Bangkok Post, Perspective >> Sunday May 18, 2008
POLITICS OF RESCUE
In the history of humanitarian intervention, unilateralism is far more common than UN-led multilateral action. US-led Western countries must act now to save lives in Burma, writes MIN ZIN
Since security is all about preventing any major threat to human life, the effect of the deadly cyclone that hit Burma on May 3 must be seen from a serious human security perspective. However, the Burmese military junta is far from comprehending such a humane concept.
The tragic toll exacted by Cyclone Nargis could exceed 100,000 deaths and a million homeless, according to aid agencies. There has been nothing like it in Burmese history, neither during colonial rule nor in the country's civil war.
However, the country's ruling junta has blocked foreign relief workers from bringing much-needed aid to survivors.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon clearly said that "Myanmar cannot do it alone" in setting up major logistics operations to deliver supplies to the most affected areas. Ban said much needs to be done, immediately.
However, the head of the Burmese Navy, Rear Adm Soe Thein, told Adm Timothy Keating, commander of the US Pacific fleet, that the basic needs of storm victims were being met and that "skillful humanitarian workers are not necessary."
According to several reliable sources in Rangoon, Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein, told a meeting of business people on May 12 that no foreigners were being allowed into the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta region.
"Thein Sein said 'No foreigners, no cameras!"' said a well-known journalist in Rangoon.
Many foreign aid workers, including volunteers from "friendly" Asian countries, are being asked to stay away from actual aid distribution.
"We can't go to Pathein (Bassein), capital of the delta region," said a Thai non-governmental organisation aid worker. "Even relief trucks were stopped on the way down to the delta and had to drive back to Rangoon."
Moreover, several reports confirmed misuse of international aid. Supplies were reportedly ending up in military warehouses, local markets and the homes of police and members of pro-government civilian groups, instead of reaching starving and disease-stricken survivors.
As another storm front heads towards Burma's already devastated coastal areas, bringing heavy rain and strong winds to add to the misery of cyclone survivors, the regime's increasing restrictions on international aid workers are now tantamount to a "crime against humanity."
A humanitarian catastrophe is escalating for 2.5 million survivors who live in Burma's "rice bowl", and for whom aid must be viewed in the perspective of long-term rehabilitation and rebuilding.
However, the inability of the regime to respond to the cyclone crisis is now self-evident and clearly demonstrates that Burma is a failed state.
The devastation caused by the cyclone will very likely have immense social and political consequences. The limited or inequitable distribution of assistance and outright bullying by government "thugs" could outrage discontented victims and lead to social unrest and even violence.
Responsibility to Protect
Whether or not the cyclone disaster could lead to political change in Burma depends on intermediary linkages - the leadership of opposition activists and public influences such as Buddhist monks - that could connect the disaster to mobilisation of discontented groups.
Meanwhile, the international community has shown its generosity in helping the people of Burma.
France suggested invoking a UN "Responsibility to Protect" provision to deliver aid to the country without the regime's approval, although that possibility was rejected in the Security Council by China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia.
However, in the history of humanitarian intervention, examples of unilateralism such as Kosovo in 1999 are far more common than UN-led multilateral action. Burma should now be added to this history.
Since the ideal scenario of UNSC-endorsed intervention was not possible, US, France, Britain and other like-minded countries should take the lead as the situation in Burma is extreme enough to justify international humanitarian intervention.
Even Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, an organisation that usually promotes a policy of engagement with the junta, recently wrote that "if the intransigence of the Burmese generals continues, it is a very real issue whether in the name of humanity some international action should be taken against their will - like military air drops, or supplies being landed from ships offshore - to get aid to the huge numbers who desperately need it right now, in the inaccessible coastal area in particular."
However, a few top UN humanitarian officials including John Holmes, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, still place their hopes on negotiations with the junta.
The military, which is well experienced in defusing international pressures, will, of course, make nominal gestures and on-and-off concessions in order to divide international public opinion and strategy.
The most demonstrative example is the regime's "selective opening up to international staff" as the junta invited its immediate neighbours - China, Bangladesh, Thailand and India - to send 160 international workers to join the relief effort.
Although the invitation has yet to yield results, the message itself could create ultra-optimism among the regime's international cheerleaders, including Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who went to Burma on a mission to persuade the generals to allow international relief workers but returned empty-handed.
Samak said on his return: "From what I have seen I am impressed with their (Burmese military's) management."
The UN secretary-general, at least, appears to grasp the gravity of the situation.
"Even though the Myanmar government has shown some sense of flexibility, at this time, it's far, far too short," Ban said. "The magnitude of this situation requires much more mobilisation of resources and aid workers."
Use 'all means' to aid
Junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who has sole responsibility to make any decision in autocratic Burma, remains indifferent to international concern, and even ignored attempts by Ban to contact him. He also snubbed Samak, who met only Burma's prime minister, and is likely to ignore an upcoming "coalition of mercy' from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and a visit by the UN humanitarian chief.
Although the junta will continue to refuse to open up the country to a full-scale relief effort, this doesn't mean that all diplomatic efforts should be set aside. It is a reminder, however, that the international community must use "all means" to get aid through to cyclone victims, as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has advocated.
Meanwhile, some US congressional leaders are organising a letter to President Bush urging him to "work with the British, French, German, Danish and other supportive and regional governments to immediately intervene in the Irrawaddy delta region to provide urgent life-saving humanitarian aid to the survivors of Cyclone Nargis". However, initial enthusiasm of the White House interventionist approach appeared to dwindle after the junta authorised entry of five US Air Force C-130 flights but still restricted foreign aid workers' involvement in actual delivery.
In the aftermath of the cyclone, Burmese exiles in the United States staged a demonstration outside UN headquarters in New York, chanting: "UN waits. Burma lies. How many people have to die?" The chanting expressed the desperate frustration of cyclone survivors in their home country. Good intentions and endless calls to do something must be supported by concrete actions to stem the rising death toll. The time is way overdue. Although the road ahead is rocky and the White House may be wavering to make a moral decision, US-led Western countries must take action now to save lives.
Min Zin is a Burmese journalist.