The Free Market, Human Rights, and Armed Forces: Report from the Far East

The "official" story about current geopolitics goes like this. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the need for armed force preparations and struggle in most of the world has radically declined. Free market economies have replaced command economies and prosperity is growing, in East Asia especially. With this the civil and human rights of populations are becoming realized, and the material scarcity inciting armed conflict is representing less of a problem. Only by all nations directing their attention to market reforms and success at globally competitive production can future wellbeing be secured. Most of the official story is false, says John McMurtry, but because it expresses the interests of multinational investors who also own or advertise in the mass media, the defects of its account are not generally reported

By John McMurtry | 1993-11-01 12:00:00

Having recently returned from research leave in East Asia, I would like to share with my Science for Peace colleagues what I saw of the armed- force situation there, amidst market reforms and rapidly growing GNPs.


India, where I travelled for 100 days, has certainly embarked on market reforms: privatization, an open door to foreign capital and ownership, emphasis on competing in the international marketplace and corresponding external dependency, reduction of the public sector, disemployment and, with all this, rising insecurity of workers and small business people. Its GNP is rapidly rising, hut India now has more armed conflict than at any time since its founding in 1949. The trouble begins in Kashmir, which is an armed camp from one end to the other. When I travelled through the beautiful Kashmir Valley to the capital, Srinigar, it was end-to-end army truck convoy-lines, house-search raids, and continual terrorizing of civilians by both the Indian Army and the separatist militants. Heavily armed soldiers routinely undressed even pro-India Muslims, to check for circumcision, and also beat them up.

Provoking this response, armed separatist bands attacked, kidnapped, and burnt out many Hindu residents, causing family homes to be abandoned across the state. Market pressures on social and workplace security may have helped set this problem in motion. I had the inescapable intuition that the most profound problem here is this: Once people cross the line of civilization and use guns to settle their differences, the violence only gets worse until they try another method.

After Kashmir, I had the good fortune to meet and talk at length with the Dalai Lama. We met in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala where the Tibetan community-in-exile is centred. He decided years ago to disown armed-force resistance to Chinese occupation. The Tibetans were once among the fiercest warriors in the East, and still had willing and able combatants, while the Han Chinese empire, which had attacked and were overrunning Tibet, were the least likely government in the world to recede back an inch without being forced to. Anyone who tells you the Chinese government is Marxist is living inside an ideological slogan. It is, if you will forgive the neologism, Chinese emperorism masked by a Marxian moment of social responsibility. The Dalai Lama and I agreed that the government of China will only stop its genocide of Tibet if compelled by the world marketplace on which it now depends for capital and exports. But is the market likely to provide the solution when its principle is to maximize profits for owners of private capital?

So the Dalai Lama faces a hard reality without the gun. Yet he is surrounded by the hardiest and the most cheerful community I have ever encountered. Violence seems unknown among them, social welfare and education systems are remarkably advanced, and inner Buddhist peace seems to sustain the whole community.

People in the developed world can assist their non-armed pursuit of liberation by relentless pressure on the Chinese government to comply with international law. The Chinese government will do almost anything to avoid such pressure -fabricate historical fact, boycott international meetings where the Dalai Lama is allowed to appear, threaten smaller neighbours for "acts of hostility," and refuse to discuss the issue with others as an "internal Chinese matter." With unyielding pressure of world public opinion to back it, the Tibetan way of non-killing may prevail beyond self-exile. But as the Dalai Lama made clear in our discussion of the Buddhist principle of universal interdependency, the nonviolent way there will only succeed if the nonviolent way here links arms with it.

I left the Himalayas for the Indian plains south just as the bloody religious riots across the cities of the North were about to start. I sensed they were coming when I heard loudspeakers across the holy city of Benares blaring eerily familiar cadences of hate about minority-group abuses to the people and the Nation. I was so disturbed by the pervasive organization of it all that I quixotically climbed a lamp-post in the city's centre to shout "Hitler! Hitler!" with thumbs flailing down to call attention to the nightmare unfolding. I was surprised to see a number of heads nod faintly. As I wrote in an article published in The Hindu, the trouble started when the Congress Party national government permitted threats of physical intimidation and destruction to develop until the weapon-wielding mob destroyed a mosque. At this point, the national Congress government suspended the recently elected state governments of the rapidly growing Hindu fundamentalist opposition, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), for allowing or abetting such violent disturbances. Once the line between civil conflict and barbarism was permitted, for political advantage, to break down into armed attacks, thousands were butchered and maimed, and the circle of armed hatred and revenge widened beyond political control. According to a national press report, over 90% of the killings in Bombay, the worst hit city, were by the police. Once again, the armed-force method of conflict resolution was a disaster. How transparently this pattern is occurring across the world these days! Even U.N. armed forces cannot resolve conflicts this way. We are, I think, witnessing the greatest crisis of the military paradigm in history.

Yet an increasingly influential sector of India's population now rejects Gandhi and his nonviolent method of struggle. They view it as Western conception (Gandhi did acknowledge Thoreau's influence on his thinking), and out of step with India's millennia-old roots in the legendary heroes Arjuna, Krishna, and Lord Ram.

The south of India was not touched at all by the riots. The BJP has no constituency there, perhaps because in the historical Indian warrior epics the Dravidians and Sri Lankans of the South were the conquered victims of the Aryan armies of the North. The BJP's solution to the great problems of India, blaming the powers of an ethnic out-group, are not easy to sell to a Southern audience whose ancestors may have been overrun by the legendary warrior heroes being invoked. Besides, the South does not have the big, industrial cities of the North-Bombay, New Delhi, Calcutta-with their "tough global marketplace" ethos, greed, and extremes of riches and poverty. It was in the northern economic centres of India that the greatest killing and destruction occurred.


My next stop, Malaysia, has little religious and ethnic conflict, though it is made up of very different ethnic groups-Confucian Chinese and Muslim Malays. There is an absolute ban on civilian weapons and no tradition of warrior heroes in the popular culture. The Muslim majority confronts an economically powerful Chinese minority, which limits the totalitarian Islamic culture that arises elsewhere. Malaysia has a thriving free market, but no developed democracy. It bans hooks (one of my own, I might add), may imprison dissenters, and lacks any historic culture of literature or art. But it is safe, prosperous, and peaceful. The same may be said, only more so, of Singapore, which disproves the claim that the free market goes hand in hand with democratic rights, competing ideas of the good, and a diverse culture. Singapore's world-leading free market society is dull, uniform, and closed to cultural originality and alternatives. But I did not see those extremes of poverty anywhere in the Malaysian Peninsula with which civil violence-by police or unemployed youth -seems invariably to be associated.


Indonesia is an open military dictatorship. Most societies of the East are ruled by authoritarian governments. It is a very ancient tradition that has not yet experienced democratic reform.

One might say that the God-King tradition that originated with Javanese and Khmer emperors over 1000 years ago even now prohibits criticism of Asian rulers and their actions. This is especially true of the Javanese empire, Indonesia, which General Suharto and his favorites rule like a vast personal fiefdom, with military command over 180 million people of different cultures, races, and languages. Since his coup d'état of 1965 General Suharto has made himself and his family billionaires by exploiting the mineral- and forest-rich archipelago. Criticism of him or his government is a serious offence. Indonesia, however, has been a "free market society" since Suharto's seizure of power. Since his U.S.-supported takeover almost 30 years ago, an estimated 1,300,000 people have been killed by his army, the latest large-scale butcheries occurring in East Timor and West Papua New Guinea (now called Irian Jaya).

I was going to go to East Timor and had permission to do so as a "philosopher of ancient religions"-unlike human rights bodies like Amnesty International, Asia Watch, and even the Red Cross, which have been refused entry. However, I was dissuaded from going by an East Timorese in Yogyakarta, the cultural centre of Indonesia. It took days to locate him and he seemed terrified to talk, although he trusted the people in the church NGO where we met (NGOs are considered subversive and their personnel have to use covert telephone lines and live in fear of harassment or arrest at any rime). If an East Timorese was so reluctant to talk to me in a far safer setting than East Timor, today an occupied zone lacking even its traditional beautiful stilt-raised thatch huts to give a sense of the indigenous culture, then I concluded there was no point in going there, except to get arrested too.

Foreign investors are attracted to the Indonesian government's control of vast natural resources, its people's less than $1-a-day average wages, and the prohibition of all independent organizations, criticism, or assembly. These cost-reducing conditions are backed by a ruling military state equipped with the best technology that Canada and the U.S. can sell. Indonesia's economic growth is impressive and its markets open but it is a military dictatorship. The government takes the position internationally that only by not taking a "Western, liberal" view of human rights can free market development and prosperity occur. All these Eastern societies' rulers hold views about "free market reform and democracy" that are contrary to what the official story claims.


Thailand presents a novel situation among the "dynamic economies" of the East: Its government appears, over the last year at least, to be growing out of military rule. While the Thai Military Bank is one of the wealthiest and fastest rising banks in the country, there is talk in the press that military coup massacring students "should not occur any more. Some say they won't, others say they will. Thailand's armed forces do not have a past that inspires confidence. The Thai military supported the Japanese against the Allies in World War II and the U.S. against the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. It recently supported Chinese government efforts to ban the Dalai Lama from entering Thailand to attend a meeting of Nobel Prize Laureates organized by Canada's Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development. The militaries of Burma, Thailand, and China were unanimous and vocal in their attempts to keep the Dalai Lama out of the Nobel Prize laureates' Bangkok meeting. Their argument ran as follows (each military leadership providing a variation on it): "There should be no interference in the internal affairs of other countries, or it would he in violation of the norm of friendly relations." They repeated the same line for weeks, and there was even speculation that there might be another military coup in Thailand to keep the Dalai Lama out of the spotlight of world publicity attracted by the meeting. There was no coup. But one saw the pattern. It is not enough to repress the dissent of one's own people. Opposition or criticism in other countries was seen as an offence too.


I travelled next to Cambodia, where two startling discoveries awaited me. The first came in my discussion with the Rector of Phnom Penh University, who understandably focused on the damage done to the university and the intellectual class by the Pol Pot military regime. The university was in desperately poor condition. Most of its professors, he said, had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge. There was therefore a shortage of academically qualified teachers and of basic library books. The rector hypothesized that the motivation of the Pol Pot regime in killing so many of its own people as well as its educated elite was "to clear Cambodia of Cambodians so as to make room for Chinese settlers." I was stunned. But the longer I thought about it, the less incredible the hypothesis became to me. The Chinese government is certainly not modest in its sense of "the Greater China." When I later visited the Phnom Penh War Crimes Museum, which documents the endless torturings and killings by Pol Pot's government, my companion pointed out to me that an official bust of Pol Pot in the display resembled Mao Tse-Tung. I could not forget the hypothesis. On other stops, outside of Cambodia, I asked those who were politically insightful about the East whether they had ever heard of it. They had.

The other shock I had in Cambodia was at the nature of the U.N. presence there. I've long thought that U.N. peacekeeping forces are a sine qua non for preventing armed conflicts between nations. Civil war is a rather different matter. Now it seems to he the U.N./U.S. specialty, but what else can we rely on to stop massacres among warring groups? But in Cambodia the U.N. personnel were living in the most luxurious buildings in the country gleaming French colonial mansions on wide, well kept boulevards amid a rubble city of impoverished people. U.N. personnel drove brand-new large white vans with U.N. logos, and seemed to be the main clientele of the expensive restaurant and night-club bordellos on Phnom Penh's main streets. I heard stories of worse elsewhere in the countryside. A fundamental rethinking seems to be needed concerning U.N. peacekeeping intervention in global conflict areas: down-sizing grandiosity of buildings, vehicles and per diems, and selectively screening and training personnel on-site. Non-military methods of U.N. intervention should be considered-the kind embodied by Peace Brigades International in Central America. With the backing and imprimatur of the United Nations, such methods, which have worked even on a purely personal volunteer basis and without official international legitimation, could be the kind of international peacekeeping Science for Peace believes in. It seems absurd that amidst all the failed but costly military interventions in Iraq, Bosnia, and Somalia, such alternatives are not considered for the U.N.

In the background, the free-market solution for all the worlds' ills seems to be the biggest problem. Weapon sales to the contending parties allow conflicts to escalate into armed warfare. The states belonging to the U.N. Security Council, which is intervening in these conflicts, are the biggest manufacturers and sellers of arms in the world. New conflicts between the U.N. and the warring parties create more demand for armaments, and so the cycle deep ns, re-enforcing the problem while purporting to resolve it. The bankruptcy of the connected free trade and military models is more transparent than ever before.


In Vietnam, still the most beautiful country in Asia, I travelled the length of it from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. It was a great wonder to see the Vietnamese people's lack of hostility toward the U.S.A., which had ravaged their country. They are simply anxious to get on with their lives and with free-market reform, despite a continuing U.S. trade embargo. Unfortunately, there are costs to the new order. As in other countries where bureaucratic statist economies have collapsed, Communist Party functionaries arc using the transition to a market system to convert their de facto control of the economy into straightforward private ownership. Call it the "primitive accumulation" of the post-USSR world. At the same time, the newly free economy has no perceptible social security, imposes school fees on students, enriches individuals while university libraries have almost no books, and has increased the growth of private gas-powered vehicles (in particular, motor scooters) to a point where one can no longer breathe the air.

The government has also blocked any social resistance to the transition by a still powerful army and police spy system.

People do not talk freely in Vietnam, but there are evident divisions of view. When I gave a paper on "The Crisis of Marxism" to the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City-the first Westerner to speak to them since 1975-the audience was inclined to adopt a non-cynical socialist standpoint. Yet in Hanoi, where market reform has not penetrated nearly so much as in old Saigon, the Director of International Relations told me: "Socialism is dead...We must now make up for lost time and imitate the West...Singapore was economically behind us in 1972, and is now far ahead." Here again there was that mix of top-down armed-force control and free-market reform, with few rights to free speech, public assembly, independent social and political organization-or pollution control.


China, my final stop in the East, showed a similar general pattern of rigid, authoritarian control enforced by a powerful military, and free market economic reform aimed at competing in manufactured exports for richer countries' markets. The striking feature of China was the vast scale and intensity of the same pattern. China's cities are bursting with investment, skyscraper and highway construction, and people flooding in from the countryside for work, especially in the South, which is setting up Hong-Kong-like free market zones. I stayed longest in Beijing, the only place in China where the architecture of the past has not all been industrialized over, where the centralized direction for the empire is located, and where one can experience the most stately moment of China's planned transition to nouveau capitalism. The best thing about Beijing, I thought, was the bicycle transit system. People stay fit by peddling, do not produce toxic fumes or noise, and move countless more people than automobiles. Yet cars and motor scooters are on the rise. Stretch limos with one person in them siren by at top speeds through bicycle lines and the air is a dreamy half-light of urban fires. People line up at the Mao Tomb six-abreast across the vast Tiananmen Square as if to recover some past heroic moment, while signs saying "Welcome to the Olympics 2000" are plastered everywhere, including the Museum of the History of the Revolution which, along with the Museum of History, is closed for rewriting. The place is far more prosperous materially than I expected, the army maintains strict control over the populace, and the idea of socialism" or "Marxism is regarded as a joke by intellectuals but still repeated often by the leaders and newspapers, as if to maintain some necessary illusion of social continuity and order. The Communist Party lives in its own Forbidden City behind the old one. It closes off two of Beijing's three large lakes from the public. Entry into the palatial zone is strictly prohibited for ordinary citizens, and armed soldiers guard it, stopping any approach toward the gates or photographing of the walls. Even Beijing University, formerly an imperial garden, is walled off in this country of walls and its gates are guarded by armed soldiers too, who will admit a foreign scholar who can produce academic identification, a passport, and a "signature of attendance" from an inside official. This, however, does not entitle one to admission to the Library, nor indeed is any university faculty member entitled to visit the library of another subject area. Again, there is the same underlying plot to the story: military rule over a free-market base gearing toward low-cost economic competition in the international marketplace. The same plot has been at work in Latin America and may soon be the story in the old Soviet Union as well.

The advantage of this rapidly developing Eastern order is reduced costs -very low wages, no independent unions, few pollution controls, and few free public-sector social and educational services. Capital investment is shifting to the East from the West (even the E.C. now has an unemployment rate of 12%), which is rational from a private investment view; costs are lower and free trade regimes now allow trade across borders, with no requirements of minimum standards of wages, environmental protection, or human rights. Since Eastern economies are kept disciplined and low-cost by military dictatorships, from above which prevents disturbing strikes, demonstrations, union demands, or even criticism, how can Western economies compete without lowering their own standards of living?

Back To Canada

Perhaps the East shows us the image of our future. We've seen the cut-back on Canada's social-sector base over the last 8 years, and perhaps we will see our expensive military swing into action if needed to maintain these "structural readjustment." It's a pattern that has been tried and found to work for capital investors.

When I returned to Canada, I spoke at Vancouver City Hall to the Peace Committee which advises Vancouver City Council and the British Columbia Government's Ministries of Higher Education and Environment. My theme was that Canada's 513 billion annual military expenditures after the Cold War are hi-jacking the financial resources of our public education, health, social services, and welfare systems. To the criticism that the Committee was "meddling in the federal jurisdiction of defence," I responded that the education, health, and welfare of British Columbian citizens were important to their representatives, that their constituents paid high taxes for the military expenditures, and that public policy had to be debated on the draining of already cut-back social resources by such armed-force projects as 55 billion-plus for helicopter gunships. The Committee agreed, including (it seemed) the retired RCMP and military officers. The intimate connection between armed forces, on the one hand, and economies, human rights, and environments on the other is very clear in the Far East. I think it is also now clear in Canada, though not with the same integral fit.

John McMurtry is a philosophy professor at the University of Guelph.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1993

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1993, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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