DP: In October 2007 the Burmese people once again took to the streets in defiance of the military junta – in the biggest outpouring of popular dissent since the 1988 Uprising. Though mainstream news coverage often alludes to the situation being an “internal” matter, the US State Department has admitted it is involved in a range of “democracy promotion activities.” What do you see as the future for the Burmese democratic movement and what do you believe is the goal of US strategy, and that of other regional powers in the country?
JP: The US describes the uprising in Burma as an internal matter (though it says much else about it) because it has no immediate strategic interest in Burma, apart from protecting Chevron’s investment in the consortium exploiting offshore oil/gas. The US also regards Burma as ‘China’s business’; in much the same way that it regarded Eastern Europe as ‘Moscow’s business’. Great powers only lean on each other when there is a pressing self-interest, and the US has other more urgent issues with China. As for the future of the Burmese resistance, that’s unclear, but what is clear is that it will rise again and the military will fear, rightly, that the whole country may rise up, as it almost did in 1988: that is the hope for the Burmese people.
In your recent documentary “The War on Democracy” you discuss in some depth the history, and current political climate, of Latin America. Over the past few years the region has seen several progressive, reformist and populist leaders elected to office with the mass support of the impoverished minorities, often with the express disapproval of Washington and Wall Street. To what extent do you think leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales can address social inequality and conditions for the indigenous communities and the poor? Do you believe that the US maintains an appetite for intervention in Latin America?
I don’t agree that Wall Street disapproves of the changes in Latin America. The oil companies and others continue to do lucrative deals with Venezuela. All they care about is losing a grip on the oil, and that hasn’t happened, apart from having to pay more to the Venezuelan government. It’s important to understand that although there is the promise of ending inequality, that hasn’t happened yet; both the Chavez and Morales governments are essentially social democratic: that is to say, they see a place for big business in their plans, unlike, for example, Cuba. This is not to suggest there haven’t been dramatic changes. The most dramatic is the confidence many indigenous people exude, now that health care and education have been extended to the poorest, and governments and the leaders in power are authentic products of their popular movements. The current tension in Venezuela, as far as the majority are concerned, is between the power of the state and the influence of grass roots democracy. A balance needs to be struck between the two, allowing genuine participatory democracy. The signs, generally speaking, are positive.
The occupation of Iraq is now well into its fourth year with no sign of hope for an end to the violence. In May 2006 you wrote a piece for the New Statesman about US trained death squads; trained to incite a real civil war and the break-up of Iraq, similar to the strategy of the CIA in El Salvador. It has also come to the attention of the mainstream media (all too infrequently) of US and British support for other paramilitary elements in the region, such as the Balochi group Jundullah, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and the Shia, Mujahedin-e khalq (MEK). Not to mention the huge army of mercenaries working with the occupation described by many Iraqis as “Gangsters”. Do you believe that this demonstrates a coherent US strategy and, if so, what is its objective?
US strategy was to take over Iraq as a base for its operations in the Middle East as important as Israel. It has succeeded in doing that, though at a cost its planners didn’t expect. John Bolton, the former assistant secretary of state and a leading ‘neocon’, said recently words to the effect that the US was not dissatisfied with the current instability in Iraq. That’s an unsurprising imperial view, of the kind the British adopted from time to time. Instability allows the imperial master control by default — that’s why many in Washington want to divide up Iraq. A genuinely stable Iraq would probably be a disaster for the US, because the Sunni and Shia movements would come together – as they are beginning to do now — and force the US out. That said, even if domestic pressures force the US to ‘leave’ Iraq, the 14 fortresses it has built and is building in Iraq in considerable secrecy are unlikely to be dismantled. Of course, this could all change should the US presence in Iraq suffer an ‘internal collapse’ – as happened in Vietnam. Then the future would look very different.
The political atmosphere of the so-called “War on Terror” has allowed for the encroachment on civil liberties in the “western democracies”. A spate of draconian legislation in the UK and US (including the effective suspension of Habeas Corpus, and vast swathes of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights), the expansion of ineffective and repressive bureaucracies and the National Security State, have led some to believe that Britain and the US may effectively become consenting police states. Is this something you believe is happening, and if so to what extent?
‘Consenting police states’ is a snappy description, but we should take care in using it in the UK. There’s no doubt an architecture of control in the UK’ [which] has risen sharply in the last decade. CCTV and other technologies and surveillance methods imported from the US are well used by the British state, especially under New Labour which, in terms of civil liberties at home and in those countries occupied by Britain, is the most right-wing British regime in the modern era. That’s why Gordon Brown talked recently about ‘returning liberty’. He is aware that people are disquieted, and he offered a rhetorical sop — he will, in all probability, do the opposite, such as introduce ID cards. That said, Britain is not a consenting police state, but corporatism is overtaking real democracy and that has particular implications, as Mussolini described. The US is far more advanced down this road, but in a somewhat different direction. There has been what amounts to a military coup in the US; the power of the military is felt right throughout government and the politicised civil service and the Congress. The democratic candidates for President compete with each other to be hawkish. The US offers a dangerous situation for us all.
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This post was written by Daniel Pye