The G8 summit tensions, cooperation on Burma and the fiction of humanitarian intervention

The G8 summit, the principal meeting of the leaders of all the world’s imperialist nations and partners, was held in Belfast, Northern Ireland over 17-18 June 2013. While the summit’s main concerns were economic matters such as global trade, tax evasion and greater accountability in economic affairs, the discussions between the imperialist states was dominated by the ongoing Syrian civil war and the attendant humanitarian tragedy.

The main highlight of the G8 summit was the clash between US President Barack Obama, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, about their conflicting plans for Syria. Much of the media coverage involved examining the conflicts between these participants, with Russia continuing to support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the United States (joined by its imperialist allies in Europe) supporting the fractured Syrian rebels. The Guardian online newspaper provided a detailed examination of Putin’s opposition to any proposed plans by the US and its supporters for a ‘no-fly zone’ in Syria, and the US has countered by promising to provide increased military aid to the Syrian rebel forces.

The British Prime Minister David Cameron and his officials met privately with President Putin, and stated that while Moscow had no personal commitment to keeping Assad in power and even conceded that Assad might have to resign, it was on the condition that Syria avoid the sectarian conflict and economic breakdown that followed similar imperialist interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. British officials insisted that there is no place for Assad in a post-war Syria, and French President Francois Hollande opened the door for Iran, another solid supporter of the Syrian regime, to participate in future peace talks. Moscow however subsequently rebuked Britain and France, with Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Rybakov stressed that any resolution of the Syrian conflict had to involve Assad, and that all talk of his resignation was impermissible. The official communique issue after the G8 meeting made no mention however, of Assad stepping down, and insisted that Russia’s military aid to the Syrian government would continue.

The ongoing conflicts between the G8 powers is patently obvious to all international observers. The Times of India conveyed a more honest appraisal of the G8 summit, elaborating on the ‘face-off’ between Obama and Putin. What is striking though is the way that the corporate media have portrayed the stance of Moscow as an obstacle to a peaceful settlement in Syria. The underlying assumption of the mainstream media is that Obama is ‘frustrated’ that American power cannot be deployed to resolve an obvious humanitarian catastrophe, in this case, the plight of Syrian refugees. The refugees from the Syrian imbroglio deserve our support and help, and we should avoid playing off one group of victims against another. What is worth examining is the unexplained assumption that US and British policy-makers are motivated by humanitarian concerns, while Russians, Iranians, Chinese, and other nations are only out to protect their own material interests.

Justin Doolittle, a political scientist writing in Counterpunch online magazine, makes three essential observations pertinent to bear in mind about US foreign policy. We must first dispense with the fiction that US military and political leaders make decisions to intervene militarily based on humanitarian considerations. The US makes decisions based on its own material self-interests, and it is the poor and downtrodden who are left by the wayside. The Assad regime is a repressive, capitalist dictatorship, and has caused untold suffering for Syrian people. But the notion that the Obama administration wants to ‘do something’ to alleviate the plight of the Syrian population is ludicrous. As Doolittle explains in his Counterpunch article, almost every modern power has used a humanitarian cover to justify its predatory military interventions, disguising its underlying economic and military calculations with the garb of ‘selfless’ concern.

Secondly, Doolittle observes that another unspoken assumption is that US military intervention reduces the level and intensity of violence in a given conflict and leads to a peaceful resolution. This rather ignorant supposition is based on a willful ignorance of the history of US imperial violence in various parts of the world. An imperialist state, with a record of state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East, its role in demolishing societies like Iraq and Afghanistan, cannot be part of a peaceful solution to any conflict. This childish ‘Saving Private Ryan’ view of US military history, may make for great entertainment but flies in the face of the facts. Such a foreign intervention only escalates the level of violence, and there is no concern for what happens afterwards. We can see the effects of the purported humanitarian intervention in Libya, with armed groups fighting it out in the streets. Leading figures of the British military establishment are currently complaining to David Cameron that sending arms to the Syrian rebels will only make matters worse, leading to a Libyan-style scenario. As the DailyMail Online correspondent put it;

Up to 3,000 surface-to-air missiles have gone missing in Libya since the conflict –  and spy chiefs say the state has become the ‘Tesco’ of the world’s illegal arms trade.

The British government was a vociferous supporter of the NATO-led intervention in Libya, and one of the results of that military adventure is the decision by the British Foreign Office to withdraw some staff from its embassy in Libya because of ongoing political instability. Foreign embassies have come under attacks in recent months, with the most high profile being the assault on the US embassy compound in Benghazi last year, resulting in the murder of then US ambassador J Christopher Stevens. Ironically, the previous Libyan regime of Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, having opened up to foreign capital in the 2000s, had excellent relations with former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

The third and final premise that remains unexamined when speaking of ‘humanitarian interventions’ is the widespread assumption that the US is the only honest broker and best placed to carry out an imperial intervention. There is no discussion of the international bodies, such as the United Nations, and its role in brokering peace settlements and getting the relevant parties to agree on an acceptable formula. The UN is dismissed as an ineffectual body, paralysed by interminable debates and quarrels, and incapable of decisive action. The United Nations is an imperfect body, reflecting the balance of forces between the imperialist states. But it is also the only international forum where the majority of the world’s countries, and the majority of the world’s people, can have their input into international decision-making. The UN General Assembly is the meeting place where all of the world’s poorest countries, incorporating the majority of the world’s population, takes decisions that are frequently vetoed by the overriding Security Council. The US has consistently violated international laws and conventions agreed to at the United Nations, behaving like a rogue state. Blocking the decisions of the UN General Assembly has produced deadlock, a situation for which the US bears at least partial responsibility. US intervention in the Middle East has resulted in blowback because its impact on that region has been toxic and stirred up sectarian fratricidal conflicts.

A study in contrasts

There was another international forum held over June 5 to 7, 2013 in city of Naypyidaw, the capital of Burma, formally known as Myanmar. The World Economic Forum on East Asia (WEF) brought together political leaders, business partners, CEOs of various transnational corporations, academics and civil society advocates from around the world. In contrast to the G8 summit, there was no bickering or squabbling, only cooperation between the representatives of the various nations on how to exploit the energy-and-mineral-rich country of Burma, tap into its vast energy reserves and make a profit-bonanza from an area of the world previously closed off by US-supported economic sanctions.

The business executives from multiple transnational corporations were there to discuss the many lucrative opportunities for foreign investment, including Australian energy giant Woodside Petroleum, eager to invest in Burma’s oil and gas reserves. Coca-Cola was also there for the WEF, as well as the Anglo-Dutch corporation Unilever.

The World Economic Forum in East Asia meeting sent a signal to the world – that Burma and its military-dominated regime are rehabilitated into the international community. Such a meeting of political officials and business executives would have been absolutely impossible to contemplate two years ago. But since the Obama administration came to office, US foreign policy has adopted a ‘pivot to Asia’, to use the phrase US officials coined to signify greater competition with the rising powers of China and India. Burma, located right between India and China, established close relations with Beijing over the last few decades. The Burmese military rulers, having gone through the sham of ‘elections’ and making cosmetic changes to the political process, are now normalising relations with the US, Europe and other imperialist states, pushing back against Chinese influence.

The official change of Burma from pariah, rogue regime to a flourishing capitalist ‘liberal democracy’ has involved the major powers ignoring a frightful and ongoing humanitarian crisis in that country, a crisis for which the Burmese regime bears direct responsibility; the pogroms and ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohingya population in that country. The Rohingya minority have been subjected to killings, torture, pogroms at the hands of nationalist Buddhist gangs rampaging through Muslim villages, and exile into impoverished refugee camps. Since 2012 Ramzy Baroud, a Palestinian writer, journalist and editor of the Palestine Chronicle online magazine, has been documenting the plight of the Rohingya Muslim population and the cursory attention given to this problem by the international community. This ongoing exclusion and ethnic cleansing program has not deterred the imperialist states from rushing to establish profitable trading relations with the current Burmese regime.

Baroud has written in the online journal Dissident Voice that;

One fails to understand the unperturbed attitude with which regional and international leaders and organizations are treating the unrelenting onslaught against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, formally known as Burma. Numbers speak of atrocities where every violent act is prelude to greater violence and ethnic cleansing. Yet, western governments’ normalization with the Myanmar regime continues unabated, regional leaders are as gutless as ever and even human rights organizations seem compelled by habitual urges to issue statements lacking meaningful, decisive and coordinated calls for action.

The Rohingya people, currently numbering between 800,000 and one million, do not have any legal rights as citizens in Burma. They live mostly in the province of Arakan, also known as Rakhine, and are officially regarded as ‘Bengali immigrants’ and thus not entitled to full citizenship in Burma. Sectarian violence perpetrated by the Buddhist Arakenese against the Muslim Rohingya erupted in June 2012 and has largely continued unabated. The Burmese authorities have done next to nothing to halt the violence. Indeed, in many cases, they have encouraged it. Forced to live in displacement camps in squalid conditions, the Rohingya have been forced into a live of poverty and desperation. Rohingya families have been driven out of their homes and their lands burned, attacked with machetes, and their mosques have been reduced to ashes. All the while, the alleged reformist President of Burma, Thein Sein, has advocated confining the Rohingya to displacement camps, or deporting them en masse. While the quasi-civilian government is formally in charge, the real power still lies with the all-encompassing military.

These human rights violations, and the humanitarian tragedy spawned by this ethnic cleansing, means nothing to the business and political leaders who are eager to capitalise on the ‘gold rush’ now on in Burma, in the words of Ramzy Baroud. Martin Sorrell, the chief of the advertising and marketing firm WPP plc, captured the mood when he was quoted as saying, “When was the last time a market of 60 million people fell out of the sky?” He continued, “This is one of the last frontiers.” Another commodity that Burma has in abundance, which will be exploited by the multinational corporations to make their bonanza-profits, is cheap labour. As the correspondent for the Irrawady online newspaper explained, Japanese investors have been attracted to Thailand, despite that country’s political upheavals. But now, with a huge labour force in Burma willing to work for one-sixth of a Thai worker’s wage, could lure the Japanese business community into Burma.

The Burmese regime has gone so far as to legislate (in 2005) that Muslim Rohingya families are only allowed two children. Local authorities in Arakan state reinforced this law last year in the wake of anti-Muslim sectarian violence. This discriminatory legislation is part of the longstanding practice of anti-Islamic racism that the Burmese authorities have invoked periodically since the beginning of direct military rule in 1962. Rohingya couples must also apply for and obtain permission to marry from the authorities. As Human Rights Watch observes;

Implementation of this callous and cruel two-child policy against the Rohingya is another example of the systematic and wide ranging persecution of this group, who have recently been the target of an ethnic cleansing campaign,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “President Thein Sein says he is against discrimination. If so, he should quickly declare an end to these coercive family restrictions and other discriminatory policies against the Rohingya.

The much-celebrated democracy ‘icon’ Aung San Suu Kyi only recently spoke up about the systematic discrimination and persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority. She stated that the two-child policy is against human rights, but that it would be difficult to implement in Arakan. She expressed some lukewarm criticism of the onrush of Western investors in Burma – by claiming that they are not investing quickly enough. Suu Kyi does not advocate granting citizenship to the Rohingya people, or spoken out against the multinational companies that seek to invest in Burma while trampling human rights. The National League for Democracy (NLD) which Suu Kyi heads, is markedly pro-business oriented and welcomes further investment in Burma by the Western powers.

The opening up of the country to Western investment has corresponded with an eruption of sectarian Buddhist communalism and the targets of such national chauvinism are the Rohingya minority. Many risk perilous journeys to seek refuge in other countries, including Indonesia and Australia, rather than stay and face further violence, torture and suffering at the hands of a national-chauvinist Buddhist elite. The words of the Palestinian writer Ramzy Baroud, in the article “Ignoring Genocide: Rohingya People Deserve to Live” are the most appropriate with which to conclude, given that the Palestinians, like the Muslim Rohingya, are another stateless population yearning for self-determination. Baroud wrote;

The perpetual suffering of the Rohingya people must end. They are deserving of rights and dignity. They are weary of crossing unforgiving seas and walking harsh terrains seeking mere survival. More voices must join those who are speaking out in support of their rights. ASEAN must break away from its silence and tediously guarded policies and western countries must be confronted by their own civil societies: no normalization with Rangoon when innocent men, women and children are being burned alive in their own homes. This injustice needs to be known to the world and serious, organized and determined efforts must follow to bring the persecution of the Rohingya people to an end.

This is not just a conclusion, but also a platform for a new beginning.

The current American empire is resembling the decaying Roman imperium

The Roman Republic, and subsequent Roman Empire, were based on a strong class structure which divided the population into distinct economic categories. The lowest class were of course the slaves, who were regarded as chattel to be exploited, bought and sold at a whim. At the top end of the vast social pyramid was the Roman aristocracy. The nobility, the patrician class, were the wealthiest families and clans in the Roman polity, and dominated the political process. Hereditary wealth was a key factor if a person wished to occupy high political office. Gradually, a new social force, the equites, the non-patrician wealthy elite, were included (sometimes reluctantly) into the highest political positions of the Roman republic and empire.

Note how that to be in the Roman Senate, from which candidates for the most powerful political positions were drawn, wealth was the single most important criterion. While the official slogan of the Roman Empire was Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (the Senate and the People of Rome), there was no doubt that the highest and most powerful class in the land was the financial oligarchy. In fact, the largest faction of the noble class called themselves the Optimates, literally meaning ‘the best’. These were the hereditary nobles, who fought tooth-and-nail against their opposing counterparts, the Populares, those senators who were (allegedly) on the side of the Roman people.

Under the Roman Republic, there were political avenues for the people to address their grievances to the Senate. The plebeian tribune, a powerful political office, did serve as a conduit for the expression and resolution of political and economic complaints. However, the plebeian tribune office did not have any military or executive function, so its decisions were circumvented or undermined by the all-powerful senatorial oligarchy. If the plebeian tribune was to become stubborn, and persist in measures to alleviate the economic inequalities inflicted on the people, then the senators would not hesitate to use their financial power to attack – and sometimes violently assassinate – the plebeian tribunes they regarded as a thorn in their side. The most famous tribunes, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi, were both killed in politically motivated violence, victims of lynch-mob murder incited by the financial oligarchs because they wanted to reform the social and political structures of Rome to assist the poorer classes. The Senate made sure that the laws of the land favoured the preservation and extension of their wealth, and used that legal structure to suppress any threat to their economic privileges. An extensive network of patronage ensured that the republic, and ensuing Roman Empire, remained economically viable for the wealthy senatorial elite.

This excursion into ancient Roman history is not just an academic exercise. It has serious implications and lessons for contemporary times. The unifying of political and economic power is the salient feature of the Roman republic and empire. What has this got to do with today’s events?

In a revealing and powerful article, Robert Scheer, a veteran political commentator and editor-in-chief of Truthdig online magazine, writes about the incestuous relationship between powerful financial oligarchs, politicians and the Wall Street crowd in the United States today. In an article called ‘Congress Still Puts Out for Wall Street’, Scheer examines the close relations between the bankers and financial speculators that caused the ongoing capitalist economic crisis, and the political clout they exercise in the US Congress. As Scheer explains:

What does it take to make a Wall Street banker squirm with shame? Not content with having swindled tens of millions of Americans out of their homes and life savings, the very bankers who caused the biggest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression are now subverting government regulations designed to prevent comparable disasters in the future.

Scheer cites the example of Citigroup, a mega-bank and financial institution, itself the result of a merger between two enormous financial institutions, that swindled millions in the years leading up to the 2008. They were able to do because their partisans, the army of lobbyists that they hired and unleashed on the US Congress, convinced the law-makers to abolish regulations that restricted Citigroup’s ability to generate millions in profits by speculation. For instance, the Glass-Steagall Act, passed back in the 1930s, prevented commercial banks from engaging in financial speculation with the bank deposits of ordinary investors. Pensions and bank deposits were protected from risky investment banking activities. Citigroup was one financial behemoth that led the charge to abolish this act, thus opening up billions of dollars for further speculative activities – the Glass-Steagall Act was abolished by compliant politicians in 1999.

The US Congress since 2008, rather than challenging the ability of the Wall Street hucksters to write and shape laws that enrich elite interests, has actually continued to enmesh itself in the tentacles of the financial mega-corporations. Key legislation passed by the US Congress governing financial activity has been drafted by bank lobbyists, many of them in the pay of the big banks like Citigroup. A financial oligarchy that occupies legislative positions, and enacts laws to enrich itself and transfer the social costs of the economic burden onto the poor – that looks eerily similar and highly reminiscent of an ancient empire.

It is true that the Obama administration passed the Dodd-Frank Act, subtitled the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, in July 2010. But even this lukewarm, halfhearted measure to crack down on the billion-dollar derivatives market has faced strenuous opposition from industry groups and financial institutions that portray this act with bipartisan fury as an attack on private enterprise that threatens to demolish the entire financial complex. As Scheer elaborates, the drafting of this legislation was supervised by the large financial conglomerates;

As an example of the profound corruption of our legislative process, congressional staffers turned to top corporate lawyers to draft the wording pretending to rein in their activity.

For example, as the emails reviewed by the Times revealed, House committee staffers consulted Michael Bopp, a partner at the elite law firm Gibson, Dunn who represents corporations involved in derivative trading, as to the verbiage he would prefer in the legislation. His language was well received, as the Times reported: “Ultimately, the committee inserted every word of Mr. Bopp’s suggestion into a 2012 version of the bill that passed the House, save for a slight change in phrasing.”

So the very financial institutions that caused the current economic malaise have enormous input into the legislation that is supposed to facilitate the economic recovery. The corruption of the political and legislative process by big money is all too evident. Legislation that is skewed towards preserving and extending the wealth of the financial oligarchy is having its intended effect.

The Pew Research Centre, a non-partisan think tank dedicated to gathering and collating data on social and economic issues, released a report in April this year entitled ‘A Rise in Wealth for the Wealthy; Declines for the Lower 93%’ documents that during the years 2009 to 2011, the upper seven percent of the richest households saw their average net worth increase by an estimated 28 percent, while the rest of us, the 93 percent, witnessed a decline of four percent in the average household net worth. This differential wealth recovery was explained by the Pew Research Centre as a result of stock and bond market activity, and the already-affluent have their assets concentrated in stocks and financial holdings. The lower income households have most of their wealth represented by their homes, and the housing market remained flat over the 2009-11 period.

Since the 2008 capitalist economic crisis, the ruling financial elite has intensified its efforts to transfer the cost of economic recession onto the working people, while insulating its own wealth through corrupting the legislative process. The US government, under Bush and now Obama, has utilised every measure to preserve, and even increase, the ability of the financial oligarchy to accumulate staggering amounts of wealth, while social services and public utilities are cut back. Financial speculation, asset bubbles and predatory economic practices are back on the agenda and remain typical of financial activity since 2008. Obama responded to the economic crisis with ‘bailouts’, that is, handing over vast amounts of public money to the private banks, sowing the seeds of an even larger economic crash to come. Maintaining US imperial power while imposing austerity at home has been the main priority of the Obama administration.

The Roman Empire, while occupying a place in ancient history, is not so remote from our contemporary political and economic experience.