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.

1 comment:

Asad said...

A big part of your argument is around "Either entrust millions of dollars of aid to a corrupt regime that will undoubtedly exploit some of it to strengthen its own position..."

Some ? you have no idea how much of the aid is going to get through, is it going to be 1% ? 30% ? 90% ?

And since when are translators scarce resources ? What else are they going to do ?

By the way china might be just a tad busy with their own disaster to send anything into Burma.

The conclusion of this disaster is going to be that US aid is not appreciated, the next time there's a disaster there are going to be a lot less Americans lining up to help.