The Dangers of Playing Politics with Disaster Relief
In the matter of Myanmar, you can have humanitarian aid or you can have politics...but you can’t have both.
I’ve taken a certain amount of heat for questioning the blanket condemnation of the Myanmar regime’s disaster relief measures in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.
Some of the dissatisfaction has to do with my unwillingness to accept at face value the assertions in the international media that the government’s response to the cyclone has been callous and criminally incompetent.
Myanmar was knocked on its behind by Cyclone Nargis. Any government response will be, by some measure, inadequate. That’s why these things are called “disasters”.
I look at the aftermath of the great Bhola Cyclone disaster of 1970 and see a lot of parallels between the response of the Pakistan government and the Myanmar regime. Based on the limited information from the field, I give Myanmar a low but passing grade.
I also look at the fact that the Irrawaddy delta is Myanmar’s economic heartland and I credit the Myanmar government with sufficient survival instincts to understand that an effective relief and recovery operation is crucial to the regime’s viability. About 15% of the country’s riceland has been devastated. The government can’t just write it—or the farmers that till the land--off.
Myanmar is not availing itself of foreign military assistance—especially helicopter capability—that could speed relief to some areas and save lives. However, as the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami demonstrated, foreign military aid can not be effectively deployed without effective coordination and cooperation between the foreign military providing the equipment and crews and the local military providing the local knowledge, manpower, and support.
There is, to my knowledge, no precedent for successful independent foreign intervention in a disaster of this scale. The idea that France and the United States could mount an effective large-scale rescue unilateral mission without the Myanmar military is a fantasy. Every moment spent discussing unilateral intervention under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine is a waste of time and lives.
On the other hand, have there been any demands that France and the United States explicitly commit themselves to joint rescue operations under the direction of the Myanmar military so they can get about the business of saving lives?
The second area of criticism appears to be China Matters’ challenging of the incessant assertions in the international press that “the junta is not letting in aid”.
No backing down on this one. Aid is coming into Myanmar and it’s being distributed by the Myanmar government. Foreign NGOs and aid teams, primarily from Asia, are also working inside Myanmar.
Myanmar has accepted ASEAN as a mechanism for receiving aid. More on that later.
What is not getting into Myanmar is foreign aid teams that the UN and the USA are insisting must be admitted in order to make independent assessments without Myanmar government input of how and where aid should be distributed.
The United States attempted, unsuccessfully, to make admission of its assessment teams a precondition for supply of aid during the initial rescue stage, but quietly abandoned this unpalatable and unnecessary demand.
Now that disaster relief is moving into the recovery and reconstruction stage, the US assessment team demand has reemerged as a linchpin of American strategy and a mainstay of its propaganda campaign against the Myanmar regime.
Reporting this situation as “not letting in aid” is, in my opinion, misleading and dishonest.
Which brings us to the third and most explosive area of contention: my assertion that the United States is playing politics with aid relief in order to put pressure on the Myanmar regime.
Scot Marciel, a career foreign service officer was appointed America’s ambassador to ASEAN last year, with the specific and primary charge of putting pressure on the Myanmar regime. And he hasn’t changed his tune since the Nargis disaster.
At the time of his appointment, AFP reported that Marciel’s priority mission was to use ASEAN as a tool against the Myanmar regime:
The prospective first US envoy to the ASEAN said Wednesday that his key priority was prodding the Southeast Asian group to press Myanmar's military junta to embrace democratic reforms.
Scot Marciel, ambassador designate for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) affairs, said at his confirmation hearing in the Senate that he planned to "travel extensively throughout the region" to improve ties."
One of my highest priorities, if confirmed, will be to work with ASEAN and its member nations ... to convince Burma's rulers to end their brutal repression and begin a genuine dialogue leading to a democratic transition," he said. Burma is Myanmar's previous name....
"The problem of Burma represents one of ASEAN's biggest challenges, but also an opportunity," said Marciel, who will continue to hold his current post as deputy assistant secretary of state on confirmation as US envoy to ASEAN.
He said that if the United States and ASEAN as well as others in the international community reversed Myanmar's "dangerous downward spiral," it would be of "enormous benefit" to the people in that country and the entire region.
Shortly after his confirmation, Marciel appeared on a panel at the Asia Society with a leader of Burma’s government in exile.
A report covering the panel, entitled “A saffron revolution in the making?”, quoted Marciel:
Marciel, spoke of the `intense diplomatic involvement' of the US in Myanmar, particularly, after the crackdown on Burmese demonstrators last September.
Rejecting allegations that the US is not doing enough to bring about change in Myanmar, Marciel says: `We are a nation based on freedom which we try to promote worldwide. Burma is a compelling case. Consequently, Burma's path is worrying us. Burma's record has steadily declined in every field - from human rights through economic corruption to public health. Burma's major exports, besides precious stones and natural gas, also include refugees, disease and drugs. Burma's present regime, which lacks legitimacy, support and ideas, should organise a broad-based dialogue with all parties in accordance with the UN's call for an "all-inclusive dialogue".'
A specific conclusion of the panel was that ASEAN’s interest in admitting Myanmar to its free-trade zone should be quashed:
By allowing Myanmar to be a member of the free-trade zone, Asean would be directly supporting the military junta and not the people of that country, who would not derive any benefit whatsoever. Most of the nation's wealth is concentrated in the hands of the junta leadership, which is resilient enough to convert its revenues, received in US dollars, into the local currency at the prevailing black market rates, according to the panelists.
In Hanoi in January, he repeated the theme “Burma is going downhill on all fronts” and indicated the US desire for ASEAN to play an active role in the campaign against the Myanmar regime:
"Our sense is that there is no easy solution, but for Burma to begin to turn around in a very general sense, it's not really going to happen and can't really happen under this regime," he said.
"Everybody says they weighed in diplomatically -- the Indians, the Chinese, the ASEANs (Association of Southeast Asian Nations members). What we're saying is, please keep doing it. A one-time weigh-in isn't so helpful."
For bonus points, please note that Marciel continually refers to the country as Burma (the government-in-exile’s favored term) instead of the official name of Myanmar.
I think it’s clear the US had a policy of isolating and destabilizing the Myanmar regime on humanitarian as well as democratic grounds before Cyclone Nargis created a special challenge—and opportunity.
And that makes the current US attitude toward ASEAN—that plucky collection of economically vibrant democracies (excluding China and India) that Mr. Marciel was sent to cultivate—rather interesting.
ASEAN is not following the US lead. It certainly isn’t using the crisis to put pressure on Myanmar.
On the contrary, ASEAN has stepped up to organize a donor’s conference to organize aid for Myanmar.
ASEAN wants to work with Myanmar; Myanmar wants to work with ASEAN.
I might point out that at this point rapid delivery of international recovery aid for Myanmar’s rice industry is absolutely critical.
And the Myanmar government—for which rice is its life blood—has already made a detailed assessment.
Myanmar’s ministry of agriculture has prepared a plan for $243 million of international assistance, mostly seed and fertilizer, to get the critical monsoon season paddy planted in the next fifty days in the area devastated by the storm.
The donors’ conference is scheduled to be held on May 25 in Myanmar’s capital, Yangon (or, if you prefer, Rangoon, in Burma), the type of sovereign state treatment that the United States does not like to see pariah regimes receiving.
Even worse, instead of putting pressure on Myanmar, ASEAN is prepared to act as an intermediary trusted by Myanmar to accelerate the delivery of aid!
"We will establish a mechanism so that aid from all over the world can flow into Myanmar," Yeo [Singapore’s Foreign Minister] said, speaking at an emergency meeting in Singapore of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, which includes Myanmar.
"Myanmar is also prepared to accept the expertise of international and regional agencies to help in its rehabilitation efforts," he told a news conference.
And what about those freelancing disaster assessment teams?
Referring to the continuing limitations on help from countries outside Southeast Asia, he said: "We have to look at specific needs — there will not be uncontrolled access."
America is not pleased!
The United States and Scot Marciel quickly lost respect for ASEAN’s judgment, capability, and relevance.
The AP covered Marciel’s testimony before Congress on May 20:
The United States on Tuesday questioned the relevance of a scheduled fundraising conference for cyclone-battered Myanmar, saying it was more important for military rulers in the Southeast Asian state to provide swift increased access to disaster-hit areas.
Continuing with the assessment team fetish, Marciel declared:
"Without an adequate and independent assessment of the situation and current needs, as well as a commitment by the regime to provide the necessary access, a pledging conference is unlikely to produce the results we seek," US envoy to ASEAN Scot Marciel told a Congressional hearing.
The World Bank, in the person of ex-State Department boffin Robert Zoellick, also stood ready to extend the middle finger to ASEAN, again with the inevitable mention of assessment teams:
George Yong-Boon Yeo, Singapore's foreign minister, told reporters he envisioned a "major role to be played by the World Bank and the ADB," the Asian Development Bank, even though neither institution has done business in Burma since 1990.
ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan met with World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick in Washington last week. Zoellick pledged technical expertise, not loans, to the emergency response. Yeo indicated yesterday that he expected the World Bank to circumvent its restrictions in assisting Burma, which is also known as Myanmar.
But Sarah Cliffe, director of operations for the World Bank's East Asia and Pacific region, issued a statement late last night saying that Zoellick "made it clear that the Bank's assistance, through ASEAN, will constitute expertise in assessing the devastation and planning for reconstruction and recovery." She added that "there is no suggestion that the World Bank will now provide financial support to the Government of Myanmar, which has been in arrears to the Bank since 1998."
No love from the UK, either:
Britain's Asia minister Mark Malloch-Brown said in London on Monday after returning from Myanmar that the authorities and international humanitarian organizations had widely differing views as to immediate needs.
"Getting a needs assessment done in time for the donors' meeting is critical to get everyone on the same page," he told reporters in London. "Unless you have an agreed assessment ... you just get nowhere with the donors' meeting."
Assessment teams again! Anybody see a pattern here?
You think the US and the UK are, maybe, working together to put obstacles in front of the donor’s conference? Like they won’t agree to provide aid unless their assessment teams are allowed in? Maybe? Just maybe?
This, to me, is the nub.
It’s not that Myanmar doesn’t want aid. It is that the United States government is demanding that supply of aid be preconditioned on admission of international assessment teams.
The United States will assert that its policy is a necessary response to Myanmar’s poor performance in disaster relief and/or the general odiousness and incompetence of the regime.
I don’t think that argument’s sustainable, either on the admittedly incomplete reports we’ve been hearing from the field or based on the realities of disaster relief—and the necessity of active participation and direction by the government of the country receiving the relief—in general.
I think it’s politics: an attempt to exploit the disaster and Myanmar’s need for international aid in order to get teams in the country to collect information discrediting the government and strengthening the case for an internationally-administered humanitarian mandate (responsibility to protect, anyone?); provide the basis for making the provision of aid conditional upon foreign monitoring and control; and create new economic pressure points against the regime. And, if we deemed the regime’s provisions of information, access, or execution less than satisfactory, bingo! a new basis for sanctions!
[N.B.: In 2006, John Bolton was able to place Burma on the permanent agenda of the National Security Council. The act of placing Burma on the agenda was itself rather meaningless. All that means is that the issue is raised at every meeting, the council either acts on the matter or “remains seized”, meaning the can is kicked down the road til the next meeting.
Because it’s a matter of agenda, not action, permanent members of the Security Council can’t veto the placement. The United States was therefore able to take advantage of a favorable alignment of temporary members of the Security Council and place Burma on the permanent agenda--over China’s vehement objections—by a vote of 10 for, 4 against, and 1 abstention.
The US action drew on a report commissioned by Vaclav Havel and Desmond Tutu on behalf of their fellow Nobel laureate, imprisoned Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. The 70-page report, Threat to the Peace: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act on Burma, prepared pro bono by a Washington law firm, made the sweeping and dubious claim that Burma’s internal repression—including its burgeoning HIV/AIDS crisis—represented a threat to regional peace that justified action by the Security Council.
The Chinese made it clear that, no matter how long Burma remained on the agenda, it considered the placement a “preposterous” interference in the internal affairs of a member state and would veto any UN Security Council resolution relating to it. So the permanent agenda item has purely propaganda value.
The Havel/Tutu report recommended mandatory intervention under Section 41 (the non-military, sanctiony one) of Chapter VII of the UN Charter to require the Burmese regime to free Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and work with the UN on a plan for national reconciliation and return to democracy.
It also urged the Burmese regime to permit “immediate, safe, and unhindered access to all parts of the country” for UN and other international humanitarian missions.
So the US policy supporting sovereignty-busting humanitarian intervention in Burma has a pedigree dating back to 2005. Therefore, it's not too surprising the US is pushing for independent and adversarial assessment teams in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis—although Chinese opposition virtually guarantees that the UN Security Council will never pass a resolution on that basis. Old wine in new bottles.—CH, 5/21/08]
Then again, maybe not letting in the inspectors—excuse me, the assessment teams—is just as big a crime as not running a proper relief effort:
"Let me be clear: if assistance is not allowed in, and thousands of Burmese perish, the responsibility for this catastrophe will fall squarely on the shoulders of Senior Gen. Than Shwe," the head of the country's ruling junta, and other leaders, Marciel said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia.
If you don’t recognize this as a page from the US diplomatic playbook, you haven’t been paying attention...to Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela.
It might be a recipe for regime change...but not for effective humanitarian aid.
And, if you think ol’ China Hand has gone off the paranoiac Bush-bashing deep end, I’ll bet you dollars to donuts the Myanmar junta is thinking exactly the same thing I am.
If Myanmar strong man Than Shwe is monitoring US chatter, here’s what he’s hearing:
[Marciel] called the government's response to Cyclone Nargis appalling and blamed its failure to give foreign aid workers greater access to victims for putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.
"Every day that goes by and more people suffer, increasingly the blame falls on the government."
Democrat Joseph Crowley called the generals' response to the storm a "crime against humanity." "They know deep down inside that what they're doing is wrong, that they're morally corrupt," he said.
[Representing the Republicans], Dana Rohrbacher said he hoped the disaster would spur change in the country's leadership. "This is criminal behavior," he said.
Bottom line: I doubt those US assessment teams will get anywhere near Yangyon or the delta.
More importantly, ASEAN will regard the US effort to push assessment teams onto the relief agenda with a combination of disgust and disappointment.
A genuine humanitarian effort involves engaging with the Myanmar government and accepting its decisions and judgment. Hard to do, I know, especially for the US government, which has been condemning the regime for months.
It might even mean aiding a successful recovery that gives a nasty regime an undeserved second wind—exactly the opposite of what the Bush administration has been hoping to accomplish.
I think that Secretary of Defense Gates was ready to go that route.
But the State Department apparently has other ideas. It may have been seduced by the idea of a rare freedom agenda win, and saw an unexpected opportunity in the disaster to marginalize, delegitimize, and harass the Myanmar regime by beating it around the ears with the “assessment teams” stick.
Using the crisis to undermine the legitimacy, stability, and rule of the Myanmar regime: that’s politics.
Understandable, perhaps even admirable. But politics just the same. Rather ruthless.
Trouble is, in the wake of an enormous natural disaster you can’t have humanitarian aid and transformational diplomacy at the same time.
Gotta choose on or the other.
The U.S. appears to have chosen...unwisely.
While jockeying for political advantage in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, it may have scored points in Western press and opinion, but at the expense of antagonizing ASEAN and China.
China will not allow a political void to emerge on its southern border and will move to fill any aid gap left by the western nations.
And that’s why I still think, in Asia, the United States will emerge as the political loser from Cyclone Nargis.