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.

1 comment:

KSR said...

Nice strawman there, confusing "government help" with "government presence". The fact that they created their Potemkin villages in the first place indicates an obsession with image over substantive help. Which in itself doesn't engender a lot of sympathy abroad, as well it shouldn't. I'm not assigning Western aid agencies the noblest of intentions, but you seem to be reading conflicting press accounts as evidence of some vast Western conspiracy to overthrow the junta instead of journalists reporting different stories.