The Wannabe Chalabi’s


“ The best part is when I see the Iraqi people cheering, celebrating, and welcoming the coalition forces. I just have to cry. The joy of knowing there is someone who cares, there is hope for freedom, and there is still someone who will save us from a similar evil which has ruled Burma for over 40 years.

This brutal regime has been terrorizing the people of Burma for many years. There has been nobody to help us. Sir, please help us, please remove this evil regime and give us our freedom.”

That was Maung Kyeizu (Mr Thank You), ostensibly a Burmese living in exile, writing to George Bush Jr. in the letters to the editor section of the Bangkok Post, Thailand, April 27, 2003.

When one reads a letter like that all one can do is to mimic its author and say `I just have to cry. The sorrow of knowing that there are still people in our world who believe colonialism will deliver them from their local despots despite all the experiences of the past 400 years’.

Mr Thank You is only one of many on our planet afflicted by the newest pandemic doing its global rounds- SCARS. To be precise, the Sudden Colonial Attack and Resurgence Syndrome. The virus responsible for this deadly disease, that deludes the imagination, wipes out historical memory, condemns the victim to perpetual crawling on his/her knees and converts them into colonial tour guides has been identified as the `Wannabe Chalabi’. Apparently a special product of the Pentagon’s biological warfare experiments.

The virus has been named after the Iraqi American exile Ahmed Chalabi, the Quisling of Arabia, who has shown the most acute symptoms of SCARS in recent times. He is currently under the delusion that he and his band of mercenary liberators from the Iraqi National Congress can manage to take over Iraq and stay in power without being forcibly quarantined by the Iraqi people. The main mode of transmission of SCARS has now been ascertained to be the global news media- AP, Reuters, AFP, CNN and BBC.

Sorry, if I got a bit carried away there. But this Chalabi guy, gliding to glory on the coat-tails of the colonial forces, is irritating my sensibilities no end. Ahmed Chalabi and cavalry riding into Baghdad to save its oppressed citizens (whom he has not sent a postcard to in 49 years). Chalabi and his comrades combating the remnants of Saddam’s hated troops. Chalabi the fearless cop ferreting out the secrets of the dictatorship. Chalabi the Charlatan, converted overnight from common con man to neo-con man and soon to be the strong-man of Iraq.

We have seen this particular strain of virus before in the colonial history of South Asia (and is he not recognizable from the history of every country on Earth ?). The Mir Jafars and Jaichands- the Quislings of 17th Century India- the motley princes, merchants and priests who facilitated the takeover of the sub-continent by becoming willful lubricants of the British Empire’s machinery of loot and plunder. It was precisely this early version of `SCARS’ that allowed the British to control a vast territory, of over 300 million subjects (including Burma) at its peak, with just over 10,000 officials brought in from the Old Blighter ( Blighty ?). I don’t know what exactly was the proportion of masters to colonial agents then but there is no doubt that the ratio must have busted several charts in its times.

The history of all humankind, I believe, is not just that of a clash between various classes but at a broader level also between those who would be masters and those who refuse to be slaves. And in between these are also those treacherous agents who front for the masters to help beguile the slaves. Ahmed Chalabi belongs to this smooth, slippery category that slides in and out of troubled situations scavenging for the slave trade’s spoils.

To be fair to our Burmese friend Mr Thank You- he is nowhere in the same category as Chalabi. I think he has only a mild attack of SCARS. From the whining tone and tenor of his letter he sounds more like a helpless slave, more Mr Sorry, than an aggressive, full-blooded knave. But there is no shortage, elsewhere in the world, of those who are super-carriers of the `Wannabe Chalabi’ virus- from Kosovo to Afghanistan to East Timor, and we will come to that later.

Knowing the situation in Burma, I can even say that I fully understand, though not appreciate, Mr Thank You’s sense of desperation and consequent slavishness towards the world’s only superpower.

Look at what the Burmese people have been through in the past fifty years. After a brief and unruly period of electoral democracy for a decade and a half following independence from British control Burma has been ruled by one of the most ruthless dictatorships in the world. Burma is indeed a case far fitter for `liberation’ than Kosovo ever was and easily on par with Iraq.

The Burmese military has for the past four decades denied its citizens, particularly the ethnic minorities, their basic human rights to life, livelihood and normal survival. Human rights groups report numerous instances of systematic rape of ethnic minority women, massacres of minority civilians, forced labour, destruction of crops and settlements. There is enough of a case against the Burmese generals to try them for crimes against humanity and war crimes upon war crimes.

Added to all this, there are currently an estimated two million internally displaced civilians belonging to the Shan, Karen and Karenni ethnic minorities, most of them forcibly moved by the Burmese army as part of its conflict with rebel groups fighting for autonomy or independence. These are people who have become refugees in their own land, surviving with family and children in dangerous jungles, remote mountains, vulnerable to every physical threat imaginable.

Right now there are also an estimated 1500 political prisoners still inside Burma’s notorious prison system. But if one counts up the numbers who have been through these dungeons over the years the total could well run into a hundred thousand or more. These are people routinely arrested and condemned in kangaroo courts to a decade or more on charges as simple as reading `subversive’ poetry in public or taking photographs of failed rice crops.

But the crimes of the Goons in Rangoon is only one side of the story. Burma is also a saga of phenomenonal courage and resistance shown by several generations of idealist students, intellectuals and ordinary folk since the early sixties.

Ethnic minorities fighting for autonomy, students leading waves upon waves of movements- arrested, tortured, killed by the hundreds in the past four decades. The entire country rising up against the hated military regime in 1988- virtually rendering the state ineffective in controlling the country. A general election in 1990 that saw the opposition National League for Democracy winning a landslide victory with over 92 percent of the votes polled. And when the junta refused to hand over power and cracked down on the opposition thousands of Burmese fled to the Thai-Burma border to set up pro-democracy activities and even a student’s army to fight the Burmese military.

The leader of the Burmese opposition Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been bravely holding out against tremendous pressures both political and personal for the past decade- a beacon of hope for the Burmese people. I have personally met so many young Burmese students exiled here in Thailand, who by the age of a mere 25, have already spent a decade or so in prison for their activism. I can’t think of any other part of the world where so much has been sacrificed by so many in the fight to achieve democracy.

And yet democracy does not come to Burma. For all the human and super-human sacrifices made at its altar it simply does not come. Neither as a silent, waking dawn nor as an unstoppable blazing storm. There is something very wrong, something very tragic happening here in this massive prison house called Burma – where a handful of military rulers have managed to put 40 million people in solitary confinement and that too in full view of the world.

It is in this scenario of complete desperation that some, mind you as yet only some, (though this includes even Burmese opposition activists) have been voicing the kind of sentiments that Mr Thank You does in his letter to Mr Spank Me in the White House. But then that is what the `Wannabe Chalabi’ affliction is all about. A handful of natives willing to shake hands with the foreign devil to get rid of a local one- with no clue or care as to what will come next. Inviting the Fox home because Chicken Number One is a despicable dictator.

But is not the so called `liberation’ of Iraq an outright occupation of the country by the United States ? On the same lines that we saw happen in Asia, Africa, Latin America for the past four centuries ? In fact while some US hawks call it a `pre-emptive’ strike against those who harbor terrorists- for us in the Third World it is clearly a `post-emptive’ strike – against the de-colonisation of our world. Against every single political and economic gain made by the former colonies since the Second World War. The US War on Iraq is a clear message to the former slaves -`You and all that you cherish are dispensable. Forget your dreams of a better and just world. OBEY or be OBLITERATED’.

But are some Burmese really so naive to believe that Uncle Sam will oust their military dictatorship and not extract a price they will continue to pay for generations to come ? Can colonialism ever be democratic ? What did British colonialism, of which US imperialism is becoming a direct successor, bring to Burma ? (It surely brought a lot of Indians serving as foots soldiers of the Empire to control the Burmese ! Be warned ! ) After all that was also supposed to be a `civilizational’ mission, painted almost as a relief from feudal oppression ? And is it also not true that the United States, under the Bushies today, cannot teach anyone, anything about democracy ?

Consider, what exactly is the brand of democracy that the United States will bring to Burma if it comes at all ? (and it may come, more than anything else, because a foothold in Burma can be part of the US strategy to `encircle and contain’ China ). A democracy where people have a choice between Coke and Pepsi, Nike and Reebok, Big Mac and Burger Kings, Republican and Democrat, Exxon and Mobil ? Ooops, I forgot. Exxon and Mobil have already merged so it is now officially a dictatorship out there- just as in Burma. (maybe the Burmese junta can take a few lessons in dictatorship from the Bushies instead) Mr Thank You – wake up please, you seem to be in exile from the 21st Century itself.

Democracy is not a manufactured product to be custom built, packaged and shipped off to or imported from distant lands. It is not a technology that can be transferred or a medicine to be shoved down the throats of `recalcitrant’ natives. It is, at its core, a tradition that is born out of the blood, sweat, tears and critical thought of a people doing it all by themselves, for themselves. There can be no surrogates, no proxy parents in this process. You make YOUR baby, and I will make MINE.

This is precisely what the Indonesian people did in 1998 when, after years of struggle, they kicked out the regime of General Suharto- the United State’s favorite dictator in Asia. Suharto rode to power in 1964 on the back of a genocide, killing over a million Indonesians as `suspected Communists’, and since then presided over one of the most brutal regimes anywhere. A year before he was deposed by a popular uprising former US President Bill Clinton called him `Asia’s greatest statesman’. The lesson is simple: dictatorships never last and revolutions taste and last better when they are home-made- like mom’s cooking. (or dad’s for that matter)

(Probably the most shameful instance of the ‘Wannabe Chalabi’ phenomenon in Asia prior to the US war on Iraq was the statement supporting the US invasion issued by Jose Ramos Horta- Nobel Peace Prize winner and the newly independent East Timor’s foreign minister. Backing the idea of the US unilaterally ousting Saddam Hussein, Horta claimed that ‘in 1999 a global peacekeeping force helped East Timor secure its independence and protect its people’. Not a word about how it was Suharto’s departure from the scene that made East Timor’s freedom possible, not a word about the struggles of the Indonesian and East Timorese people for over three long decades. Horta- desperately trying to ingratiate himself to Uncle Sam- believes that independence came miraculously because of the benevolence of the US, Australia, Portugal and other former and new colonial powers.)

So, back to Mr Thank You. Instead of desperately inviting Uncle Sam to Father democracy in Burma should you not ponder over what are the long-term historical, social, economic and even cultural factors that have landed his country in such a mess and for so long ? To take stock honestly of what ails the forces of democracy in Burma, which with so much sacrifice are yet so far from achieving their dreams ? Is it not time to creatively rethink the strategies and long-term goals of the Burmese pro-democracy movement itself ? To build a movement that will finally consign the Burmese generals back to the fascist textbooks that they all seem to have uniformly jumped out of?

At the beginning of the 21st century I never imagined one would have to give a lecture on the evils of colonialism. But there we are- colonialism seems to be a long-standing human habit-a bad habit probably as old as civilization itself. Colonizing nature, colonizing the animal kingdom, men colonizing women, adults colonizing children, the strong colonizing the weak- all part of the same continuum. All need to be fought to achieve that magical liberation that so many seek, but never seem to find because one colonialism is constantly replaced by another. But it would be dead wrong to equate all of these variants of colonialism on the same moral plane. There has been nothing so devastating to so many people in our world in modern history as the experience of being colonized by a foreign power. The loss of sovereignty, the loss of economic resources, the distortion of entire cultures, the permanent scars it has left between peoples and the deep wounding of individual souls. Is it a mere coincidence that the most underdeveloped parts of the world also happen to be those affected longest by colonial plunder ? Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, South America- and the Philippines that poor land which has the misfortune of being named after the very icon of its historical oppressors. To the Would-be Colonizers- the progenitors of the scourge of SCARS- this is what I have to ask. Is this the way you want your societies to prosper- through the plunder of weaker nations ? Is there any dignity to what you do no matter how you package your pillage ? Are we not, as a planet, at a point where the principle of survival of the fittest threatens to leave none of us fit for survival ? Are you really serious, talking about liberating the people of foreign lands, when your own lies in disrepair ? Have you ever heard the words of that great Palestinian Arab born in a Jewish family who once said `Let him cast the first stone, who hath committed no sin’ ? (A hint for Dubya. This great man was born around 2003 years ago and is often mistakenly depicted as having blond hair and blue eyes. No, no, no, not Elvis you dumbo ! )

I am talking to a bloody Wall of course right now. I know that somehow. So let me end by saying MR WALL- please realize, if the people of this world have their way and which they eventually will- YOU and all YOUR Chalabis Shall-Not-Be allowed to prevail.

Satya Sagar is an Indian journalist based in Thailand. He can be reached at sagarnama@yahoo.com

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