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Burma and Webb, What Everyone Needs to Know

4:08 PM, Sep 16, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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The Asia Times has notable piece published today in the commentary section by Georgetown University's David Steinberg, a faculty member in Georgetown's Asian Studies School of Foreign Service. Steinberg steps forward to defend the recent August visit of Virginia Senator Jim Webb (D) to Burma where he met with jailed Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's top ruling thug, General Than Shwe.

Safe and secure, in his proverbial ivory tower along the banks of the Potomac, Steinberg accused, in a tone dripping with condescension, the critics of the Webb visit -- leading Burmese freedom fighters U Win Tin and U Pyinya Zawta -- of "missing the point of Webb's visit." In a conclusion that is more reminiscent of a high school Get-Up-And-Go-For-The-Gipper cheer he gives academic high-fives to Webb and scolds Burma's democrats and those who support them: "We should applaud the modest beginning Sen. Webb's visit has created, and explore its positive ramifications."

I have been following this story closely and it would be worth going back to read the op-eds by U Win Tin (here) and U Pyinya Zawta (here). Both represent different generations and have dedicated their lives to fighting for freedom in their country against a tyrannical junta. U Win Tin is in his 80s and U Pyinya Zawta, in his 40s, spoke today on Capitol Hill highlighting the plight of political prisoners in his country. U Pyinya Zawta was jailed for a decade because of his pro-democracy activities and had to flee Burma for his role in leading a peaceful uprising brutally crushed in 2007.

U Pyinya Zawta's body is still torn from the beatings and torture inflicted on him during his years in jail. He has called Webb and his approach "ignorant" and U Win Tin, a member of the National League for Democracy's central executive committee, characterized Webb's efforts as "damaging to our democracy movement."

That's strong stuff from people in the trenches. People who think nothing at having their bodies broken for their beliefs.

So instead of pausing and perhaps taking a moment to reflect on Webb's visit -- as in 'maybe the Burmese democracy movement has a point' -- Steinberg comes out swinging and gives these heroes an academic pat on the head and an elitist 'if you only understood.'

But let's rise to Steinberg's challenge. What "modest beginnings" has Webb's "stand-up-and-cheer" visit begun? Well, today Radio Free Asia reporter Sarah Jackson-Han followed up her report from yesterday on Burmese from the Karen ethnic group being conscripted into carrying arms, ammunition, and food for the Burmese Army and its surrogates as they wage war on the Karens. Today, there is a video of these women and children (as young as three years old) who have now fled to Thailand and are in hiding.

In the weeks since Webb's August visit more than 10,000 Burmese refugees have reportedly fled into China seeking safety from the Burmese Army's military onslaught. Further documentation of the use of rape in those attacks continues to fill out a picture of an orchestrated campaign of rape by the junta against Karen women. Let's also not forget the standard burning of villages (more than 3,300 at last count over a two year period) and further arrests of political prisoners.

Steinberg has been widely regarded in Burma's pro-democracy circles as an apologist for the regime. His "if we only talked more approach" turns a blind eye to the horrific campaign of crimes being waged on the Burmese people by the junta. Indeed, he never mentions the fact in his piece that tens of thousand of Burmese could have been saved following Cyclone Nargis if the junta would have opened the country to outside relief. Instead, their blocking of assistance was nothing more, as one Burma watcher described, than the "organized murder of civilians in parts of the country long-opposed to regime rule."

Steinberg's new book is titled Burma/Myanmar, What Everyone Needs to Know. Makes you wonder what approach he might have taken to Hitler's Germany, What Everyone Needs to Know; or Joseph Stalin, What Everyone Needs to Know.