While peaceful buddhist monks are getting bludgeoned to death in the streets of Burma and an international cry for help has brought a thousand people out on the streets tonight, October 6, I?m sorry to confess I?m thinking more about whether I?ll be able to catch any of this evening?s Leafs game.
But in spite of my irrational preoccupation, I do notice on arriving in front of the Chinese Consulate on St. George that the red-T-shirted crowd is giving off a very different vibe than your average Toronto demo.
There is anger here, but it feels reluctant, like it doesn't come easily. It's the slogans, too: "Free The Monks," "We Love Peace" and in particular "Use Your Liberty To Promote Ours," coined by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, that draw me out of my privileged mega-sport stupor and land me back on the concrete.
Burma's is the latest outbreak in the global epidemic of rights violations in countries whose chief backer is China. From Zimbabwe to Darfur to Rangoon, China's public insistence that it does not interfere with the internal affairs of other countries is contradicted by the realities.
In Burma, it provides the repressive military dictatorship with most of its arms and is its biggest investor and largest buyer. China has also used its veto at the UN Security Council to block sanctions against Burma. Says Amnesty International's Michael Craig, using the street curb as a stage, "This is one totalitarian regime supporting another."
Demo organizer Minthura Wynn of the Burmese Students Democratic Organization (Canada), tells me later that "China needs Burma's natural resources to fuel its own economic growth. Burma is a gateway westward for China, which is why it is building a military base [there]."
Wynn was a young student leader in Burma during the democratic uprising in 1988 that led to the elections two years later, won handily by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, though the military refused to cede power.
It's no surprise that the consensus here is that our feds are a crushing disappointment. "Canada is big on rhetoric and lacking in action,' says Amnesty's Craig. "Canada has not taken a significant role at the United Nations. It has spoken up but hasn't stepped up."
In particular, activists want to see Canada prohibit Canadian companies from doing business in Burma. The largest Canuck presence there is Vancouver-based Ivanhoe Mines, which has operated the Monywa Copper Project for the last 10 years.
Ivanhoe founder and CEO Robert Friedman has been dubbed "Toxic Bob" by environmentalists because of his company's dubious enviro record. He has consistently ignored Amnesty's calls that it take human rights seriously. The company recently announced plans to divest its holdings in Burma in order to free up capital for a project in Mongolia.
"That is a sham," says lawyer Paul Copeland of the Toronto Burma Roundtable. "It's a set-up to look like Ivanhoe doesn't own Monywa to deflect criticism."
Other ideas floating around the demo include a call for the Canada Pension Plan to pull its investment, reportedly around $32 million, in Ivanhoe.
Says NDP MP Olivia Chow, who's walking her bike with the protestors, "I think putting an ethical slant on CPP is a good idea. As well, Harper has got to do a better diplomatic job persuading China and India to apply pressure in Burma."
She recalls the era of economic sanctions against apartheid in South Africa as we walk past the Bata Shoe Museum. "Look, I stopped shopping at Bata; we refused to buy South African wine. Sanctions are the way to go.'
I'm a bit confused at this point, because if China is the big supporter of the junta, shouldn't we be talking about a China boycott? In fact, momentum is building globally for a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Chow isn't so sure that's a good idea. "I am not a moderate when it comes to respecting human rights that's why I'm out in front of the Chinese Consulate. But with China you need to be both friendly and strong. If you just go tough, China withdraws."
Jeremy Woodrum has heard this criticism. He's the director of the Washington, DC-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, which is spearheading the Olympic boycott bid.
"Fair enough, but this hasn't happened in a vacuum. The democracy movement in Burma has tried to reach out to China for 15 years, and China has never responded," he tells me from Washington.
"China vetoed the UN Security Council resolution in January, which was mostly a call to diplomacy. That was the last straw."
Still, Woodrum doesn't think the Chinese regime is impervious to criticism. Competition for influence in Southeast Asia, he points out, is very fierce between Japan, Australia, China and the U.S. So he thinks Chinese leaders actually have an inducement to stand against repression in Burma.
"If they backed UN sanctions and an arms embargo, their reputation in Southeast Asia would soar," he says.