Why do their neighbours ignore the suffering in Burma and Zimbabwe?

The lions of South Africa's liberation have been silent about Robert Mugabe's brutal abuse of human rights
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There is a quotation from Irish history which bears remembering this week. In 1920, the Lord Mayoralty of my home town of Cork fell on the shoulders of a local member of parliament, Terence MacSwiney. MacSwiney represented the more hard-line element of Michael Collins's revolutionary movement which was engaged in a bitter guerrilla war against the British and the locally recruited Royal Irish Constabulary. The job of Lord Mayor fell to MacSwiney when the incumbent, Tomas MacCurtain, was murdered by British troops.

MacSwiney would subsequently die while on hunger strike in Brixton prison. His funeral in Cork was one of the largest public demonstrations for years. These days he is hardly mentioned much in Ireland, except in school history classes, among that band of academics studying the period, and among northern nationalists for whom he remains a visionary figure. All of this seems a rather long preamble to his most famous quotation, and a very long way from the miseries of Zimbabwe and Burma which have deepened this week.

But MacSwiney's words from 1921 might cheer up a few of the brave democracy campaigners in southern Africa and south-east Asia. It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can endure the most who will conquer, he said. One first has to admit that the challenges faced by MacSwiney and Collins in 1921 were of a different order. Home rule of a kind was on the horizon: the boundaries of self-government were the crux. In both Burma and Zimbabwe the rulers haven't even got as far as talking about a framework for freedom. Lloyd George and Winston Churchill at least recognised the existence of an Irish problem. No such luck with the regimes in Harare and Rangoon.

The leaders in both places deny the fact that they area loathed by a majority of the population. Unlike the IRA in Ireland of the early 1920s, the opposition parties in both Burma and Zimbabwe have chosen a peaceful path of resistance, though they are faced with much greater oppression. But the past few weeks have convinced me of one reasonable comparison: both opposition leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe, have the ability to endure. Whether they will conquer depends not only on their capacity for endurance but also on the attitude and actions of actors beyond their borders.

At this point we can forget about Britain or America forcing human rights and democracy on the despots in either place. Why are we not going for regime change in Zimbabwe or Burma? The reasons are a mix of the practical and cynical.

First, don't ever forget that the whole "regime change" business was very specific: it was never about a campaign of armed evangelism for the cause of liberty. It was about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Period. The Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strike is not like John F Kennedy's pledge to "bear any burden" in the cause of democracy. It's about finding out who America's enemies are and smiting them before they get their fingers on the trigger.

Unless Robert Mugabe starts giving shelter to al-Qa'ida he's safe. The same goes for the Burmese. The White House said this week it had lost patience with Burma. But don't expect the US or Britain to forbid the big oil companies from doing business with the junta. They've only lost a little patience. But knowing that the moral outrage of the US and Britain has its limits does not remove the moral obligation on those closer at hand to act, namely the countries of southern Africa and south-east Asia. The members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) blathered on for years about an "Asian" way which was not coercive and which would ultimately bring the Burmese junta to see reason. Likewise Thabo Mbeki in South Africa has championed "quiet diplomacy" when dealing with Robert Mugabe.

Rather than face their responsibilities as regional leaders, the neighbours of Zimbabwe and Burma have become bystanders to brutal suppression. When criticised they fall back on arguments about "constructive engagement". That was the policy of Ronald Reagan when the monstrous apartheid regime was slaughtering black South Africans in the 1980s. It was phoney then and it's just as phoney now. When not offering excuses for their own indifference, apologists for Mugabe attack the human rights record of the West in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq. So cluster-bombing in Iraq excuses being bystanders to torture and murder in Zimbabwe? Spare me that perverted logic.

The leader of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai, was brought manacled to court, dressed in prison clothes. His lawyer, George Bizos, who once defended the victims of apartheid, was outraged. But where was the outrage of South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki? Where was the outrage of Nelson Mandela? The lions of South Africa's liberation were silent. One of the anti-apartheid movement's bravest figures, Patrick "Terror" Lekota, even sought to blame Tsvangirai for the current crisis, suggesting that all Robert Mugabe wanted was for the opposition to meet him at the negotiating table. Can this be the same Mugabe who has vowed to crush opposition, or who murdered up to 20,000 people in Matabeleland in the 1980s.

Like the leaders of Southern Africa, the Asean nations have bristled whenever Westerners have put pressure on them to take action over Burma. They too have fallen back on the old rhetoric about neo-colonialism. I can understand how a Vietnamese mightn't take to kindly to lectures about human rights from the people who gave them carpet bombing and Agent Orange. But human rights don't belong to George Bush or Tony Blair or any world leader. The real neo-colonialism is practised by those who suggest that Africans or Asians do not deserve the same protection from tyranny as the rest of us.

I admit there has been one positive sign regarding Burma. The Asean nations last week called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from prison. They didn't say anything about sanctions, however. Yet for both the southern African nations and Asean, it isn't really a question about sanctions. Both need to stop treating the tyrants on their borders as if they were members of the same leaders' club. The South African dynamic changed when the international governments began treating the African National Congress as the government-in-waiting; given the electoral support enjoyed by the MDC in Zimbabwe and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, surely the two country's neighbours ought to be treating them as genuine, if not the genuine, representatives of the people. To go back to the MacSwiney quote, I don't doubt that democracy and human rights will prevail in the long term in both Zimbabwe and Burma. The only question - and after this week it is terribly pressing - is how much suffering will have to be endured along the way.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent