Saturday, March 28, 2009

From Stalin to Burma, a history lesson

by Harry Poppkick
Monday, 23 March 2009 19:28

(Harry Poppick is a student in the United States and his mother is from Burma. This paper was written for a history class project.)

They may wear different cloaks, but under the surface all dictators are similar. As the memory of dictators like Joseph Stalin fades, mistakes of the past repeat themselves with a vengeance in forgotten places like Burma.

One writer said of Stalin: “He had found Russia working with wooden ploughs and left it equipped with atomic [stock]piles.” But perhaps the true question doesn’t regard Stalin’s undisputable impact on humanity, but whether the legacy justified all the human sacrifice. To Stalin, the millions killed as a consequence of his ambitious drive were simply stepping stones along the road to national prosperity. However, such a Machiavellian frame of mind can neither be justifiable nor ethical.

Stalin utilized numerous harsh methods in attempting to meet his ‘utopian’ goals. Collective farms were prevalent, while each Five Year Plan sought to leapfrog Russia ahead of competing nations and systems. Toward this end, virtually every industry fell under the direct control of the government and its de facto and shackled workforce. And the sad truth, more often than not, was results never met by an increasingly impoverished population.

Stalin’s principle instrument for maintaining control over his country was his secret police. Through this institution, fear was instilled in the hearts of the people. The final death toll from Stalin’s regime is indeed staggering, with estimates ranging from 10 to 20 million people having perished.

Stalin was under the belief that all his actions, extreme or otherwise, were necessary in order to pull Russia into the industrial age. Yet, ultimately, the major flaw in Stalin’s reasoning was that he claimed all sacrifices were necessary and for the future of Russia. “Life has improved, comrades. Life has become more joyous,” he once remarked. And while he was thinking about the future of the country and the generations to come, the standard of living within Russia had plummeted.

Today, forgetting that dictatorship is a self inflicted wound, some intellectuals and humanitarians reason that simply sending more aid and increasing engagement are starting points to improving the political situation in Burma. But when they begin to regard the active opposition, as symbolized by Aung San Suu Kyi, as increasingly irrelevant, the time has come to refresh their memory about Joseph Stalin and the enormous price of dictatorship. It is one thing to want to bring Burma into the international community, but it is another to coddle and nurture tyrants without speaking out against their inhumane acts.

So far, newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama and Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton have taken a cautious and slow approach toward Burma. But in a world of competing interests and ideology, it will be a great tragedy if they fail to take a firm stand against the dictators in Burma.

After all, the United States and its allies helped reform the militaries in Indonesia and Turkey within democratic transitions and transformations. Now, the U.S., United Nations, ASEAN and the European Union need decisive and effective leadership to help Burma. Obama and Clinton have a great chance to seize this mantle…if they are willing to seriously take on the leadership role.

Today, even as Burma’s generals tragically act more and more like Stalin, could it not be that the army as an institution in Burma was originally inspired by similar beliefs to those of countries such as Indonesia and Turkey? This should offer an important clue as to where to begin with Burma.

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