Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Forgotten Burma/Myanmar

Remember Burma? Or Myanmar? You know, the country that some people wanted us to invade after that big storm, Cyclone Nargis, in May 2008 because the junta wasn’t admitting international aid the way they thought it should be done?

And China Matters attracted vituperative comments and cancelled subscriptions because I stated that:

  • the Burmese freedom enthusiasts inside and outside the Bush administration had made the morally and strategically dubious decision to mix up human rights with humanitarian aid (not the same thing at all as we shall see);
  • that ASEAN was taking the proper approach—putting humanitarian assistance first—over the objections of the United States;
  • that reporting on the situation in Myanmar was skewed to the point of outright dishonesty in an effort to paint the picture that the government was refusing to admit vital foreign aid and was putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk;
  • that the history of disaster relief demonstrates that the vast majority of immediate disaster relief was always provided by in-country actors, and meaningful international aid always arrived weeks or months later during the reconstruction phase and, though critical to recovery and reconstruction, did not have to be admitted immediately "to save lives";
  • that the Myanmar regime probably possessed sufficient capacity for self-interest and self-preservation to ameliorate the situation in the Irrawaddy Delta—the country’s breadbasket—as best it could;
  • and the true analogy for the Nargis cyclone was not the Boxing Day tsunami, an opportunity for the United States to show its love to its regional allies in the Indian Ocean basin—it was the Bhola Cyclone that devastated East Pakistan, elicited equivocal responses from its neighbors and the West, and was instrumental in the secession of the province under Indian auspices and the creation of Bangladesh.

Well, guess what. There have been a series of assessments of the situation in Myanmar by respected disaster relief organizations.

In September of 2008, Relief International revisited the Myanmar situation in a report entitled Burma: Building Upon Success:

Three months after Cyclone Nargis, the world has an outdated image of the situation inside Burma. Although aid agencies delivered assistance within days after the storm and continue to do so, the story of a recalcitrant government that rejects aid from the generous nations of the world has not been updated.

Aid agencies today report an unprecedented level of access and mobility in the Ayeyarwady Delta, which is a tribute to the successful fight by the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) and the United States for humanitarian access.

For two weeks, Refugees International interviewed the staff of over forty humanitarian organizations inside Burma. All report access to any requested part of the delta, including ethnic minority areas, and the ability to send international staff to train, implement and monitor programs without obstruction. Since June, over 1,000 visas have been granted to international aid workers. Similarly, agencies report the ability to resolve problems with the government, and praise the Tripartite Core Group (TCG) – the cyclone response structure comprised of working levels of the Burmese government, ASEAN and the United Nations – as an effective mechanism for resolving disputes. The TCG has ably removed obstacles related to visas, Foreign Exchange Certificates and the importation of food, among others.

The demands of the relief effort have emboldened some Ministers within the Government of Burma to facilitate international cooperation, a story ignored by international reports that focus on the government’s obstructionism.
Writing in the December 2008 issue of the magazine Humanitarian Exchange, Julie Belanger and Richard Horsey, who worked with the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance in Yongyon, addressed the question of whether it was necessary to give priority to foreign humanitarian organizations in the early days of the disaster :

Ultimately, the various initiatives being pursued, even if not well-coordinated, did produce the desired result: good access to affected areas and close cooperation with the authorities. So the key question is not how a different outcome could have been achieved, but rather whether this could have been achieved more quickly.

In this context, it should be noted that the delay of several weeks was extremely unfortunate but in the end not catastrophic. That is, the delay caused considerable suffering to survivors and certainly increased the risks of further fatalities. But the feared ‘second wave’ of deaths did not occur. This is no doubt partly down to luck, but is also attributable to the resilience of the communities affected and the strength of social networks, the extraordinary efforts of local civil society and private donors, the rapid mobilisation of local staff from across the country by agencies already on the ground and the government’s own response, the scale and impact of which have not always been fully recognised.

The question then arises whether a different strategy could have reduced this delay. On balance, perhaps not. A more forceful strategy is unlikely to have been successful – some form of humanitarian intervention, such as unauthorized air-drops of aid, would almost certainly have been ineffective in meeting the needs of the affected population, and may even have put them at risk of military retaliation. It would also have created a highly counterproductive political confrontation. On the other hand, less pressure, while it may have made it easier to convince the junta that the intentions of the West were purely humanitarian, would not necessarily have produced a positive outcome any more quickly.

The compromise solution that was worked out, that of a tripartite structure involving ASEAN, the UN and the government, turned out to be not only a successful formula for ensuring access, but also an effective forum for achieving a close and constructive relationship with the authorities, at least at the working and ministerial level.

In the same issue, Phillip Humphris of Medicins sans Frontiers wrote quite bluntly about the humanitarian/human rights disconnect and the West’s cynical alarmism concerning the crisis.

When one considers that Bernard Kouchner, France’s Foreign Minister and proponent of the “responsibility to protect” or “R2P” doctrine of humanitarian intervention, founded MSF, Humphris’ criticisms are quite damning:

One could be excused for being perplexed regarding the humanitarian response after Cyclone Nargis. On the one hand, it was predicted that, in the wake of the cyclone, we would be faced with thousands of subsequent deaths from disease and malnutrition, and all would be lost unless foreign organisations were immediately present. Meanwhile,the government of Myanmar was strongly reproached for restricting the presence of outside actors. On the other hand, once permission was given, the response to basic needs on the ground was slow, both by the government and by most international actors. Even so – fortunately – the predicted medical catastrophe did not happen.

Needs were massive in terms of emergency food relief, water and sanitation and basic household items. At the same time, however, the coping mechanisms and resilience of the surviving population meant that aid had only a limited impact in terms of saving lives. The pertinence of the humanitarian response was more about the fast restoration of minimum living conditions and psychological and economic recovery. For instance, amongst the 23,000 medical consultations and 21,000 nutrition screenings done by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), by far the majority were for non-lethal diseases. Despite some areas of the Delta receiving almost no external food aid, no significant increase in acute malnutrition was observed in the first four months.

Political pressure on the government of Myanmar ensued, culminating in the aggressive positioning of US warships off the coast of the Delta, along with talk of putting into practice the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ concept for the first time.

In the context of Myanmar’s frozen external relations and its internal policies of self-reliance, the objectives of this approach were apparently more political than humanitarian. Only when the short-term attention of the media and major political actors diminished, and after the US warships had left, was a dialogue possible to formally establish humanitarian access.

During this period of political posturing, a handful of international humanitarian actors already present in the country had been able to access and assess some of the affected areas for the first time, establishing the large scale of basic relief that was needed. It was therefore disappointing that the official freedom given to external assistance three to four weeks after the incident was not quickly exploited, given the dire predictions of catastrophe many had made.

In fact, it took another month before MSF teams began to see the arrival of the majority of actors currently present in the Delta. In the end, the assistance given on the ground, in terms of quantity, speed and coverage, was small compared to that provided to the survivors of the 2004 tsunami.

But it’s not all sunshine and flowers.

While acknowledging the efforts of a relatively open-minded group of officials in the Myianmar government on the issue of humanitarian access and aid in the Irrawaddy Delta, Relief International points out that the hard-line actors inside the junta are determined to limit humanitarian access to other areas of Myanmar, where the human suffering is caused or exacerbated by the central government’s brutal suppression of minority populations and aspirations:

Nonetheless, hardline isolationists are still determined to prevent further international involvement in Burmese affairs. This obstructionism has raised hurdles for relief operations, such as the failed attempt to impose strict guidelines on international agencies in June. More seriously, this conservative faction is attempting to exert its influence over on-going operations outside the delta, and is meddling with the annual memoranda of understanding (MOUs) of a number of long-standing operational agencies. With little clear direction being given from the senior leadership, multiple government officials appear to be implementing competing pro- and anti-engagement policies simultaneously in hopes that their actions will curry favor with top officials.

Humphris described the government response in the Delta as less than exemplary:

The inefficiencies of international aid evident in the Nargis response do not excuse the government of Myanmar of its responsibility to respond to the relief needs of its people. In the areas of the Delta where MSF teams were active, this response was slow compared to the scale of the disaster.

Belanger and Horsley indicate that government relief efforts did have an impact, albeit unacknowledged by the West:

[Avoiding the “second wave of post-cyclone fatalities is] attributable to the resilience of the communities affected and the strength of social networks, the extraordinary efforts of local civil society and private donors, the rapid mobilisation of local staff from across the country by agencies already on the ground and the government’s own response, the scale and impact of which have not always been fully recognised.

A lot of attention has been paid, deservedly so, to the outpouring of assistance from Myanmar’s civil society, to aid the victims in the Delta. But an interesting and untold story—especially in terms of its impact on the political legitimacy of the junta after the catastrophe—is what the government did and didn’t do, and how it was perceived by the nation’s citizens.

One indicator is what happened to the monsoon paddy (the mid-year rice planting that accounts for the vast majority of Myanmar’s rice harvest) in the devastated delta.

According to FAO/WFP assessment of Myanmar's crop and food security reported out in January 2009, Nargis flooded about 12% of Myanmar’s rice acreage.

The FAO statistics show that 2008 sown acreage in the 10 townships affected by the cyclone actually increased over 2007 from 785,178 hectares to 786,120 hectares. For instance, in the township of Kyauktan, which was 91% flooded, estimated sown acreage increased from 63,426 hectares to 63,395.

That’s an indication that the flip side of the callous insistence of the Myanmar government that the shell-shocked survivors leave their refugee camps and return to their fields was a practical concern: anxiety that as much seed be put in the ground in time for the monsoon.

The crash planting program yielded definite but limited results, which the FAO and WFP attributed to “a result of poor quality seeds, salinity and iron toxicity, lack of
agricultural labour and draught animals.”:

Seven townships in the Ayeyarwady Division and three townships in Yangon Division were affected by Cyclone-Nargis. Assessments show that of the 60-80 percent of paddy land that was planted, only 50-60 percent has been successful. Some of the successful fields are missing plants and some plants are shorter in height. Therefore, the production from these areas is expected to be only 50 percent of the previous year.

Overall, Myanmar is doing OK on the rice front. The affected areas produced 2,860,000 tons of rice in 2007. After the cyclone, the crash rice planting program yielded 1,932,000 tons, a drop of about 1,000,000 tons representing about 5% of Myanmar’s total output—and 1/3 of its export surplus.

Despite the devastation of a 12% of its prime rice growing area, Myanmar produced enough surplus rice in 2008 to export 400,000 tons, down from 3,000,000 tons of exports in 2007. The government hopes to export 3,000,000 tons again in 2009, though the Myanmar Rice Traders’ Association apparently thinks 2,000,000 tons is more likely number.

Recovery of rice production will be hampered by factors directly related to Nargis, such as the demise of 136,000 water buffalo—a key piece of agricultural capital--in the cyclone.

The biggest structural problem appears to be the low price of rice, which makes key agricultural inputs such as fertilizer (the level of urea use in Myanmar is ridiculously low) unaffordable. The FAO blames the lack of internal markets and poor transportation for decoupling the price of rice in the producing areas from the booming international price, though it’s also possible that the government is happy to suppress the purchase price of rice to pocket a bigger markup when it’s sold overseas.

Bottom line: it looks like the Myanmar government didn’t pursue a policy of malign neglect toward the Nargis-affected areas. A combination of government, NGO, international humanitarian, and civic society efforts returned the Irrawaddy Delta to a semblance of stability after the disaster.

On one level, it’s fun to play gotcha! and skewer the cynical Western grandstanding and generally dismal level of reporting on the Nargis disaster.

But it’s important to point out that the people of Myanmar, or Burma if you prefer, are still living with the consequences.

MSF’s Humphris writes:

Overall, the humanitarian environment in Myanmar is highly politicised, tarnished both by the logic of sanctions and by the approach of the country’s government. Objective assessments of needs and appropriate responses are complicated by the policies of the government and the restrictions it imposes, and by the political approach of humanitarian actors. By taking a political position in the country, often in line with their government donors, international humanitarian actors further compromise their ability to conduct objective needs assessments and implement efficient programmes.

On February 9, the UN released its proposal for a three-year plan for recovery from Nargis. It’s asking for $700 million.

As the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator stated, "This is a small requirement in proportion to the magnitude of the disaster."

Ridiculously small.

But what about previous results?

The Myanmar region floated the figure of $11 billion at the donor’s conference last year, which obviously didn’t materialize (though the government did provide a specific budget of $247 million in emergency assistance for seeds, fertilizer, and other aid to save the summer paddy).

The U.N. has been considerably more modest, organizing two “flash appeals” on behalf of NGOs providing direct aid to victims of the disaster during the recovery and reconstruction phase.

The total amount requested: $477 million dollars.

Level of funding so far: $313 million dollars, or about 65%. The details of who got what (or didn’t get what) are at the UN website.

Oh, and about $10 million of $313 million is “uncommitted pledges”—money that’s been promised but not delivered.

Good luck getting the uncommitted pledges…let alone the unpledged balance of $144 million on the existing flash appeal…let alone the $700 million for future programs…even though the current humanitarian aid program is a) helping the people of the delta and b) providing meaningful engagement with the Myanmar regime.

According to USAID (though the page does not appear to have been updated recently) U.S. government aid (including about $10 million in DOD logistics) amounted to $50 million, or about 16% of the total actually committed. Contrast that with the $350 million the US government provided to friendly governments like Indonesia, India, and Thailand in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami.

As the United States’ share of the global foreign aid pie is about 33%, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the U.S. is not enthusiastic about the Nargis aid effort.

It’s disheartening that Hillary Clinton has apparently decided to keep Scot Marciel in his slot as Ambassador to ASEAN.

When the Bush administration posted Marciel to ASEAN, his brief was to push it away from accommodation and toward a more confrontational stance vis a vis Myanmar in effort to isolate and destabilize it as an illegitimate failed state that was a positive threat to the region. That didn’t change with Nargis, when he was dismissive of the ultimately successful ASEAN-led engagement. And it hasn’t change now, if Marciel’s regurgitation of failed state/regime change tropes in a recent interview with Asia Times is any indication.

In September, Refugees International wrote hopefully:

The sooner that the U.S. and other donor countries reaffirm their commitment to early recovery operations at least through 2009, the better the chance that the new openness in the delta will take hold. Ministers who have risked their political capital to support international involvement must be encouraged by donor commitments to more than a short-term infusion of humanitarian assistance. Without these commitments, isolationists may argue that humanitarian operations were more about scoring political points against the regime rather than aiding Burma.

Humphris wrote:

Limiting structural or development assistance to the government is primarily a political choice made with the political logic of sanctions. This should not be the case for humanitarian assistance, where the needs of the people are acute. The direct and accountable delivery of assistance is possible with careful planning and well designed projects, which can be effective and cost-efficient. The distinction between humanitarian assistance directly to the people of Myanmar and bilateral or multilateral assistance to the country’s government is important in this context. It is unfortunate that sanctions, strongly supported by the US government, are such a dominating influence on the donor response. This situation could be defended if humanitarian assistance was impossible, and if the political approach chosen by external actors had the potential to achieve a rapid and more favourable outcome for the population. But this is not the case. Meanwhile, humanitarian assistance can be provided efficiently, under certain conditions. Even if delayed, the government’s decision to open up humanitarian space after the Nargis cyclone was surprising, and an indication that all is not lost when it comes to external assistance for its people.

We’ll have to see if, under the Obama administration, the headlong pursuit of regime change in Burma on the basis of human rights advocacy is replaced with a more balanced approach, recognizing the moral and diplomatic value of genuine humanitarian assistance.

For the amusement of readers who missed my first round of posts on Myanmar/Burma, I reproduce below classic snark concerning Bernard Kouchner’s opera bouffe attempt to use the French helicopter carrier Mistral as the symbol of the West’s “responsibility to protect” resolve (note the every-shrinking quantity of rice in the Mistral’s hold from post to post), followed by a lengthy post describing America’s ASEAN calculations. The rest of my posts on the subject can be found in the China Matters archives for May/June 2008.

May 12, 2008

Enter the Mistral!

[I]t is difficult to have any respect for Bernard Kouchner’s declaration that France would distribute 1,500 tons of rice aboard the destroyer Mistral without the cooperation of the Myanmar regime and, indeed, that "France would not consider entrusting aid to the Myanmar authorities".

Even if the French had cutting edge intel and accurate maps of Myanmar, they don’t work any more in the aftermath of the cyclone. Villages, landmarks, even the land itself have been washed away or are under water.

And I don’t think the French fleet is particularly well-equipped with Burmese interpreters, either.

I’m left with the picture of the French navy pitching supplies on a random mudbank while the band plays the Marseilles and white-faced mimes comb the devastated countryside for an audience to instruct and uplift with the sublime universal language of gesture.

When I also consider that Kouchner proposed his “responsibility to protect” invocation of Security Council intervention in full knowledge that the Chinese would instantaneously reject his proposal, and every atom of oxygen and iota of attention devoted to promoting it was a profound and deadly waste of time and lives, his empty gestures looks more like shameless grandstanding to his international pro-democracy constituency than the sincere effort of a genuine humanitarian.
May 16, 2008

Remember the Mistral?
From the Annals of Burma Relief

Remember the Mistral?

That’s the French naval ship that Bernard Kouchner announced would deliver aid to Burma whether the Burmese junta liked it..or not!

The Mistral was supposed to arrive in Burmese waters the middle of this week on its unilateral mission of mercy.

But it’s not there.

What happened?

This unintentionally hilarious English-language video on the France 24 outlet (look for the clip French Ship Ready to Help) and reports from the French embassy provide the answer:

The Mistral has been steaming around the Bay of Bengal in circles...because it didn’t have any rice in its hold...which it has to buy from India...and is only now completing loading at India’s port of Chennai...and it hopes to reach Burma Sunday...on the two-week anniversary of the cyclone.

That's not a spectacular improvement over the relief efforts of the Myanmar junta.

I particularly enjoyed the insouciant Gallic resignation of the quartermaster guy (note how the camera zooms in on the evocative hand gesture addressing the profound irony of a modern French warship needing rice to make it to its destination) on the Mistral, who says:

We have no choice but to wait. The rice hasn’t arrived yet. When it comes, we have to load it up pallet by pallet, bag by bag and make sure it’s ready to be delivered...properly. The delays are incredible!

C'est incroyable!

Yeah, well somebody tell Bernard Kouchner.

Next time you order up a humanitarian invasion...don’t forget the rice.

May 19, 2008

Myanmar, the Mistral, and the Cost of Rice
Thanks to the brave embeds of France 24, we are treated to another update on the French helicopter carrier Mistral.

When we last saw the Mistral, it had spent a week sailing futilely in circles in the Bay of Bengal while waiting for the French government to round up rice and supplies in India for it to haul to Burma.

This unfortunate delay undercut the narrative that it was the Burmese government’s deficiencies in French-style compassion, competence, and cran that were impeding the flow of aid to the Irrawaddy delta. The Mistral arrived at the delta two weeks after the storm—hardly an impressive achievement.

It turns out that getting meaningful aid to hundreds of thousands of victims in an area the size of Austria that’s had its infrastructure devastated by a colossal storm isn’t as simple as picking up the phone and ordering delivery of one million crepes Italian—even for a self-styled superpower.

Imagine that.

Another part of the narrative that got lost was the whole “responsibility to protect” forcible distribution of aid thing.

In an indication that even President Sarkozy has turned his back on the profoundly unrealistic gambit, Bernard Kouchner was reduced to venting his displeasure at Burmese government callousness and UN Security Council cowardice in a Le Monde op-ed, instead of availing himself of the official podium of the Foreign Ministry.

The Mistral is cooling its heels outside Myanmar territorial waters, awaiting the outcome of negotiations concerning the delivery of its cargo.

I expect that the Myanmar government is stolidly insisting that the Mistral sail up to Yangyon for a humiliating port visit, while the French are holding out for something with a little more camera-ready elan—something that involves French marines zooming into the delta in little boats and hand-delivering boxes of French aid to desperately grateful survivors.

In its latest report (look for French Ship Mistral Ready to Help), France 24 filmed officers of the Mistral obligingly peering through their binoculars toward Myanmar with expressions of frustrated valor, like bulldogs gazing longingly at the window of a butcher shop. Since it was raining, the exercise had purely symbolic value: “They can’t quite see it...but it’s there”.

Yeah, I get the picture.

Actually, what interests me is the contents of the Mistral’s hold.

The France 24 report states that the Mistral is carrying enough food to feed 100,000 people.

Not true.

The Mistral sailed from Chennai with only 400 tons of rice, instead of the 1,000 tons originally announced.

According to the Indian media, a French rear admiral aboard the Mistral stated :

"As per the orders from our government, the humanitarian aid is being assembled in Chennai and it consists of a two-week supply of emergency rations for 60,000 people."

The aid consists of 400 tonnes of rice, 10,000 20-30 litre jerry cans of water, 400,000 water purification tablets, 20,000 protective tarpaulins, 10,000 mosquito nets, 10,000 sets of cooking utensils and emergency medicines, he added.

According to the FAO, citizens of Myanmar are major consumers of rice—because they have very little else to eat. On average, they consume 20 kg of rice per month.

The Mistral’s 400 ton load of rice would, under normal circumstances, feed about 40,000 people for a fortnight. To meet the 60,000-person target, rations would be cut down to one pound per person per day—providing about 75% of the normal adult requirement of 2,200 Kcal per day. Two weeks of starvation rations, even if presented with Gallic expertise, ingenuity, and flair, is going to test the patience of even the most grateful aid recipient.

Maybe French calculations had something to do with the difficulty of rounding up rice and the desire to come up with an impressive number of aid recipients notwithstanding, but I doubt it.

More likely, disaster planners realized that Myanmar has plenty of rice.

In the last few years, Myanmar, despite years of economic mismanagement by the junta, has returned to its traditional role of rice exporter.

Before the storm, it was on track to export 50,000 tons of rice per month.

According to the starvation-ration standards of French generosity, feeding the entire population displaced by the storm—upper estimate 2.5 million—would require 2.5 million pounds of rice or 1250 tons per day. Two weeks’ disaster relief would require diversion of 17,500 tons of rice. That’s less than 5% of the surplus traditionally available for export. Although it’s not clear how much stored rice was destroyed by the storm, the FAO doesn’t expect famine, although temporary local shortages are possible.

It would be understandable if French disaster planners looked at the aid that the Myanmar government could be expected to deliver—rice—and adjusted its planning to cut back on the supply of Indian rice and instead provide more of what Myanmar didn’t have: water, water purification tablets, medicine, and shelter materials.

Of course, to rely on the Myanmar government to deliver rice and then publicly flay them for not delivering stuff it didn’t have would be a touch hypocritical.

[By the way, the Mistral’s cargo was subsequently off-loaded to some rustbucket freighter, which then discharged it in Yongon, sparing Minister Kouchner the humiliation of having the precious aid hauled off France’s proud warship by the agents of the detested Burmese junta.]

May 20, 2008

Myanmar, the Assessment Teams Fetish, and America’s ASEAN Miscalculation
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 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.

And risky.

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.

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