Saturday, May 31, 2008

A.Q. Khan Bombshells for Musharraf and U.S.

A.Q. Khan Interviews Indicate Skids Being Greased for Exit of Pakistan’s President and Challenge U.S. Assertions of Pakistan Government Non-Involvement in Nuclear Proliferation Network

ABC News obtained a telephone interview with Pakistan’s Dr. A.Q. Khan. For American viewers, the big news is that Dr. Khan retracted his televised “confession” that his proliferation of nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea had been a rogue operation:

As to his widely publicized confession, Khan said he was told by Musharraf that it would get the United States "off our backs" and that he was promised he would be quickly pardoned. "Those people who were supposed to know knew it," Khan said about his activities.

In another telephone interview with the Pakistan media outlet Dawn, Dr. Khan was more explicit:

When asked if he had been involved in leaking nuclear secrets to any other country, Dr Khan said he was not a part of any illegal or unauthorised deal in any way.“This one sentence covers the whole thing,” he asserted.

Khan tossed a few more anvils Musharraf’s way, offering the observation that Pakistan’s economy had “gone to the dogs” under Musharraf and indicating political support to the civilian government and, implicitly, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N over Asif Zardari’s PPP.

In the context of Pakistani politics, the A.Q. Khan interviews are big news.

Khan has been under detention—essentially house arrest--with virtually no access to the domestic or international media for four and one-half years.

The fact that he was allowed to emerge and make the explosive allegations that Musharraf had persuaded Khan—a national hero—to take the fall for the nuclear export program and the government reneged on promises to allow him to move around Pakistan freely after his confession is a strong indication that the anti-Musharraf forces are coalescing, impeachment is a real possibility, and the military powers that be inside Pakistan have decided it’s time for Mush to go.

As A.Q. Khan himself stated in yet another interview with The News:

I am not in the custody of the civilian government, and I am in the custody of the Army.

The A.Q. Khan interviews may very well serve as part of an campaign to remove one of Musharraf's key political props--U.S. support--out from under him in order to effectuate a political transition.

After all, the United States is now being forced to decide if it wants to continue to support a president who is not only extremely unpopular, but has also been publicly and convincingly accused of being a nuclear proliferator.

For the time being, it looks like the US government is doing the best it can to stand by Musharraf.

ABC obtained something that looks like a non-denial denial from the United States concerning A.Q. Khan’s story:

A U.S. official said American investigators were also unconvinced of Khan's latest claims. "We have not changed our assessment that A.Q. Khan was a very major and dangerous proliferator. He sold sensitive nuclear equipment and know-how to some genuinely bad actors," the official said.

Turning a blind eye toward apparent Pakistan government involvement in A.Q. Khan’s network has involved some heroic contortions by the United States over the years—including the need to disregard the fact that North Korea paid for its nuclear goodies not with cash in A.Q. Khan’s pocket but No Dong missiles in Pakistan’s military arsenal.

I blogged that story in 2007:

For the Bush administration, executive orders appear to be the preferred
method for making lemonade from the cornucopia of foreign policy lemons it has
on its hands.

Consider this application of executive order power in a nuclear
imbroglio involving North Korea in 2003, as demonstrated by this press release from the State Department (released on April Fools’ Day! somebody at State’s got a
sense of humor):

North Korea-Pakistan: Missile-Related Sanctions and Executive Order
12938 Penalties

There has been some confusion regarding the penalties
that were imposed March 24 on the Pakistani entity Khan Research Laboratories
(KRL) under Executive Order 12938, as amended, and the penalties that were
imposed March 24 on the North Korean entity, Changgwang Sinyong Corporation
under the missile sanctions law. These sanctions were for a specific
missile-related transfer. Changgwang Sinyong Corporation is a North Korean
missile marketing entity and has been sanctioned repeatedly in the past for its
missile-related exporting behavior. Changgwang Sinyong Corporation transferred
missile-related technology to KRL. The United States made a determination to
impose penalties on both Changgwang Sinyong Corporation and KRL as a result of
this specific missile-related transfer. These sanctions do not pertain
to any other activity, including nuclear-related ones.
We informed the
Congress on March 12 that the Administration had carefully reviewed the facts
relating to the possible transfer of nuclear technology from Pakistan to North
Korea, and decided that the facts do not warrant the imposition of sanctions
under applicable U.S. laws.

[emphasis added]
Released on April 1, 2003

Mmmm...the sweet smell of ”confusion”.That’s bloody chum to a contrarian
blogger like myself.

Allow me to explain:

The most egregious nuclear proliferator on the face of this planet is
Pakistan, in the person of A.Q. Khan.

Khan’s network provided nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North

Much as President Musharraf would like to claim that Mr. Khan’s efforts
were after hours and on his own dime, the North Korean transaction involved
not the payment of cash to Mr. Khan’s private bank account but the delivery of
North Korean No Dong missiles and technology to the Pakistan government.


Makes it look like the Pakistan government was proliferating nuclear
weapons technology—the type of activity that, if Kim Jung Il’s experience was
any guide, would provoke the formation of a worldwide alliance to destabilize
and if possibly destroy the culprit’s regime, at the very least cut off its
supply of cash and cognac, etc. etc. etc.

But since Pakistan is our ally in the war on terror, the nature of the
transaction—and the character of the crime—were neatly reversed.

As the Bush administration saw it, the offense was North Korea’s supply of
the missiles to Pakistan...and the fact that they got paid for them with nuclear
weapons equipment and technology was of secondary importance.

Actually, it was no laughing matter.

The State Department had to step up and pre-emptively define the
transaction as a missile purchase and sanction Khan’s laboratories itself.
Otherwise, Pakistan would have been vulnerable to much more serious, legislative
sanction—a total cutoff of aid under the Solarz Amendment--as a

So the State Department made a valiant if “confusing” effort to present the
sanctions against Khan’s laboratory as an ad hoc punishment for the Pakistani
government’s buying the missiles—because “the end-user of the missile purchase
cannot be sanctioned under the Arms Export Controls Act” (according to Nicholas
Kralev’s report, Pakistan purchases N. Korean missiles, in the March
31, 2003 Washington Times)...and we’ve got to sanction somebody, after

So let’s just sanction this Pakistani nuclear lab over here.

There, that’s all better.


In a comment on Arms Control Wonk in 2007, I made the statement that the website Onefreekorea had apparently received an advance copy of a government ruling concerning Banco Delta Asia. I inferred this from my reading of the timestamp on the OFK post, which I believed indicated that the post had been put up the day before the ruling was officially announced and publicly available. OFK’s proprietor has advised me that he obtained the ruling through an electronic subscription to the Federal Register and did not receive it in advance. I regret the error, withdraw the statement, and apologize to OFK. I’ve also asked ACW to delete the comment.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Myanmar Wrap-up

To respond to considerable and thoughtful reader criticism and comments addressed to my Myanmar posts, I’d like to organize and expand my views on what’s happening in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

What the Myanmar regime is doing:

Disaster relief on a brutal triage basis

Exerting iron control over the delta to make sure it is the only viable aid conduit (it is becoming more apparent that the Myanmar military does have a significant presence in the delta and its guiding priorities are not simply disaster relief: they are control of the population and control of the aid process—objectives we find reprehensible—that are part of an integrated strategy to successfully extract aid and diplomatic engagement from other countries. In other words, a carefully conceived and executed—and apparently successful-- strategy to leverage the cyclone survivors as hostages.)

Accepting civilian aid that it distributes according to its priorities and objectives.

Not accepting military aid. (Foreign military flights are probably impossible even after the junta controls the situation in the delta and allows foreign aid workers on the scene).

What it is not doing:

Not accepting aid. This canard has caused a lot of heat and confusion that has obscured the true nature of what’s happening in the delta. It’s not incompetent, malign neglect—it’s the planned and energetic imposition of regime control over the disaster scene and the aid process—and the acceptance of no-strings-attached assistance from friendly or apolitical parties and dump-and-go aid.

What the Burmese people are doing:

The bulk of disaster relief, heroically, as local communities always do, even in horrific catastrophes of this magnitude

What in-country NGOs and their largely Burmese volunteer staffs are doing:

A tremendous job

What NGOs without a local presence are doing:

Looking for an aid mechanism that will assist them in playing a meaningful but secondary role

What the United States, France, and the UK are doing:

Worrying excessively about the junta gaining an undeserved political and economic bonanza from the disaster

What they are not doing:

Effective, large-scale disaster relief

What they should not be doing:

Trying to strip control of the aid process from the junta by advancing doomed-to-fail humanitarian intervention agendas

What ASEAN and the UN are doing:

Doing the right thing and organizing apolitical relief and a mechanism that will allow foreign aid to flow—that will unfortunately benefit the junta.

What the free-Burma organizations are doing:

Seething in justifiable frustration as the junta exploits the disaster to advance its economic and political agenda

What should be done:

Engage apolitically with the junta despite its corruption and brutality to restore the physical infrastructure of the delta and get the monsoon paddy planted.

What should be done after the basic physical security and livelihood of the people in the delta has been secured:

Link reconstruction and development aid to political reforms.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Recognizing the Disaster Relief Efforts in Myanmar

There has been a lot of “Myanmar is refusing aid” reporting which, I think, has been a distraction that has obscured the heroic efforts and contributions on the ground from local disaster relief personnel and in-country NGOs.

Now that Myanmar has agreed to permit entry to “all aid workers”, hopefully the full story of disaster relief in the wake of Cyclone Nargis will be told.

Here’s some reports that give an idea of what’s been going on. I’m quoting at length to give an idea of the nature and extent of relief operations. All the NGOs mentioned would welcome cash contributions.

First off, since I know you haven’t read it anywhere else, here’s what the Myanmar government says it’s been doing:

Minister U Soe Tha also briefed on rescue and rehabilitation tasks and distribution of relief foods, drinking water and relief aids to storm-hit areas in the delta region by helicopter and three phases of the relief work. Altogether 419 relief camps have been set up. Over 59.63% of power consumption rate of Yangon is now being supplied to Yangon and 76.28% of communication lines...are now in good condition. Water supply to Yangon...has reached 98.5% [New Light of Myanmar, May 23, 2008]


Next [the generals] went to U Cho rice mill where rice miller U Myo Wai and Daw Aeye Aye Lwin reported on milling of 30,000 bags of rice and delivery of bags of rice to Labutta, Myaungmya, Mawlamyainggyun, Hainggyi Island, Pyinkhayaing, Thingangon, Thetkal Thoung and Wakema. Chairman of Ayeyawady Division [that’s Irrawaddy Division, the hardest-hit region—ed] Rice Millers Association reported on regular running of rice mills in Hinthada, Maubin, Myaungmya Districts and sale of rice toAyeyawady Division and regions in other divisions.

Altogether 32 rice mills are in operation in Pathein and the bags of rice are transported to the relief camps.[New Light of Myanmar, May 22, 2008]

The Senior General bossman Than Shwe commiserated with the survivors and also discussed the importance of reconstruction: building embankments and raised roads against the next storm surge (a.k.a. levees) and gearing up to get the next rice planting into the ground.

For those of you who like to drill down into data on disaster relief performance, the May 22 file of New Light of Myanmar has a listing of 23 districts, many classified as “rear, middle, or forward camps”, presumably on the basis of how hard they were hit, with a list of the tonnages of “foodstuff, consumer products, and construction” relief each district has received.

There’s also a league table showing domestic and international aid contributions through May 20. As of May 20, the score was Locals 5423 tons, Visitors 1209 tons.

I don’t want to spritz more gasoline on the “how inadequate is the response of the Burmese junta” debate other than to say that these reports fit in with my picture of socialist disaster relief: militarized, centralized, and acting on the assumption that manpower and materials are scarce and probably inadequate, with a priority on securing vital resources and getting the population into controllable environments so that relief can be dispensed efficiently and in a way that the government’s objectives for political stability and economic reconstruction are effectively served.

In my mind, this is a different, certainly more callous, and perhaps more realistic approach to a disaster of this scale than the “leave no victim behind” enthusiasm that has gripped the West, which seems to hold—and wishes the world to act on—the assumption that adequate aid for everybody can materialize everywhere with a snap of the fingers and the arrival of a fleet of helicopters.

OK, that was a jerrycan of gasoline, not just a squirt. But there’s probably an interesting book on the subject of totalitarian vs. capitalist disaster relief that could be spun out of the Nargis catastrophe.

Turning to the efforts of the in-country NGOs and the tremendous efforts of their local staff, first is a comment in Guardian from Markku Niskala , secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies:

Today, as they have for the past 20 days, thousands of Burma Red Cross volunteers will be working their way out to the worst affected parts of the delta, doing all that they can with the little they have to help shattered communities. These volunteers, who have had the access that international staff and organisations have not, will continue to hand out basic relief items, provide simple first aid, and carry out assessments to help guide our response.

"There are many villages in Bogale which we are still trying to reach," one Red Cross volunteer told us when he returned to Rangoon at the beginning of this week. "I was able to reach about 20 villages by boat. In one village we visited, there were over 15,000 people before the cyclone, but now only about 2,600 are left."

More assistance is reaching the country and this week Red Cross and Red Crescent aid - much of it emergency shelter material - will increase dramatically. More than 30 flights have arrived in Rangoon carrying in excess of 540 tonnes of essential relief goods. Another 200 tonnes have been cleared for this week and more flights are being confirmed daily.

But it remains a race against the clock and the logistical challenges grow with the rain. What reaches the cyclone-devastated areas can't get there fast enough, and what does get through is not enough. A huge amount must follow.

Second is a report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humantarian Affairs:

BANGKOK, 21 May 2008 (IRIN) - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has developed an extensive health-care programme in Myanmar over the past decade, with more than 1,000, mainly local, employees working on HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. So when Cyclone Nargis struck, MSF was well placed to deploy medical personnel into the Ayeyarwady Delta, despite the restrictions on foreign aid workers.

MSF deployed about 200 people - divided into 40 relief teams, each with a doctor, nurse and paramedic - to deliver emergency food and other supplies and to treat some of the 20,000 people that Myanmar authorities estimate were injured in the cyclone.

"There is a great enthusiasm among the staff," Frank Smithius, country director of MSF Holland, said. "But to increase the response, it would be good to bring in extra people."

Long-term NGO presence

Like MSF, many large international NGOs, including Save the Children, Care, World Vision and Merlin, were running projects on health, nutrition, education and poverty alleviation long before the cyclone struck.

Since the disaster, hundreds of local employees of these organisations, along with volunteers from the Myanmar Red Cross, have been on the frontlines of the emergency relief effort. Local aid workers have struggled to deliver food, water, shelter, medical care and other support to the estimated 2.4 million survivors of the cyclone.

But international organisations are chafing at the restrictions that with only a few exceptions continue to prevent nearly all foreign technical specialists - including veterans of other natural disasters - from entering the delta area.

Specialists needed

"We don't need an invasion of foreigners - we have doctors to treat the wounds in general - but most people [in Myanmar] have not dealt with this kind of emergency before," said Smithius, adding that MSF had specialists in Yangon, the largest city and former capital, who could deal with this kind of crisis.

After more than a week of waiting, MSF has finally received official permission for eight of its foreign specialists, including water and sanitation specialists and a medical coordinator, to begin working directly in the Ayeyarwady Delta area.

But most other organisations say their foreign experts are still confined to Yangon. Agencies say the lack of specialists on the ground is adding to the strain on Burmese aid workers.

"It's very hard for our staff, who are reacting to something on this scale for the first time," said Katie Barrett, a Save the Children child protection specialist, in Yangon. "There is no capacity for me to . help put their work in perspective, to keep giving pep talks and to top up training."

Training local staff

However, aid agencies are doing their best to surmount these obstacles by using their specialists to train local colleagues before they go out to the disaster areas.

After the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies found out that their foreign specialists would not be able to leave Yangon to operate emergency water purification systems at the disaster sites, they began training local engineers to do it.

The IFRC is also training local staff to run 10 distribution hubs in the delta. Jack Sparrow, a spokesman for the IFRC, said: "We're having to do things that we haven't done before. You just have to be as creative as you can - and flexible."

For organisations such as Oxfam GB, which had no prior presence in Myanmar, the frustration is being completely shut out of the relief effort. "We are not officially working there, so we are looking at other ways to support the relief effort," said Sarah Ireland, Asia regional director of Oxfam GB. "We are funding international NGOs and local partners to do basic relief operations at this stage."

Andrew Kirkwood, country director of Save the Children, which has people on the ground in Myanmar, hoped other humanitarian organisations would eventually be able to join the effort. "The scale of this has overwhelmed everybody, and all the existing agencies' abilities to respond," he said. "We'd like the government to let in other agencies to help."

From the MSF website:

Frank Smithuis, MSF Head of Mision, Yangon, Myanmar: "I am deeply impressed by how the Burmese people have come together to help each other. We went by boat to a place to distribute 1,000 bags of rice, each weighing 50kg. When we arrived, there were no trucks, only 12 young men with motorbikes who agreed to help us transport the rice.

"We agreed to pay them $5 each for delivering the rice. But once we had finished distributing everything, they refused to let us pay them for their work, despite the fact that those men have also lost their homes.

"Our staff are unpaid for their work with people in the disaster area. There are many private initiatives of richer Burmese who buy food and stuff and deliver it to those who need aid. That is still ongoing."

Ayeyarwady Delta area MSF now has more than 250 staff on the ground in the Ayeyarwady Delta, with a total of 33 medical teams. MSF teams have reached around 120,000 people so far.

The main challenges facing people are access to suitable shelter, food and water. MSF teams in the Delta have distributed at least 310 metric tons of rice, over 84 000 cans of fish, 16 500 litres of cooking oil and 13 500 plastic sheets.


MSF teams are distributing supplies as they travel to the villages affected by the cyclone. Once a suitable distribution point is found, MSF staff give the aid materials directly to the villagers. The village chief and a monk are often present to oversee the distribution.

In the first weeks, MSF teams has been reaching many villages with first aid supplies and distributing available supplies. The government keeps records of the population so MSF teams were able to obtain accurate figures of people identified as living in the villages. However, the population lists are only accurate where people are still in their home villages, and not where displaced people have congregated in schools and monasteries.

The next step is to revisit the villages distributing accurate family rations of supplies. MSF teams are conducting head counts amongst the displaced population to assess the level of need. The teams are distributing according to the needs of the population, with supplies of plastic sheeting, food, mosquito nets and water containers. Teams are concentrating on provision of clean water where there is no existing source. This is often through the distribution of washbasins, water containers and plastic sheeting to collect rainwater.

People are also asking for more shelter materials, salt and clothes. In the south of the Delta region, the entire population has been affected so it has been necessary to distribute large quantities of supplies. In the larger towns that suffered less damage, most of the relief effort is concentrated on the camps of displaced people. Most people who have lost their homes have now congregated in schools and monasteries. Medical help On average our teams are seeing around 500 patients each day. Many of the consultations are still injuries as a result of the storm, such as bone fractures, head wounds and infected wounds.

From the Save the Children website:

Save the Children Reaches 160,000 Cyclone Survivors in Myanmar

Westport, Conn. (May 19, 2008) — Save the Children's relief efforts continue in cyclone-stricken Myanmar, with thousands of children and families receiving lifesaving assistance as the agency redoubles its work in townships surrounding Yangon and in the Irrawaddy Delta.

To date, Save the Children has reached 160,632 people including more than 50,000 children with food, water, shelter materials, household supplies and oral-rehydration salts to treat diarrhea. Survivors receiving assistance include nearly 90,000 in the Yangon area, more than 56,000 in the western Delta and more than 15,000 in the country's eastern Delta region. The agency, which has been working in Myanmar for 13 years, has programs in the five most devastated districts.
Save the Children is one of the largest nongovernmental organizations at work in Myanmar. The agency implements programs focused on early childhood care and development, child survival and child protection. All of its 500 staff members are safe and accounted for, although their homes and families have been affected.

From CARE:

CARE has seven emergency specialists ready to deploy to Myanmar in the field of logistics, operations management, water and sanitation, emergency coordination and monitoring and evaluation, to assist with CARE's ongoing response. CARE already has more than 550 staff in the country, and has provided assistance to nearly 100,000 cyclone survivors. CARE has been working in Myanmar for 14 years, and was able to respond immediately to the disaster.

World Vision:

World Vision has been able to increase its humanitarian response on the ground in Myanmar by sending additional aid workers and supplies into the country. This expansion of the organisation’s relief efforts is encouraging, but there is still more work to be done.

Five foreign staff with expertise in distribution, logistics, water and sanitation and human resources arrived in Myanmar Tuesday morning. In addition to technical expertise, the aid agency is sending in relief flights loaded with more supplies, including 2.3 million water purification tablets, 5,000 tarps, 5,000 kitchen sets, 5,000 hygiene kits, 2,000 mosquito nets, and two water purification systems that can purify up to 4,000 gallons of water per hour. Two flights have already landed from Singapore, and one flight is scheduled from Frankfurt via Bangkok. An additional flight from Singapore is being scheduled for next week.

Positive signs

"We are seeing positive indications that the channels of relief into Myanmar are opening up," said Steve Goudswaard, Cyclone Nargis disaster relief and response manager for World Vision. "We are hopeful that in the coming days, we will be able to begin expanding our humanitarian aid operation to reach even more survivors with food, water, and medical care. There is an urgent need on the ground and every day is critical."

While the additional staff workers and relief aid are welcome, there is still much more work to be done. World Vision estimates it could help close to 500,000 people for the next six months if it is allowed to have greater access to the hardest-hit areas in the delta region and to bring in additional essential materials to distribute the aid as quickly and efficiently as possible. Overall access to the delta remains limited, and it is hampering operations to those who need it the most.

In Myanmar, World Vision’s 580 in-country staff have assisted 135,000 people with 188 metric tons of rice, 40,000 litres of clean water and medicines and survival items. In addition, 37 Child-Friendly Spaces have opened up in Yangon to give child survivors a safe place to play and recover from losses and traumatic experiences. World Vision has also sent teams of child protection specialists to establish up to 25 Child-Friendly Spaces in the Ayeyarwaddy Region.


20 May 2008

Pandaw IV, the 180ft river cruiser kindly donated to Merlin by Pandaw River Cruises, has arrived in the Irrawaddy Delta and from tomorrow, will start running mobile clinics and distributing vital supplies. The boat, crewed by 27 staff from Myanmar, has enough basic health care supplies to treat 20,000 people for three months. Stocks also include tarpaulin sheets, which can be used to shelter families from the monsoon rains, food, medical equipment, water purification systems and water storage containers. These life-saving supplies will initially be distributed among five isolated coastal villages along the Pyay Ma Lork river.

Running outreach clinics from the boat, the medical team will take their supplies and expertise directly to the most-affected villages. This way, they'll be able to effectively gauge the true extent of the public health needs on the ground; checking for signs of malnutrition in children and disease outbreaks, as well as assessing just how much food, water and shelter is needed.
Another boat will be used to relay this information back to Merlin's office in Laputta, from where all supplies will then be ordered and dispatched

Tuesday, 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.

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.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Myanmar, the Mistral, and the Cost of Rice

China Hand looks at the math of the Myanmar cyclone and doesn’t give France a passing grade. Also examined is the as-yet unreported but vital $2 billion question: getting the monsoon rice planting in the ground in the next five weeks. The Myanmar government is thinking about it, but is the West paying attention?

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.

But rice is important, because it is at the center of the true, key issue of international aid to Myanmar: assisting the regime in planting the crucial monsoon-period rice harvest.

This kind of recovery and rebuilding operation—not grandstanding demands that foreign workers handle distribution of aid in the immediate aftermath of the storm—is the true measure of international assistance after a disaster.

The Myanmar regime fully recognizes the importance of the critical monsoon paddy, and the need for foreign assistance in order to get it planted.

I might point out that growing rice is Myanmar’s main business, a major source of export revenue, the key to social stability and, therefore, a primary focus of the Myanmar government.

Contra the Western reporting of a corrupt and callous junta happy to trample on the corpses of its citizens just to keep its jackboots supple and shiny, it seems that the government’s rice boffins have been working hard on the monsoon paddy problem.

In a development that should spark the long-awaited spoink of cognitive dissonance for Western reporters who are obsessed with the “junta refusing aid” meme, Myanmar has already requested aid, in a timely and specific manner, to get the monsoon planting in.

Reuters reports (carried by this particular outlet under the typically sloppy headline, Cyclone hits 20% of Myanmar rice fields--FAO; actually, according to the FAO, 20% of the rice fields in the region that produces 65% of Myanmar’s rice were hit; that’s 13%; as a bonus error the article incorrectly states the monthly per capita rice consumption in kg i/o pounds):

With rice stored from the previous harvest likely badly damaged as well, it was critical to get farmers back on the land to plant a new crop, FAO regional chief He Changchui told Reuters.

"There is not much time. The planting season has started already. We need to have the funds and resources to bring the farmers back," He Changchui said in an interview.

"The consequence is very clear that we might have food shortages if we don't plant today," he said, estimating a 50-day window to get the crop planted.

Myanmar's agriculture ministry says it needs $243 million for rice seed, fertilizer and to rehabilitate paddy fields after the cyclone flooded 5,000 square kilometers (1,931 square miles) in the delta.

The ministry estimated 650,000 hectares of paddy mainly in delta and around the former capital of Yangon were damaged out of a total 3.2 million hectares, He Changchui said.
Some of the funds raised from donors will go towards buying 97,000 tons of seed, including 6,000 tons of salt-tolerant varieties, he said.

With monsoon rains on the way, the FAO hopes they will wash away much of the salt left by the cyclone's 12 foot (3.5 meters) sea surge which inundated prime rice-growing areas in the delta.

Myanmar grows about 30 million tons of rice per year in summer and the bigger monsoon paddies. If none of that 13% of farmland gets planted in time for the monsoon (an unlikely scenario), then the government is looking at a shortfall of perhaps 2,500,000 tons of rice and a shift from Myanmar becoming an exporter of rice to an importer in 2008. If rice is trading at $800 a ton, then successful recovery from Cyclone Nargis and getting the rice crop in is the $2 billion question. And that’s $2 billion the regime doesn’t have.

That’s what the Myanmar junta is obsessing about. It’s a matter a vital interest to them to get the farmers back in the fields with seed and fertilizer.

And maybe that’s really more important than letting in Western NGOs to point fingers at deficiencies in the relief effort, or giving the French Navy a feel-good photo op on the Irrawaddy delta.

The interesting question will be, will the West step up as a donor to help save the monsoon rice harvest, despite the fact that a successfully-executed recovery operation in the delta will probably strengthen the rule of the junta? or will the West sulk in its tent like brave Achilles, while letting Myanmar flounder—or, what is more likely, seeing ASEAN handle the Burmese crisis and China and India supplanting the West in a leadership role in Asian disaster relief?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Myanmar Follies

Aaah...from China Matters’ lips to Gordon Brown’s ear.

I wrote a couple days ago how I expected the Myanmar story to evolve:

...Western withholding of aid to continue, demands for intrusive and unnecessary access to intensify, and criticism of government to escalate during recovery and reconstruction phase of cyclone relief when problems of relief can be blamed on the incompetence and corruption of the Myanmar government instead of the magnitude of the natural disaster.

Today, UK Prime Minister Brown unburdens himself to the Beeb, as reported by the Guardian:

"This is inhuman. We have an intolerable situation, created by a natural disaster," Brown told the BBC World Service. "It is being made into a manmade catastrophe by the negligence, the neglect and the inhuman treatment of the Burmese people by a regime that is failing to act and to allow the international community to do what it wants to do.

"The responsibility lies with the Burmese regime and they must be held accountable."

Emphasis added.

I particularly enjoyed the line “failing to...allow the international community to do what it wants to do.” I think he meant to say “failing to...allow the international community to do what it can do”. Freudian slip, perhaps?

It will be interesting to see how this all ends.

At the very least the crisis offers the liberal and conservative West the opportunity to enjoy a shared spasm of excruciating righteousness that no reasoned discussion of the mechanics of disaster relief and the need to coordinate with the regime controlling the local military and civil organs, no matter how odious, can diminish.

From the Guardian again:

The Foreign Office minister, Lord Malloch-Brown, who is currently in south-east Asia, also criticised the junta for blocking foreign aid.

"We are way behind the curve compared to any other international disaster in recent memory," he said. "I cannot recall a relief operation where... the international response has been subjected to such delays."

Perhaps Lord Malloch-Brown should catch up on his disaster history.

For his edification, and for that of the faithful and patient readers of China Matters, here’s Wikipedia on the closest analogue to the Cyclone Nargis disaster: not the Boxing Day tsunami, about which everybody seems to have powerful opinions but faulty recollections, but the great Bhola Cyclone disaster that claimed 300,000 lives in what is now Bangladesh but at the time (1970) was East Pakistan. I’ve snipped and highlighted a few of the better bits.

In the ten days following the cyclone, one military transport aircraft and three crop-dusting aircraft were assigned to relief work by the Pakistani Government. The Pakistani government said it was unable to transfer military helicopters from West Pakistan as the Indian government did not grant clearance to cross the intervening Indian territory, a charge the Indian government denied. By November 24, the Pakistan Government had allocated a further $116 million to finance relief operations in the disaster area. Yahya Khan arrived in Dhaka to take charge of the relief operations on November 24. The Governor of East Pakistan, Vice Admiral Asham denied charges that the armed forces had not acted quickly enough and said supplies were reaching all parts of the disaster area except for some small pockets.

A week after the cyclone's landfall, President Khan conceded that his government had made "slips" and "mistakes" in its handling of the relief efforts. He said there was a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the disaster. He also said that the general election slated for December 7 would take place on time, although eight or nine of the worst affected districts might experience delays, denying rumours that the election would be postponed

International response

India became one of the first nations to offer aid to Pakistan, despite the generally poor relations between the two countries, and by the end of November had pledged $1.3 million (1970 $6.9 million 2007 USD) of assistance for the relief efforts. The Pakistani government refused to allow the Indians to send supplies in to East Pakistan by air, forcing them to be transported slowly by road instead. The Indian government also said that the Pakistanis refused an offer of military aircraft, helicopters and boats from West Bengal to assist in the relief operation

CARE halted aid shipments to the country the week after the cyclone hit, due to unwillingness to let the Pakistani Government handle distribution. However by January, they had reached an agreement to construct 24,000 cement brick houses at a cost of about $1.2 million (1971 USD, $6.1 million 2007 USD). American concerns about delays by the Pakistan Government in determining how the relief should be used, meant that $7.5 million (1970 USD, $39.7 million 2007 USD) of relief granted by the US Congress had not been handed over in March. Much of the money was earmarked to be spent on constructing cyclone shelters and rebuilding housing.
The American Peace Corps offered to send volunteers, but were rebuffed by the Pakistani government.

Thank you, thank you, Wikipedia.

International aid took weeks to get to East Pakistan for a variety of infrastructural, political, diplomatic, trust, competence, and mismanagement issues.

The picture of a fragile, unpopular, and desperate state dealing as best it can but to no one’s satisfaction with the humanitarian, political, and military consequences of an overwhelming natural disaster is a familiar one, is it not?

That part about Pakistan holding its general elections despite the cyclone is a delicious langniappe. Noto bene, Lord Malloch-Brown.

If His Worshipfulness is indeed aware of the history of cyclone disasters in South Asia--as I expect he is, since Pakistan is a piece of the old empire--he knows that the Bhola Cyclone helped catalyze East Pakistan’s movement for independence as Bangladesh—a movement that was actively encouraged by India and, more than anything else, poisons relations between Pakistan and India to this day.

Maybe that’s what’s going on here: gumming up the international aid process so that, at the very least, the Myanmar regime will be prevented from gaining any undeserved domestic political advantage from a successful relief effort--and perhaps kickstarting Burmese democracy by arousing popular fury at an inadequate response by an overwhelmed regime.

That would be kind of...nasty. Wonder if anybody might report that.

Perhaps Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband are determined to show the world what humanitarian regime change is all about.

But it’s more likely that Gordon Brown’s strong talk may be a temporary political expedient dictated by his dismal current poll standing and the need to obtain a little of that muscular humanitarian cred.

In any event, we can rely on the Western media soldiering on in its pursuit of the Myanmar story, oblivious to the cognitive dissonance that its own reporting creates.

My favorite pairing for today:

Item 1:

Yet in this devastated land there remains little evidence of any government help. This weekend hundreds of people were lining the roads which run south of Rangoon, peering expectantly into passing cars and begging for help.

Item 2:

Myanmar's junta kept a French navy ship laden with aid waiting outside its maritime border on Saturday, and showed off neatly laid out state relief camps to diplomats.

The stage-managed tour appeared aimed at countering global criticism of the junta's failure to provide for survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which left at least 134,000 people dead or missing.

The junta flew 60 diplomats and U.N. officials in helicopters to three places in the Irrawaddy delta where camps, aid and survivors were put on display. The diplomats were not swayed.

"It was a show," Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Myanmar, told The Associated Press by telephone after returning to Yangon. "That's what they wanted us to see."

So, which is it? Zero government presence, or a regime that can throw together three Potemkin villages in the Irrawaddy delta after the worst disaster in the nation’s history?

Cyclone Nagris has devastated an area of Myanmar the size of Austria. It’s a disaster any way you slice it, and it would still be a disaster even if the Myanmar regime invited in George Bush, Gordon Brown, and Nicolas Sarkozy to personally supervise the relief.

The only people who really know what’s going on in there are in the Myanmar government. And it looks like we aren’t going to listen to what they have to say. And even if we listen, we aren’t going to believe them.

We much prefer the reassuring sound of our own indignant voices.

Friday, 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.

Myanmar and China Disaster Reporting Contrasted

From Bad?

[Correction: A sharp-eyed and helpful reader has pointed out that the excerpt from the Christian Science Monitor quoted below refers to aid teams from two separate Taiwanese organizations, not just Tzu Chi, as I erroneously stated. The group referenced in the first paragraph of the quote is Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society. In a separate AP article, the society’s Burma-born Master Hsin Tao had some interesting things to say about the relief effort:

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has come in for heavy criticism from the international community for failing to take full advantage of food and other aid it has been offered.
But Hsin Tao said Myanmar's military rulers have mobilized soldiers and civilians to transport aid materials by ships or helicopters to the cyclone victims spread out along the country's west coast.

The materials include those sent in by foreign countries, he said.

"They rejected international aid workers out of distrust of the foreigners," he said. "They try to handle the relief work by themselves as much as possible because they don't have the time to deal with external criticism."

"Foreigners may not be able to conduct effective relief work because the villages are in remote areas and many bridges were swept away in the flood," he added.

Thanks again to reader KH for the information and the link.
CH 5/19/08]

The Myanmar meme in the Western press has evolved from “Myanmar isn’t letting in aid” to “Myanmar isn’t letting in aid workers”. Now another iteration is in order.

According to AP:

In a clear sign that politics is playing a role, the junta granted approval to 160 relief workers from India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand, which have rarely criticized Myanmar's democracy record.

So, it’s time for an upgrade to “Myanmar isn’t letting in Western aid workers”.

Wait a minute.

The U.N. has applied for visas for about 100 U.N. international staff in Myanmar, and close to 40 have been granted, Holmes said. International staff of non-governmental groups have obtained at least 46 visas, he said, while Myanmar's immediate neighbors -- Thailand, Bangladesh, India and China -- have been allowed to send in 160 humanitarian workers.

They are letting in Western aid workers!

There’s only one more step up the pyramid: “Myanmar isn’t letting Western aid workers with visas go to the disaster area”.

Courtesy of London’s Times, under the somewhat ungrammatical headline Burma kicks out aid foreign workers:

The Burmese authorities have sealed off the cyclone disaster zone from the outside world, expelling foreign aid workers and placing multiple checkpoints along roads into the Irrawaddy delta, to the despair of foreign diplomats and aid workers.

There. All better!

But that’s still not the whole story:

One British NGO (non-governmental organisation), the medical charity Merlin, has been allowed to keep a foreign presence in the southwestern city of Labutta, where the organisation had a longstanding project. The rest, including UN organisations such as the World Food Programme and UN Development Programme, must rely on their Burmese staff.

So, it looks like the indictment of the Myanmar regime will have to read: “Myanmar isn’t allowing certain aid workers affiliated with organizations without an existing local presence to go to the disaster area”.

Despite the heroic efforts of the Western press, it looks like the “missing aid worker” angle might be put to bed pretty soon.

It’s a good thing, because the whole idea that Western aid workers are indispensable to disaster relief in the initial rescue period (and their absence is evidence of criminal and callous incompetence by the government of the afflicted region) is wrong and misleading, as well as something of an insult to the local people and organizations who, in any disaster, provide the bulk of first-responder disaster relief.

Let’s see how the Times throws a little condescending love their way:

Many of them are well trained and competent but, according to aid workers in Rangoon, experienced foreign experts are also required to oversee logistical planning and to operate technical imported equipment such as water purification plants.

In addition to “well trained and competent”, how about “skilled, dedicated, and armed with an intimate knowledge of local conditions and immense reservoirs of experience and tact in dealing with local institutions”.

How about “willing to risk their lives and their health working incomprehensibly long hours trying to save their neighbors”.

And how about “can speak the frikkin’ local language and can walk up to someone and get something done without convening the UN Security Council and a Berlitz seminar”.


But even if the ability of local organizations and foreign NGOs to mount a disaster relief operation without the guidance of Western aid workers is ever conceded, Burma-bashing headline writers will always be able to find grist for the mill:

Courtesy of the AP, the scare headline:

Some cholera confirmed in cyclone-hit Myanmar

But the article goes on to say:

"We don't have an explosion of cholera. Thus far the rate of cholera is no greater than the background rate that we would be seeing in Myanmar during this season," [WHO representative Maureen Birmingham] said.

Wow. What a ... non-story.

And, if the Myanmar government is hoping that a stage-managed tour of the delta will demonstrate to the West that it has the situation in hand, well, don’t be surprised if Western perceptions of its performance continue to run the gamut from incompetence to outright deceit:

Some foreign diplomats have also been invited by the regime to visit the delta on Saturday, said Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Yangon. She did not provide details.It is not clear how much access the diplomats will have outside the conducted tour.

Still, it will be the first time diplomats will be seeing first hand the effects of the cyclone as well as the highly criticized relief delivery effort by the government.

Don’t get me wrong. Myanmar governmental disaster relief is probably worse than most. But the disaster is worse than most. And the time when foreign supplies and aid workers can play a really meaningful role is during the recovery and reconstruction stage--which is starting now.

Complaining about the alleged shortcomings of the junta during the initial rescue and relief stage is not helping one little bit.

The real story of what’s going on there should probably be:

Inadequate Myanmar government disaster response exacerbated by resistance of UN and Western NGOs and governments to providing unconditional aid to despised regime. Observers expect Western withholding of aid to continue, demands for intrusive and unnecessary access to intensify, and criticism of government to escalate during recovery and reconstruction phase of cyclone relief when problems of relief can be blamed on the incompetence and corruption of the Myanmar government instead of the magnitude of the natural disaster. Thousands suffer and die as West exploits crisis in attempt to bring junta to heel.

But that doesn’t make for a punchy, informative headline.

You know, like:

Burma refuses aid

We might have an effective Myanmar policy—one that doesn’t force it even deeper into China’s sphere of influence--if accurate reporting allowed us to understand the weaknesses, strengths, and priorities of the regime in light of the challenge of Cyclone Nargis and design a joint response to the disaster.

But based on the instinctive and intellectually lazy junta bashing in the Western press encouraged by the posturing of the US, UK, and France, I’m not holding my breath.

In the credit where credit is due department, however, I would like to acknowledge an interesting and informative report by the Christian Science Monitor concerning the effectiveness of Asian NGOs in Burma, focusing on a Taiwan Buddhist organization, Tzu Chi, that operates both in Myanmar and in the PRC:

Yet as Western relief workers waited anxiously in Rangoon and outside Burma, a team of Taiwanese aid workers arrived in Rangoon to deliver emergency food and discuss further assistance with Burmese authorities. Headed by a Burmese-born Taiwanese monk whose foundation runs charities in Burma, the group carried in nine tons of aid, among the first such deliveries. A second three-ton airlift is due Friday.
The Tzu Chi Foundation, the largest NGO in the Chinese-speaking world and a rising player in global disaster relief, has sent 15 volunteers from neighboring countries to Burma to work with more than 100 local staff to distribute aid, says Her Rey-Sheng, a spokesman for the group and a full-time volunteer.

Tzu Chi also got permission this week to set up a distribution center at a Buddhist temple in Rangoon and work with monks there. It's planning a fund-raising drive for reconstruction projects.

But this kind of reporting is still the exception rather than the rule.

The Myanmar government is certainly noting the contrast in coverage of the horrific Chinese earthquake.

Certainly nothing along the lines of “China refuses to admit foreign aid workers”, although to date it has only allowed in one team from Japan and declined offers from South Korea and Australia, stating that the relief effort needs supplies only.

And not too much about “Official corruption and shoddy construction turned schools into death traps”, though I have a feeling that will come up later.

One reason is undoubtedly that Western reporters, instead of sitting in hotel lobbies listening to NGO staffers bitch about the godawful regime, have been on the scene and caught up in the heroic narrative of cataclysm, rescue, tragedy, hope, and the desperate race against time.

And I have a feeling that China’s managed junket to the disaster area will yield better press than Myanmar’s.

Observe China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Qin Gang’s assiduous stroking as the foreign press champs at the bit in Beijing to cover the story:

Q: The Foreign Ministry is organizing foreign journalists for field report. What is China's purpose of organizing this trip within a couple of days after the earthquake?

A: You are right in saying that we are to arrange a batch of foreign journalists to cover the disaster. And this is because we keep receiving such demands from foreign journalists. We fully understand your feelings. Time, for rescue work, means life; for journalists, means news and efficiency. That's why we have exerted great efforts and overcome various difficulties to make this happen. Despite the hardship in the afflicted area with infrastructure including transportation and communication seriously destroyed, we had timely and effective consultation with local authorities, and conveyed your aspiration to them. We are glad to be able to make the arrangement within a short period of time.

As a matter of fact, there are already quite a few foreign media working in the field, the initial statistics say there are 35. Our relevant departments are ready to help you with your work, and we hope that your report will help the international community see the real situation in the disaster area, the efforts of the Chinese Government and people, the entire Chinese nation fighting together in a unified dedication to save people's lives, and also many countries' support and assistance to us.

The situation in the disaster area is very difficult. For journalists heading there, I wish you success with your work, and please take care of yourselves. In case of any difficulty or emergency, don't hesitate to contact our colleagues from the Foreign Ministry and the local governments. They are ready at all times to provide you with necessary and timely assistance and help. [emph. added]

Yeah, don’t hurt yourself tripping over any corpses while you’re rushing to file.

Actually, I’ve got a hot story for Western newsies in China. And you’re right on top of it!

Here it is: Chinese government cynically diverts precious disaster relief facilities to arrange unnecessary junket for scoop-hungry foreign journalists to death zone in order to obtain favorable coverage!

Wonder when we’ll read about that in the papers.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

China Hand Article on Alleged Syrian Reactor Up at Japan Focus

At the invitation of Japan Focus, I wrote an article about the alleged nuclear facility in Syria.

Since the Syrians steadfastly deny that there was a reactor at al Kibar and the physical evidence has been bombed, buried, and dismantled into oblivion, I ended up writing more about the creaky Non-Proliferation Treaty regime that the International Atomic Energy Agency and its Director General, Mr. ElBaradei are charged with safeguarding.

The article is entitled Twilight of the NPT? and it’s available here.

The NPT was originally conceived as a disarmament/peaceful use of nuclear energy/better world kumbaya group hug sort of thing.

But that hasn’t really happened.

The current IAEA mission is more of a projection of US security concerns and an effort to protect the nuclear monopoly of the US and its friends and allies.

ElBaradei is caught in the middle as he tries to advance the IAEA’s traditional mandate of promoting safe and peaceful exploitation of nuclear energy and the United States—the IAEA’s biggest funder and most active stakeholder—uses the IAEA mechanism to impede the spread of any nuclear capability to our antagonists, especially in the Middle East.

ElBaradei and the Muslim nations of the Middle East appear to have a symbiotic relationship.

ElBaradei needs the Muslim nations to demonstrate the IAEA’s relevance in dealing with states that the US can’t or won’t negotiate with; and the Muslim nations need ElBaradei as their sole, shrinking portal to a legal, internationally acknowledged nuclear capability.

And, I suppose, one could say that the United States needs the IAEA for the imprimatur of international legitimacy it provides for Washington’s unilateral nuclear concerns, but the fact is that the US has spent more time and energy sidelining the IAEA than it has spent basking in the agency’s multilateral aura.

One of my favorite ElBaradei-related media quotes concerns the revelation that the United States’s NSA wiretapped ElBaradei’s phone in an unsuccessful search for dirt that could be used to deny him a third term.

It elicited a resigned shrug from the IAEA:

In Vienna, where the IAEA has its headquarters, officials said they were not surprised about the eavesdropping.

"We've always assumed that this kind of thing goes on," IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said. "We wish it were otherwise, but we know the reality."

Yeah, whatever. Fuggedaboutit.

As the Washington Post put it, “eavesdropping, even on allies, is considered a well-worn tool of national security and diplomacy”.

The message that nuclear wannabes in the Middle East would have extracted from this incident, other than the unwelcome image of a “well-worn tool”, would be threefold:

First, the IAEA is transparent, or at least highly vulnerable, to penetration by US intelligence services and the IAEA lacks the capability, funding, and/or will to protect the security of its communications.

Second, it should be assumed that the content of any communication and the result of any site visit will find its way to Langley or the NSA.

Third, any nuclear program, peaceful or otherwise, has to be kept secret from the IAEA during the planning and construction phases when it is most vulnerable to US challenge and disruption.

So, the conclusion I have drawn from Syria’s bizarre decision to build a secret nuclear facility within bombing range of the Israeli air force is that Syria wanted a nuclear capability and believed that if they built a facility small and plausible enough to be presented as a harmless civilian project, they could reveal it prior to fueling and get it blessed by ElBaradei and the IAEA with little more than a stern tongue-lashing (and, possibly, an understanding wink).

Of course, that possibility was forcibly pre-empted by Israel’s bombing raid.

Food Riots in Myanmar? Who Ya Gonna Call? World Vision!

The drumbeat of demands that international aid workers get visas to enter Myanmar continues.

But some of the rationales seem a little shaky :

Mike Pattison, a logistics official from World Vision, said non-specialists could not set up large water purification systems or choose sites for food warehouses that can be defended in riots.

From some personal experience a while back, I recall the leading weapon in disaster relief water purification is still good, old-fashioned chlorine a.k.a. household bleach, applied to tainted water in large amounts. The portable plants that dispense it are designed to be simple, fail-safe, idiot-proof, and intuitive to a garage mechanic (of the kind that is found in the motor pools of every army in the world, including Myanmar’s).

Maybe things have changed, and a foreign expert is needed to puzzle out a complicated English-language manual and push the right buttons on a sophisticated and delicate device. If so, too bad. That’s the wrong way to go.

Of course, the second rationale, “non-specialist could not...choose sites for food warehouses that can be defended in riots” gave me a chuckle.

Is World Vision telling me they are better at planning for food riots than the notorious Burmese army?

I’m looking forward to the scene in that upcoming Hollywood blockbuster, The Tears of Nargis, where Leo DiCaprio and a brave, outnumbered band of Oxfam volunteers (including one comely but feisty female staffer in a tight, sleaveless top) protect a precious hoard of rice from a rampaging mob of hunger-crazed Burmese refugees. “Remember, non-lethal force only! We’re here to help these people!”

Snark aside, I would say that the “foreign aid worker visa” issue is pretty clear.

Foreign NGOs suspect that the Myanmar government isn’t doing everything it can to save the victims of the cyclone.

They’re probably right.

Given the magnitude of the devastation, the limitations of transport and access, and, to be sure, its disregard for suffering and the value of human life, the Myanmar government is probably engaged in a brutal process of triage, having written off the prospects of survivors in the hardest-to-reach part of the delta and positioning troops and supplies to take care of those who can make it out to towns and monasteries that weren’t razed by the storm.

And I also suspect that the main result of letting NGO aid workers into Myanmar would be a flood of finger-pointing stories fed to the international media about the incompetence, corruption, and cruelty of the junta, and precious little in the way of effective coordination and execution between two groups that despise each other.

So I’m not surprised that the Myanmar regime is extending the middle finger to the clamoring NGOs whose primary effect, if admitted, will be to increase international condemnation of the junta’s rule, provide hard evidence of misbehavior and/or callous disregard to undermine the domestic authority and prestige of the government, and, at the very least, serve as a drain on the limited transport, English-language capability, attention, and patience of the regime.

As I've said before, it would be nice if the media disentangled the humanitarian, human rights, democracy, and geopolitical threads of the Myanmar disaster, instead of assuming they are identical or equivalent. But I don't see that happening.

Instead, I see wasted talk, effort, and lives.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Myanmar: Confusion, Fear, Anger...and Opportunism the wake of Cyclone Nargis

News reports on the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis reported on a “huge concession” in the matter of a U.S. C-130 loaded with 17 tons of aid that landed at Yongyon International Airport in Myanmar.

Casual observers will be forgiven for believing that the “huge concession” was the Myanmar regime giving permission for the plane to land.

That’s a forgivable misunderstanding.

The mis-reporting by the international media concerning the state and conditions of aid supply is less forgivable, given the intensely judgmental reporting it has dispensed on the Myanmar situation.

Apparently, there is a “huge concession” involved--by the United States.

It involved shelving the US demand to link aid to access to the scene by its disaster relief teams.

And that concession should be fully and accurately reported, since it has significant implications for disaster relief in Myanmar, and the fate of tens if not hundreds of thousands of refugees afflicted by the cyclone and its aftermath.

Because it means that the Bush administration has probably bowed to the advice and experience of the US military and abandoned its efforts to use the prospect of aid to extract concessions from the Myanmar regime.

I have not found any reporting on the subject, but it appears that US demands that its USAID team in Thailand be admitted into Myanmar as a pre-condition for releasing the aid has been quietly dropped.

[Update: The Guardian confirms it:

The US determination to have its own personnel oversee the distribution of its aid supplies rather than "dump" them at Rangoon airport appeared to have evaporated yesterday even as a senior USaid official continued to insist it was vital.
Initial talks that would have allowed Save the Children to take control of the US consignment faltered when the regime said it would take charge. A Burmese government spokesman, Ye Htut, said later that the US aid had been transferred to military trucks and was due to be ferried by helicopter to the delta within hours.]

My criticism of the United States for insisting on entry for its disaster relief experts—and the support for forcible humanitarian intervention predicated on that insistence, most notably by France’s Bernad Kouchner--attracted some heated criticism in the comments to my previous post on the subject.

However, even if the Myanmar regime’s provision of aid is more dilatory, dishonest, and corrupt than usual, the unconditional aid approach pursued by China and Indonesia—even if their motives are less than disinterested—is more valid and correct than the US demand for access by its disaster relief specialists, supposedly to ensure that aid is distributed properly.

The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami disaster was studied intensively in terms of the effectiveness of response by different organizations.

The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, or TEC, concluded that, by far, the vast proportion of immediate disaster relief was provided locally, first by survivors on the scene and then by the national government.

Aid distribution is best handled by the local government.

And that’s why the Chinese—who, between earthquakes, typhoons, and periodic massive flooding of the nation’s heartland, probably have most disaster relief mobilization experience than any other country—are just flying planes in and dumping supplies on the tarmac.

Granted, having the Myanmar junta paw over your precious supplies, relabel them for photo ops, and divert some of them to keep the military fat and happy is not the most pleasing option—but there really aren’t any better ones.

By the time international organizations set up, they are best positioned to assist in post-disaster recovery—not in rescue.

NGOs suffer from their lack of familiarity with local conditions, poor coordination of effort, and the fact that they poach useful local personnel and resources for competing missions.

The rapid access to remote locations and heavy lift capability offered by foreign military forces is tremendously useful—when it is deployed in coordination with the national military of the affected state.

The idea that the world community can brush aside a hostile state and erect an efficient human relief infrastructure in conditions of utter chaos as lives hang in the balance is a fantasy.

Foreign NGOs not already operating inside Myanmar don’t know Myanmar. Even the ones that do have a foothold inside the country possess minimal independent capabilities.

Even to try to operate effectively, they need to monopolize scarce local resources of interpreters, liaison staff, and communications personnel—and attention--even if they come complete with their own transportation infrastructure—which they don’t.

And, of course, in a police state, all foreign visitors need their own set of minders anxiously observing the activity, reporting to home base, and awaiting instructions.

When one considers the limited number of English speakers inside Myanmar, and the fact that the regime is scrambling to coordinate aid with its short list of genuine friends while it conducts its referendum and deals with an immense natural disaster and tries to restore power to the capital and keep a political lid on things, the idea that the government might be unwilling to shoulder the burden of welcoming a group of intruders from a hostile power is understandable.

The same problem applies to the genuinely important and useful role of foreign militaries in the disaster.

The United States might have a bulging folder of plans for invading Myanmar, but when it comes to rescuing its citizens as opposed to destroying its military, we’re going to need the help of Myanmar’s army to communicate, plan, and receive, secure, and distribute supplies on the ground.

The US military’s hands-on experience in the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia is enlightening.

The tsunami struck the rebellious province of Aceh which, please note, was under martial law, off limits to any meddling by international do-gooders, and an environment of mortal peril for any foreign journalist who dared venture there.

For the first two days, the Indonesian government sealed off the province from outside contact as they secured the scene and made sure they had a handle on any political upheaval the disaster and the appearance of foreign services, media, and forces might trigger.

Then they let the US military come in and conduct operations in coordination with the Indonesian military—who, I might point out, are a lot closer to the Myanmar military than to the Boy Scouts in terms of their humanitarian attitudes, particularly toward rebels and dissidents.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that the Indonesian military are, for all their conspicuous faults and brutality, our buddies, and we can always pick up the phone and talk to them.

The TEC report (pg.43) noted:

The TEC Coordination Report (2006) found that most of the international military contingents in Indonesia had their tasks allocated by the military, thus coupling the immense foreign logistics capacity with detailed local knowledge.

As a result, one of the few areas of the Muslim world in which attitudes towards the United States have improved since 2002 is in Indonesia’s Aceh.

With this background, I can sympathize completely with Secretary of Defense Gates’ refusal to consider operations inside Myanmar without the regime’s permission.

And I agree with this compassionate and realistic proposal from a military man:

Retired General William Nash of the Council on Foreign Relations says the U.S. should first pressure China to use its influence over the junta to get them to open up and then supply support to the Thai and Indonesian militaries to carry out relief missions. "We can pay for it — we can provide repair parts to the Indonesians so they can get their Air Force up. We can lend the them two C-130s and let them paint the Indonesian flag on them," Nash says. "We have to get the stuff to people who can deliver it and who the Burmese government will accept, even if takes an extra day or two and even if it's not as efficient as the good old U.S. military."

By contrast, it 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.

So the international community is left with a menu of miserable choices.

Either entrust millions of dollars of aid to a corrupt regime that will undoubtedly exploit some of it to strengthen its own position...

...or spend valuable hours and days trying to push the regime aside to conduct a rescue operation that, without the assistance of the local government, would probably be doomed to failure.

The bitter fact is that this dilemma was, to a certain extent, brought upon the international community by itself, because of the contradiction between aggressive democracy promotion and humanitarian engagement.

Perhaps Samantha Power and the international values-based foreign policy community could have an interesting debate on this topic:

What happens when you devote all your energies to ostracizing and alienating a distasteful regime...but then find out that you need that regime to deliver aid to the very people you’re trying to save?

I am willing to believe that the Myanmar regime is godawful, incompetent, and corrupt.

And I get the feeling that its main strategy for disaster relief is for the survivors to walk or crawl out of the muck to assembly points where the government can feed and shelter them with a minimum expenditure of effort and resources.

And I remember—though I have yet to see it mentioned—that a cyclone can lead to regime change: when Pakistan’s halting response to the disastrous Bhola cyclone of 1970, which claimed as many as 500,000 lives, helped catalyze the separatist movement that gave birth to Bangla Desh.

But what I see in the western media is the cynical and lazy urge for a feel-good narrative of the noble West beating up on the detestable Burmese junta.

The sloppy reporting and irresponsible rhetoric reminds me of the rough justice the press meted out to Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. We all remember how satisfying it was to spread tales, no matter how untrue or unlikely, about that unsavory thug, his evil deeds, and his diabolical plans.

And some of us remember how much blood and treasure could have been saved if we had bothered to be accurate about Saddam’s capabilities, objectives, and intentions.

So, when the US ambassadress contradicts the official Burmese reports of the death toll and says as many as 100,000 could be dead, I’m inclined to give her credence.

But I also wonder: how can she know, trapped in her embassy in Yongyon in the aftermath of a natural disaster that has not only disrupted communications—it has caused entire land masses to disappear?

And, when the Oxfam fans the fear of an epidemic affecting 1.5 million people, I recall this sidebar from the TEC report on the 2004 tsunami (pg.53):

One of the recurring myths of natural disasters is that outbreaks of disease inevitably follow disasters...a recent review of over 600 geophysical disasters since 1985 find only three instances where such disasters led to epidemics...This is hardly surprising as disasters often lack the aggregation of populations [which are believed] to be a factor in the biology of epidemics.

So, when I look at the Myanmar catastrophe, I see a deadly mixture of confusion, fear, anger, and callous opportunism...on both sides.