myanmar, the ridiculous Burmese regime newspaper, said that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been stopped for her own good, because she was in danger from armed bandits. Transparent balderdash. Serbian state television said that Dr Kostunica was a lackey of the West and had not criticised the Nato bombing. In fact, he criticised it repeatedly and was reported at the time - on that same Serbian state television - doing exactly that. Here's an instant rewriting of history that for once merits that over-used term "Orwellian".

There is the violence behind the lies. The Burmese opposition leader has been taken off by armed police and reportedly padlocked into her villa compound. One of the more admirable figures of old Yugoslavia, and a former patron of Milosevic, Ivan Stambolic, was kidnapped while out jogging. Activists from the Serbian student movement Otpor (Resistance) are regularly rounded up and beaten.

Then there is the sheer intractability of countries that cut themselves off from more civilised neighbours, in a world that still places a high value on state sovereignty as a foundation-stone of international order. These rogue states are so close. They are so small. And still we can't change them.

There is the unpredictability that comes with a silenced people who one day will cry: "Enough!" Of course, we must hope for peaceful change. But the chances are, in Serbia and in Burma, as in all Serburmias, that change will finally come only with violence. One day, the Burmese regime will overstep the mark in its treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi - a heroine, almost a living deity, to millions of her compatriots. Or ordinary Burmese will simply rise up in despair at their worsening material conditions.

In Serbia, no one can imagine that Milosevic will step down peacefully after an honestly lost election. A disillusioned member of his ruling Socialist Party is already quoted as saying privately: "The government is ready to steal votes in these elections." And, surreally, 500 Serbian ballot boxes are waiting to be stuffed under the noses of Nato troops in the Serb enclaves in Kosovo. The real question is: what happens then? Will the people finally come on to the streets in outrage? In both cases, as in all Serburmias, the answer is unknown - and unknowable.

Finally, there is the fact that such regimes can usually rely on the disunity of their critics. Often it is their political opponents at home who are divided, as has been the case for years in Serbia. Only the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi has largely avoided that danger in Burma.

But above all, there are the divisions of the free countries that deal with them. This is understandable, even inevitable, with large, powerful dictatorships such as China, where liberal democracies have major national interests, not least economic interests, in getting on well with the rulers. In the case of countries such as Serbia and Burma, it is less understandable. Yes, there are a few oil companies involved in Burma, a few business contracts in Serbia, but those hardly add up to vital national interests.

Yet still we cannot agree. America and Britain have advocated a hard line, with outspoken criticism and sanctions directed against both Serbia and Burma. France inclines to a rather softer line, with a preference for "quiet diplomacy" in both cases and a well-reasoned desire to lift the sanctions against Serbia. In relation to Burma, Australia, an important regional power that shares our liberal and democratic values, has been pursuing its own little policy of "constructive engagement", including the rather absurd project of human rights seminars for middle-level activists of the military regime.

I'm almost inclined to say that it matters less what we do than that we do it together. For the last comfort of tyrants lies in the divisions of the free. That is why the co-ordination of policy between the member states of the European Union is so important, for all its inevitable tendency to produce fudge. If we could manage to do the same with the United States, Canada and other free countries (especially in Asia), we would be laughing - and the tyrants weeping.

Of course, it would be still better if we all agreed on a good policy rather than a bad one. Now, in the event, I think the American-British line is much more appropriate for Burma than it is for Serbia. The reason goes back to two of the common characteristics of all Serburmias: intractability and unpredictability. The truth is that if such a regime decides to cut itself off and cock a snook at the world, then we have little leverage anyway. Moreover, the impact of what little leverage we have is highly unpredictable, because the whole repressed but deeply unstable political situation is unpredictable. So what do you do?

"If you don't know what to do," said Mark Twain, "do the right thing." But what is the right thing in such conditions? To define "the right thing" as "the thing most in accord with our values" is part of the answer, but not enough. The vital supplementary is to be guided by the people on the ground in the country concerned, who know conditions there better than we ever can, and who are fighting for those values (or something close to them) at the risk of their lives.

Be guided by the oppositions. In Burma, the opposition is united behind sanctions and wishes external pressure on the regime to be stepped up. In Serbia, on the other hand, the opposition is united behind the lifting of sanctions, at the right moment and in the right way.

So that is what we should be doing about Serburmia.

The author is a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford

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