To Seek Geopolitical Advantage from Myanmar’s Crisis
For the impassioned interventionist, Myanmar has it all: a corrupt and despotic junta, a gallant pro-democracy princess, and brave, battling monks. Now it’s got a colossal humanitarian crisis that throws the failures and flaws of the detested regime into sharp relief.
One thing it doesn’t have: a government so callous and shortsighted it will refuse international aid in order to preserve its own rule.
However, this is a line that the United States and its allies are pushing, apparently in an effort to delegitimize and weaken the Myanmar regime and maybe tally up a regime change success on the cheap, courtesy of an unprecedented natural disaster.
As a result, we may sacrifice an important source of credibility and leverage in Asia—America’s perceived willingness to provide apolitical disaster relief—and open the door for China to supplant us in this key role.
A casual Western reader could be forgiven for believing that the Myanmar regime is refusing to accept international aid in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.
In Myanmar, desperate survivors cried out for food, water and other supplies nearly a week after 100,000 people were feared killed by Cyclone Nargis as it roared across the farms and villages of the low-lying Irrawaddy delta region.
"We're outraged by the slowness of the response of the government of Burma (Myanmar) to welcome and accept assistance," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, told reporters.
"It's clear that the government's ability to deal with the situation, which is catastrophic, is limited."
France’s Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, suggested that the UN Security Council invoke a “responsibility to protect” (designed for cases of genocide) to override Myanmar sovereignty and enable relief operations inside the country without the government’s permission.
Asia Times’ Southeast Asia editor Shawn Crispin (who bills himself as “Asia Hand”...hmmm) completely jumped the shark in my opinion with a piece entitled “The case for invading Myanmar”:
Should the junta continue to resist foreign assistance while social and public health conditions deteriorate in clear view of global news audiences, the moral case for a UN-approved, US-led humanitarian intervention will grow... the deteriorating situation presents a unique opportunity for Bush to burnish his foreign policy legacy... it is almost sure-fire that Myanmar's desperate population would warmly welcome a US-led humanitarian intervention, considering that its own government is now withholding emergency supplies... Now, Cyclone Nagris and the government's woeful response to the disaster have suddenly made that once paranoid delusion into a strong pre-emptive possibility, one that Bush's lame-duck presidency desperately needs.
A more balanced view of Myanmar affairs -and one that doesn't fit with the narrative of criminal dysfunction by the Myanmar regime-- might be gained by looking across the tarmac at Yongon International Airport.
YANGON, May 7 (Xinhua) -- A special big aircraft carrying 500,000 U.S. dollars' worth of relief materials from China arrived at the Yangon International Airport Wednesday afternoon as part of China's one million dollars' emergency relief aid to cyclone-devastated Myanmar.
The 60-ton relief supplies, carried by a Boeing 747-400 aircraft, include compressed food, tents and blankets.
May 7 is two days before “the first big aid flights” (according to AP) arrived. The China mission was a development that the Western press apparently missed.
China subsequently pledged an additional $4.25 million in aid, making them the largest pledged donor as well as the largest provider of actual aid to date, as far as I can tell.
The Western response?
Well, as of May 9, if you type “China aid Myanmar” into Google, the first hit you get, from ABC News :
“Is China’s Aid to Myanmar a PR Stunt?”
Actually, politics is all over the issue of Myanmar relief, and most of it is coming from the Western countries.
In an interesting coincidence, President Bush happened to be awarding a medal to Aung San Suu Kyi and used the opportunity to throw a few rocks at the government we’re supposedly negotiating with in the midst of a titanic humanitarian disaster:
President Bush spoke at a ceremony where he signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.
"This is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman who speaks for freedom for all the people of Burma and who speaks in such a way that she's a powerful voice, in contrast to the junta that currently rules the country," Bush said.
Returning to the troubles of the UN and the Western governments in getting their aid into Myanmar.
Per the Independent:
"We will not just bring our supplies to an airport, dump it and take off," said [The World Food Programme's regional director Anthony Banbury]. "This is one reason why there is a hold up now, because we are going to bring in not just supplies but a lot of capacity to go with them to make sure the supplies get to the people."
In other words, the UN, the US, and some Western governments have made delivery of their aid contingent upon getting visas for their teams of experts to accompany the aid and supervise its distribution.
Reasons given range from “the Myanmar government is overwhelmed” to “otherwise the aid will go to feed the army instead of the people” (which some will recognize as a reprise of the accusations that North Korea diverts food aid to feed its army while its people starve). [Western insistence on letting the aid teams in probably has something to do with an unwillingness to see Myanmar negotiate large quantities of unconditional assistance, gain an undeserved economic and political windfall, and thereby strengthen its regime—CH, 5/9/08]
The aid kabuki theater continued, with the United States pledging $3 million in aid, but not to the Myanmar government. Instead, it was put in the hands of the USAID team waiting in Thailand for permission to enter:
The White House said Tuesday the U.S. will send more than $3 million to help victims of the devastating cyclone in Myanmar, up from an initial emergency contribution of $250,000.
The additional commitment of funds, announced by press secretary Dana Perino, came as Myanmar continued to resist entry for a U.S. disaster assessment team. The Bush administration said permission for such a team to enter the Southeast Asian nation and look at the damage would allow quicker and larger aid contributions.
In the meantime, the decision was made to funnel $3 million more to the disaster-stricken zone. Perino said the money would be allocated by a USAID disaster response team that is currently positioned in Thailand.[emph. added]
In a USAID press conference, some reporter was able to get to the nub of the issue, despite Director of Foreign Disaster Assistance jefe Ky Luu’s dogged attempts to tap-dance around the issue of tying aid to access:
QUESTION: I’m sorry, one more question. Well, why not just give everything through the UN and allow the UN to distribute everything? Why does it have to go through U.S. transport planes or U.S. assets? Why not give everything to the UN and have them -- you know -- through the World Food Program, through all their agencies, seeing as how their planes are being allowed in now?
MR. LUU: Well, not all their planes are being allowed in.
QUESTION: Well, there are several at this point.
MR. LUU: They have received, what we’ve been told, permission for four flights and for food. They are similarly situated, as are our other colleagues, in terms of being able to bring in staff. As I said here, the UNDAC team, they were only allowed to grant visas for four staff, so – the point being is if there’s a large infrastructure that we can support, we will look at that option. But the point is that it shouldn’t be narrowed in scope. Everybody has to become involved and we hope and urge that the regime will allow the access to take place as soon as possible.
The Jakarta Post picked up on another report indicating that it seemed more important for the United States to get its people rather than its food and supplies into Myanmar:
While directly pushing Myanmar to admit international disaster relief, the United States has asked Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, India, China and others to use "any leverage" they may have with Myanmar to allow relief teams into the country, AFP reported.
It’s easier to say “Myanmar is dragging its feet on aid” than “Myanmar desperately wants the aid but we are withholding it until we get what we want”, but that’s what’s happening:
And that leads to scenes like this:
The U.N. World Food Program said two planeloads of supplies containing enough high-energy biscuits to feed 95,000 people were seized Friday, prompting the world body to say it was suspending aid flights.
Later, WFP chief spokeswoman Nancy Roman said the flights would resume on Saturday while negotiations continued for the release of the supplies.
Myanmar's government acknowledged taking control of the shipments and said it plans to distribute the aid itself to the affected areas.
Compare and contrast:
Three Red Cross aid flights loaded with shelter kits and other emergency supplies landed in Myanmar Friday without incident.
"We are not experiencing any problems getting in (unlike) the United Nations," Danish Red Cross spokesman Hans Beck Gregersen said.
The International Red Cross is apparently a trusted and established channel for channel for distributing aid into Myanmar.
While many relief groups continue to face delays in helping the cause, Red Cross groups have been able to access some victims and distribute aid to some areas.
Michael Annear, Southeast Asia Regional Disaster Management Co-ordinator for the International Red Cross, said the organization did deal with some hassle in starting its operations, but things are improving.
"Initially, there was some slight delay (on obtaining visas)," Annear said during a conference call Thursday, "(but) we've been quite successful in developing a system with the Myanmar embassies in other countries and also working from within the Myanmar Red Cross, who is working closely with the government to get approval for individuals to come in."
The personnel from the International Red Cross would be in addition to the Myanmar Red Cross, which has about 27,000 local volunteers working to help victims since the cyclone hit last Saturday.
The organization has a permanent delegation of workers in Yangon, with external experts also coming in to help. More technical delegates are expected to arrive Friday and through the weekend.
Annear says the familiarity local Red Cross volunteers have with the area and its culture are an asset in distributing materials - purchased locally - to the most vulnerable regions.
The Chinese Red Cross is also working with the Myanmar Red Cross Society to funnel aid into Myanmar.
In the case of supplies, it would seem to be the right thing to flood Yongyon airport with supplies on a dump-and-go basis and hope that the Burmese regime has strong enough instincts for compassion and self-preservation and the Red Cross has enough access and capability to push the food and equipment out to the afflicted areas.
The Burmese regime may be more corrupt and inept than most, but totalitarian regimes tend to be rather good at disaster relief, when the security mechanisms for monitoring and control can shift to humanitarian outreach. Its performance in this unprecedented national crisis will be a key test of whether it can continue to cling to power.
When one looks at the Western response in detail, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Western governments are exploiting the suffering to dramatize the weaknesses of the Burmese regime and undermine its legitimacy and rule—and that the Western media is enamored of the narrative that the United States can stand in judgment of the rest of the world on disaster relief *cough* Katrina and humanitarian intervention *cough* Iraq to the point of self-delusion.
That’s not a narrative that Myanmar’s Asian neighbors are particularly interested in.
One could draw the conclusion that, in the matter of Cyclone Nargis, self-serving outrage is a monopoly of the Western powers, but meaningful assistance is not.
While reporting the high-profile complaints of the UN, Europe, and the United States, the Independent noted in passing:
Navy ships from India and planes from Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Laos and Bangladesh have arrived in recent days with medicine, candles, instant noodles, raincoats and other relief supplies.
From Bangkok, Canwest acknowledged that aid was arriving, and reported the self-inflicted difficulties faced by the Western countries:
Only "friendly" governments such as China, India and Thailand have been allowed to help so far, and even they have been limited to delivering supplies and leaving.
This kind of "drop-off assistance" does not sit well with many Western governments, however. After years of ignoring calls for reform and sloughing off punishing sanctions, most governments do not trust the Myanmar generals to distribute the aid on offer, rather than stockpile it for themselves and the military.
The Western-powers versus Asia dynamic played itself out in an interesting way in the UN Security Council.
The French representative dutifully followed up on Bernard Kouchner’s “responsibility to protect” scheme by floating the idea of Security Council intervention in an e-mail.
China, Russia, Vietnam, South Africe, and Indonesia publicly slapped it down.
Indonesia, one might recall, was a major beneficiary of foreign assistance in Aceh following the devastating 2004 tsunami and might be considered sympathetic to the idea of accelerated and forcible humanitarian access.
But it drew the opposite conclusion, according to Xinhua:
Based on Indonesia's past experiences in dealing with disasters, especially the 2004 deadly tsunami, [Indonesia’s UN ambassador] Natalegawa said that most probably the aid delivery efforts were hampered by conditions in the field. "It's quite possible that the obstacles hampering the relief assistance delivery are not caused by political things, but by the complexity of conditions in the field," he said.
Indonesia went on to state:
"We think there are other better forums to discuss the humanitarian dimension of the Myanmar situation," Indonesian Ambassador Marty Natalegawa told reporters ahead of a Security Council meeting."There is a already a readiness on the part of Myanmar to open itself to assistance," he said. "The last thing we would want is to give a political spin to the technical realities and the situation on the ground."
The Chinese went public with their displeasure, and even the chief UN aid guy was cool to the idea.
Beijing's deputy permanent representative, Ambassador Liu Zhenmin, made it clear that China, which has veto powers on the council, opposed any involvement of the U.N. Security Council.
"The current issue of Myanmar is a natural disaster," he said. "It's not an issue for the Security Council. It might be a good issue for other forums of the U.N."
Liu said the council should not politicize the issue and should "let the humanitarian assistance go on."
U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes has indicated that the French approach would not be helpful and could be seen by some as confrontation.
Western diplomats acknowledged that it would be difficult to persuade skeptics on the council about the need for getting the council involved. Council diplomats said Washington was among the most supportive of the French idea.
One might say that the West overreached, scored an own goal, gave up the moral high ground, picked up a stone to throw and instead dropped it on its own foot, or (insert suitable metaphor here) by pushing Kouchner’s over-the-top proposal.
One might also say that the people of Myanmar would have been better served by a prompt release of aid that erred on the side of compassion and trust, instead of wasting time at the UN Security Council on futile jibber-jabber concerning the fantasy of forcible humanitarian intervention or haggling over the access of our experts.
Instead, intensive diplomatic efforts could have been devoted to negotiating a genuine, life-saving measure: permitting US helicopter crews to fly humanitarian missions to cut-off villages.
Asian disaster relief is, interestingly, an important role for the United States military, in particular the U.S. Navy.
Since we are technically at peace with all of the states in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans—at least until the next war—the Navy needs an excuse to keep steaming around there, making port calls, and making the case for a sustained US military presence out there.
One mission the US Navy has claimed is humanitarian assistance in the wake of natural disasters, most conspicuously and successfully demonstrated in the case of the case of the 2004 tsunami.
The Navy has a ship in the area, the Essex, that could provide 19 helicopters with cargo lift capability, and it would be nice to see them deployed to get supplies to people desperately clinging to life in the flooded Irrawaddy delta.
Unfortunately, USAID’s Ky Luu, got a little carried away and proposed that the US military drop supplies without permission of the Myanmar government.
Secretary of Defense Gates, who seems to be the sole voice of reason in the Bush administration these days, quashed the idea, stating:
"I cannot image us going in without the permission of the Myanmar government."
Presumably, Secretary Gates drew the conclusion that nothing would discredit the humanitarian mission of the US military in Asia quicker than unapproved operations.
Nobody’s going to welcome the 7th Fleet in the region if they are worried about helicopters full of Marines buzzing across the horizon to “rescue” some pro-US rebel group from an attack by government forces on the pretext of a rainstorm.
Even under the most favorable of circumstances, a deal on US forces flying missions into Myanmar would probably be unachievable.
But, given the unnecessary and quite possibly cynically deliberate two-step on admission of US and UN aid workers, it’s impossible, and many people may die as a result.
In the wake of the disaster and the politicized Western posturing, I think that there will be an assessment that an effective, non-US disaster relief capability needs to be present in the region—from Indonesia, India, or China.
The Chinese may be quick to jump on the opportunity.
As the AP pointed out:
China is a relative newcomer to major international disaster relief operations and its armed forces, despite their vast size, have limited capacity for quickly delivering supplies beyond its borders.
Beijing may decide it needs something like the Essex sailing around in the Pacific with helicopters on deck, ready to offer disaster relief both to its close and unpopular allies like Burma and any state that wants to avail itself of the resource—and not only for humanitarian reasons or to provide more opportunities for the display of Chinese soft-power benevolence.
A Chinese disaster relief capability would also deny the United States another pretext for a significant military presence in the west Pacific and Indian Ocean, and give the Chinese military forces humanitarian cover for development of their blue-water and regional force-projection capabilities.
And, when the Western posturing on Myanmar is recalled, Asian states might be willing to swallow their suspicions of Chinese military reach and accept Beijing instead of the United States as a primary provider of regional disaster relief.
That’s not good for us.
Even if the Myanmar regime collapses as a result of the post-cyclone chaos, that win may not be enough to compensate for the loss of US standing and prestige in the region.