12 May 2008

Myanmar: Politics of Disaster

The Chinese earthquake may limit that country's ability to continue assistance to the cyclone survivors in Myanmar. Because the Chinese government is friendly toward the Myanmar junta, Chinese relief supplies have had no problem getting into the country, and may have been the primary source of aid to victims since the storm hit. Now the Chinese have perhaps tens of thousands of displaced people of their own to worry about. If that results in cutting off or slowing the stream of aid to Myanmar, we can expect more invocations of the UN's "responsibility to protect" and more calls for humanitarian intervention by powers less friendly than China toward the junta.

Outsiders seem to be estimating a higher casualty count than the Myanmar government has offered so far. There are complaints about Myanmar officials confiscating supplies and distributing them (or not) based on political rather than humanitarian calculations, allegedly making aid an incentive for citizens to vote for the junta's new constitution. This is exactly the sort of scenario in which someone like Philip Bobbitt would suggest that the junta has surrendered its sovereignty due to its failure to protect its people. His answer to the problem, of course, would be military intervention, but so far I haven't heard many Americans making that case. It's been the French who've urged the UN to take forceful action, and the Chinese who've blocked it.

It's indisputably a maddening situation for anyone with the least compassion toward the cyclone survivors. But people need to think about this carefully. Why can't we just give the aid to the junta if it makes them feel good to look like they're the providers? The answer seems to be that people don't trust the junta to distribute aid equitably or without bias. But what are the alternatives? No aid reaches Myanmar, or militant humanitarian intervention creates even more disruption if the junta decides to resist. It looks like elements in the international community want to teach the junta a lesson, but that shouldn't be the issue right now. We may despise the junta and its ways, but teaching them a lesson is an issue for the people of Myanmar. Maybe if the leading dissident wasn't one of those narcissistic pacifists, more interested perhaps in her own karma than the welfare of her nation, the lesson might have been learned long ago. That's her problem, and her country's, but not our country's. The problem Americans have assigned themselves this month is to keep thousands of helpless people alive. It would make sense to pursue the path of least resistance, which means dealing respectfully with the junta and trusting it until it actually violates our trust.

No comments: