Monday, March 30, 2009

Ghost in the Machine

A report from the Front Line in the Cyberwar

The Information Warfare Monitor (a joint venture of Toronto University’s Citizen Lab at the Munke Centre for International Studies and a Canadian think-tank called SecDev) teamed up with the Tibetan Government in Exile for a nine-month multi-continent investigation to develop a remarkable report on cyberwarfare operations targeting areas of concern to the People’s Republic of China, including Taiwan and Tibet.

The report was solicited by the TGIE; the significant resources devoted to preparing the report leads me to suspect that an impetus for the investigation was the possibility that Chinese security had learned how to exploit a dangerous vulnerability inside the Internet censorship and monitoring circumvention software developed by Citizen Lab and, presumably, running on many computers in the Tibetan emigre community.

IWM dubbed the Chinese operation “GhostNet”.

The mechanism was remarkably simple, exploiting the remote monitoring utilities available to IT geeks and hackers to monitor and modify the contents of computers over the Internet.

Computers of interest were targeted with a Trojan program (either through malware in e-mail attachments or as applets downloaded from seeded webpages), Once installed, it secretly established communications with a server that downloaded a piece of open-source Chinese malware called gh0st RAT, which allowed the bad guys (or gals) not only to monitor the contents of the computer, but to secretly upload files, log keystrokes, and even activate audio and video acquisition from the web cams and microphones on the computers.


The clever folk at IWM set up a “honey pot” computer that acquired the Trojan; then they were able to go in through the out door and find out what was happening on the server.

Turns out there were apparently four servers monitoring almost 1300 computers, including a slew of computers in the offices of the Tibetan Government in Exile around the world, various Taiwanese organizations, and a raft of government foreign affairs ministries throughout Europe and Asia.

The IWM team observed documents uploading from the Tibetan computers to the server. Reportedly, the Dalai Lama’s secret negotiating strategy and e-mail lists were acquired through this nefarious channel as well as who knows what else.

The report rather charitably declines to openly accuse the Chinese government as the operators of this scheme, acknowledging that one of the servers were in the United States while pointedly stating the other three were apparently on Hainan Island, “where the Lingshui signals intelligence facility and the Third Technical Department of the People’s Liberation Army” are located.

According to Global Security, Lingshui is pretty much spook central for China, analogous to a major U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency facility:

“A large SIGINT facility at Hainan Island is principally concerned with monitoring U.S. naval activities in the South China Sea. One of the first major projects reflecting growing Chinese interest in activities in the South China Sea was the major upgrading of SIGINT collection capacity. The large SIGINT complex on Hainan Island was significantly expanded by 1995. Established in 1968 at the Lingshui military air base, the Lingshui intelligence facility is said to be home to more than 1,000 intelligence analysts of the Third Technical Department. The complex is used to monitor downlinks from commercial communications satellites.”

Of course, the broad attack on a large number of targets whose common denominator is the Chinese government (Tibet, Taiwan) leads one to believe that the PRC is behind all this.

However, a risky, extremely political, and counter-intelligency operation like “GhostNet” –and one that requires only a few computers, geeks, and a taste for malicious mischief—is perhaps not the kind of thing that one slots into a large, highly disciplined operation whose main job is to monitor with intense interest what the United States is up to in the South China Sea.

The casual, scattershot approach and disregard for countermeasures (like dealing exclusively through third-country servers that would provide deniability to the Chinese government in case of exposure) implies to me that “GhostNet” was an initiative of some computer-savvy group inside Chinese intelligence who were given a license to go phishing and see what they could catch.

Anyway, that’s a distinction without much of a difference.

The report included this anecdote about the Drewla group, an organization ostensibly promoting harmless web-based chat between émigrés and youth inside Tibet:

“A member of Drewla…decided to return to her family village in Tibet after working two years for Drewla. She was arrested at the Nepalese-Tibetan border and taken to a detention facility, where she was held incommunicado for a period of two months. She was interrogated by Chinese intelligence personnel about her employment in Dharmsala. She denied having been politically active and insisted that she had gone to Dharmsala for studies. In response to this, the intelligence officers pulled out a dossier on her activities and presented her with full transcripts of her Internet chats over the years. They indicated that they were fully aware of, and were monitoring, the Drewla outreach initiative and that her colleagues were not welcome to return to Tibet.”

Of course, chat is presumably monitored by the Great Firewall of China and it wouldn’t seem necessary to rummage through Drewla’s computers—which apparently are contaminated with the gh0st RAT malware--to obtain the transcripts.

Interestingly, the University of Toronto Citizen Lab is also in the hacking business, having spun off a corporation to promote a software called “Psiphon”, designed expressly to evade Internet censorship in countries like China.

Interested parties install the Psiphon software on computers outside the targeted countries, get an IP address from the Psiphon mothership (the Psiphon manual uses “” as an example; my advice: ix-nay on the eedom-fray) and relies on “social networks of trust” to distribute the URL together with log-ins and passwords inside the censoring country so people can message to the Psiphon server using the encrypted https protocol and get unfettered access to the Internet.

The assumption is that, since a host of financial and webmail processes use https, the censoring government can never shut down https communications wholesale.

That would imply that a censoring government would have to go after the servers one by one—judging from Wikipedia there are myriad ways of compromising https communications—and Psiphon’s protection would be safety in numbers i.e. signing up a lot of nodes to overwhelm the censors.

Last year, Citizen Lab put the word out that it had 150,000 nodes and was “reaching out to locals” to blog and broadcast about Tibet during the Beijing Olympics, which undoubtedly endeared it to the Chinese government.

The Psiphon servers are not anonymizers, which means that a hack into a PC set up as a Psiphon server would presumably yield a treasure trove of information both on users and the web pages they are visiting.

As Psiphon’s entry on Wikipedia notes, with just a hint of anxiety:

“Through the psiphon control panel, psiphonode administrators have access to a log of sites that their psiphonites access, which makes the psiphon user subject to the consequences of any lack of good security practices, ill will, or possible censorship by the psiphonenode administrator. The authors of psiphon stress that these issues are "trust" issues, with exception of poor security practices, and should not present a problem because of the positive social relationship(s) between psiphon user(s) and psiphonode administrator(s). The theory being that if there is a good enough relationship to establish a psiphon user to psiphonode administrator tie, issues such as psiphonode censorship and ill will are not likely to arise, hence the term "social networks of trust" used in psiphon literature."

If the Chinese government discovers a “psiphonode”, hacks into it, collects the IP addresses of the visitors and a list of the sites they visited, I imagine that the “positive social relationship” between the psiphonode administrator and his or her hapless psiphonsite buddy will be little consolation.

So, maybe the “GhostNet” report was an attempt to identify dangerous vulnerabilities of the Psiphon system as well as a piece of pro-bono do-goodery on behalf of the Tibetan émigrés.

Fact is, given the close ties between Citizen Lab and the Tibetan emigre movement, I would speculate that Dharmsala is a hive of Psiphon servers; and I wonder one result of the "GhostNet" hack was to infect the psiphonodes and send a trove of information about users inside Tibet back to Chinese security forces.


That might cause potential psiphonode operators to think twice about participating in the program.

Tibet has apparently become the world’s hottest cyber-warfare battlefield. The Tibetan émigré movement has struggled to get unfiltered information (and, perhaps, instructions) into the Tibetan areas of the PRC.

The Chinese government has played whack-a-mole in response, monitoring Internet traffic and chat, blocking sites, jamming webpages with DNS attacks, shutting down Youtube last year and text messaging this year, confiscating satellite dishes and apparently even taking down cellphone towers.

It looks like the Chinese have given up, perhaps for good, on the whole hearts and minds thing in the Tibetan occupation.

Instead, the PRC hopes that it can keep the lid on in the Tibetan areas until mortality catches up with the Dalai Lama, the émigré movement fractures permanently between disheartened moderates and disgruntled activists, and Han migration permanently dilutes the Tibetan character of China’s southwest.

However, I wonder if the iron law of unintended consequences may soon be at work here and the focus of Tibetan dissent will shift away from the impotent émigrés to the angry and disaffected residents of Tibet, who will be much more difficult for China to handle.

What China should be worried about is exactly what it is working to achieve: the rise of a Tibetan generation that is not inspired by occasional contact with the remote and esteemed figure of the Dalai Lama in India, but one that instead creates its lasting identity from its isolation inside the PRC—and draws its bitterness and resentment from the shared memory of the Chinese occupation.

And that’s a lot more powerful than the Internet.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pakistan's Dangerous Days

I hesitate to disagree with Juan Cole, one of the few genuine experts posting regularly on Islam and the politics of the Middle East and South Asia.

However, I do take issue with his most recent post on the burgeoning crisis in Pakistan.

The lawyers are marching, Nawaz Sharif is piggybacking his political struggle with Asif Zardari on top of the movement, the government is arresting activists and mobilizing to block the march, and everything is building toward a confrontation if and when the marchers reach Islamabad.

A genuine crisis is burgeoning in Pakistan and responsibility for mismanaging Pakistan's transition to civilian rule can, in my opinion, be laid firmly at the feet of President (and co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party or PPP), Asif Zardari.

Cole, while recounting some of Zardari’s sins, seems to reserve the bulk of his grumbling for Nawaz Sharif:

On the other hand, Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader Nawaz Sharif, who spent nearly a decade in exile in Saudi Arabia, seems to me to have gone round the bend. He has been threatening a rebellion and a revolution against the elected government, which which he had initially been allied. Now he is more or less accusing his PPP rivals of planning to whack him.

Sharif's incendiary rhetoric about a revolution and raising the standard of rebellion appears to have provoked the government to invoke section 144. If he had instead pledged a non-violent protest, perhaps it could have gone forward.

The ability to lose an election gracefully and to act as a loyal opposition is a key prerequisite for a party to participate in parliamentary democracy. The Muslim League is signally failing in that regard. Nawaz Sharif has long had dictatorial tendencies, and when he was last prime minister in the mid- to late-1990s, he started closing down newspapers, jailing journalists and editors, and stacking the decks against other parties.

As for the issue of the deposed supreme court, I don't understand why parliament could not simply pass legislation for a one-time measure to retire the justices appointed by the dictatorship and to appoint new ones, who would have legitimacy since they would be appointees of a popularly elected government. Iftikhar Chaudhury was brave to stand up to Musharraf in 2007, but he did validate Musharraf's coup, and Musharraf made him chief justice, in 2005. So you could argue that his original appointment was the fruit of a poisoned tree. It is odd that Sharif is so insistent on his return to the bench, since Chaudhury helped prolong Sharif's exile and justified the 1999 coup against him.

I would argue that the salient points of the current crisis are these.

Zardari is unpopular inside Pakistan, personally and because of his alliance with the United States.

He knows he’s unpopular. The ghost of Benazir Bhutto won the general election for the PPP, not Asif Zardari. And everything he’s done since the election has made him more unpopular. Zardari’s numbers are now somewhere in the teens, where Musharraf was just before he left office.

Instead of trying to adopt more popular policies, Zardari decided to leverage his position at the head of the PPP party and government to eliminate political rivals, while presenting himself to the United States as, if not the indispensable man, someone who is useful and tractable.

Soon after the general elections, Zardari moved against the PPP’s old guard, which never accepted him and considered him a corrupt and feckless interloper.

Then, by reneging on the agreement to reinstate the Supreme Court justices, he pushed Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N party out of the cabinet (until recently, the PML-N had agreed to vote with the PPP government) and worked to undercut the PML-N led government in the Sharif brothers’ political base of Punjab.

Zardari also made the distasteful and dangerous decision to ally, for the purposes of his government’s parliamentary majority, both with the PML-Q (the despised “king’s party” created by Musharraf out of the ruins of the PML after he deposed Sharif) and the MQM, the violent, thuggish party that controls Karachi and draws its power from its willingness (unmatched by any other mainstream party) to deploy goons for riot, mayhem, and murder against the enemies of the MQM and its allies.

Zardari mounted a concerted but largely unsuccessful campaign to blacken the reputation and undercut the political strength of the lawyer’s movement. In the midst of a fracas late last year that looks to have been a PPP provocation, MQM “lawyers” obligingly killed five genuine lawyers during a riot in Karachi.

Given Zardari’s unpopularity and the unpopularity of his alliance with the United States, his best hope for continued political ascendancy lay in neutralizing Sharif, which he apparently did through the mechanism of the Supreme Court ruling banning the Sharif brothers from elected office.

Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, has played his political cards with a great deal more acumen.

Derided in the West as a dull and doughy opportunist on the strength of his undistinguished Prime Ministership in the 1990s, Sharif re-invented himself during his exile in Saudi Arabia. On the superficial level, he invested in hair plugs and honed his public style to compete with the charismatic politics of Benazir Bhutto. On the tactical level, he re-invented the PML-N as an issues-based popular party in contrast with the PPP, which traffics in the more traditional politics of Sindh chauvinism and ward-heeling.

The issues that Sharif has seized upon are the primacy of civil society over military rule, democracy, and restoration of the judiciary that Musharraf deposed. He has eschewed an overt alliance with the United States in favor of a more conciliatory attitude toward Islamicism.

As a result, Sharif is very popular.

Very, very popular.

The latest polling from the Institute for a Terror Free Tomorrow (despite its Orwellian name, TFT is the absolute gold standard for polling in Pakistan, far outperforming the high profile International Republican Institute) dates to the middle of last year, but I doubt things have changed significantly:

Mr. Sharif has also seen a steady rise in his popularity, from 57 percent favorable in our August 2007 poll, to 74 percent in January 2008 and 86 percent today. As significantly, those with a very favorable opinion have almost doubled since January 2008 to 43 percent now—a level no other political figure in Pakistancomes even close to. (By comparison, Mr. Zardari, leader of the PPP, just has a 13% very favorable rating.)

If national elections were held today, Mr. Sharif’s party, the PML-N, would emerge as the clear winner, garnering 42 percent of the vote to the PPP’s 32 percent.

In summary: Nawaz Sharif is dealing from strength. Zardari is floundering to stay afloat.

What this means for subsequent events in Pakistan:

Time is on Nawaz Sharif’s side.

Zardari’s approvals are in the teens and will only go lower as a result of the current crisis.

Sharif, aware of his strength, will play his cards extremely cannily, maintaining his high profile alliance with the popular lawyer’s movement. He will not precipitate a political collapse that would negate his stratospheric political standing by plunging Pakistan into chaos and perhaps bringing a return to military rule.

During the previous lawyer's march, in June 2008, Sharif endorsed the movement but apparently restrained the marchers from an open-ended sit-in in Islamabad that would have challenged the existence of Zardari's government. Instead of showing gratitude for Sharif's help in making the march fizzle, Zardari continued to try and undercut the Sharif brothers.

This time, Nawaz Sharif will be determined to emerge from the struggle with a clear political victory.

In my opinion, Sharif will keep up the pressure until Zardari is forced to make a humiliating concession and let the PML-N regain control of the Punjab government. Then Sharif will continue his maneuvering to ensure that the terminally-weakened Zardari and his unpopular PPP are trounced in the next general election.

I think that Juan Cole makes a mis-step when he dismisses Nawaz Sharif for having gone “around the bend” in accusing “his PPP rivals of trying to whack him”.

Murder is never far from the surface in Pakistani politics. Benazir Bhutto was murdered. Her father was hung. There are persistent rumors that Bhutto orchestrated the murder in 1996 of her brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, who was a Marxist extremist and an embarrassment.

In an LA Times op-ed in November 2007, Benazir Bhutto’s niece wrote:

My father was a member of Parliament and a vocal critic of his sister's politics. He was killed outside our home in 1996 in a carefully planned police assassination while she was prime minister. There were 70 to 100 policemen at the scene, all the streetlights had been shut off and the roads were cordoned off. Six men were killed with my father. They were shot at point-blank range, suffered multiple bullet wounds and were left to bleed on the streets.

My father was Benazir's younger brother. To this day, her role in his assassination has never been adequately answered, although the tribunal convened after his death under the leadership of three respected judges concluded that it could not have taken place without approval from a "much higher" political authority.

The Zardari government is threatening to charge Sharif with sedition—a capital crime.

And the fact that considerable advantages would accrue if Nawaz Sharif were to suddenly disappear from public life has doubtless crossed the mind of the embattled Asif Zardari.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Chas Freeman’s Departure Isn’t Good for Israel…

…It’s Bad for Afghanistan

AIPAC—or at least a militantly hard-line faction of AIPAC—well, maybe the fellow-travellers of a borderline-deranged ex-AIPAC bossman named Steven Rosen now awaiting trial on espionage charges—can tie Chas Freeman’s scalp to its belt.

Understandable handwringing on thoughtful foreign policy blogs that hoped Freeman taking over something called the National Intelligence Council would lead to a more sensible, less reflexively pro-Israel stance on Middle East issues, as Laura Rozen reports.

Of course, AIPAC has not endeared itself or its patron to the Obama administration by spearheading a nasty, humiliating, and successful battle to bar a high-level and qualified nominee from a significant post.

Ms. Rozen linked to a blog post by the Israel Policy Forum’s M.J Rosenberg:

The campaign to defeat Chas Freeman… may come at a cost. The perception, almost universally held, that he was brought down because he is a strong and vocal opponent of Israel's West Bank and settlement policies is, not good for the Jewish community and the pro-Israel community in particular.

What does it all mean? …[A] insider I spoke to last night said: "This was a real pyrrhhic victory. One, the administration is pissed off. And, two, Obama is going to be more determined than ever to take a strong stand on settlements, Gaza relief, and negotiations. They shot their wad on Freeman. They will not think that was so smart a few months from now."

Let me tell you what it all means, MJ.

As far as Israel’s lobbying position in Washington, zip.

Israel’s access to buckets of U.S. money and shiploads of arms is secure as long as the grass grows and the rivers run, no matter what it does with settlements on the West Bank or to the people of Gaza.

The real significance of the fight against Freeman takes us away from the traditional need to affirm the right of Israel to exist, enjoy America’s commitment to its continued survival, and consume its yearly entitlement of what I guess could be called “white steak” from the U.S. budget.

It has everything to do with trying to disrupt the Obama’s initiative to engage with Iran—an initiative that has the active encouragement of Russia, probably tacit support from China, and the active interest of Iran itself.

Iran has an interesting battery of carrots to offer the United States. Beyond helping keep the lid on in Iraq by moderating the behavior of the majority Sh’ia against the Sunni, an active Iranian role in Afghanistan could do the United States a world of good, especially in opening some kind of second front against the Taliban in the opium heartland of western Afghanistan and providing an alternative to the risky Pakistan route for U.S. and NATO supplies into Afghanistan.

But rapprochement with Iran is anathema to the Israeli government, since it would replace the current situation—where it is assumed that the interests of Tel Aviv and Washington are identical and, if there is a conflict, Israeli priorities should prevail because it has the most at stake—with a more complicated arrangement in which Israel’s position might be downgraded to that of just another stakeholder, whose interests might be compromised by Washington for the sake of its geopolitical objectives and bilateral dealings with Iran.

Back on February 6, concerning the signs of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, I wrote oh-so-presciently (the China Matters crystal ball was polished to a brilliant sheen for this one):

Direct U.S. dealmaking with Iran (in effect, giving a higher priority to America’s own strategic interests a la Walt-Miersheimer at the expense of unequivocal support of Israel’s priorities and preferences) is Israel’s greatest fear, so any thawing of relations between Washington and Tehran will have to run the multiple gauntlets of opposition, resistance, provocation, and sabotage thrown down by the Israeli government (soon, apparently, to be run by the hard-right Benjamin Netanyahu) and its allies in the United States.

So, consider l’affaire Freeman the first conspicuous salvo in the effort to sabotage the Obama administration’s outreach to Tehran.

Under the Bush administration, when the identity of U.S. and Israeli priorities was pretty much a given, regional confrontation was a welcome opportunity to advance Full Spectrum Dominance, and the idea of fighting two billion-dollar wars (plus for good measure a Global War on Terror) was considered to play to America’s economic and military strengths, AIPAC’s trashing of Middle East realists was not such a big deal.

But now we are in classic Walt-Miersheimer territory, where the Obama administration’s intense desire to disengage from Iraq and fix Afghanistan requires at the very least a divergence from Israeli priorities and at worst (from Tel Aviv’s point of view) bilateral engagement with Iran.

Provocation, obstruction and even the active sabotage of U.S. Iran initiatives inflicts few costs on Israel. Israel’s political position in Washington is secure, and its claim to unstinting U.S. support is enhanced rather than damaged if it occupies an isolated position at the center of a dysfunctional Middle East filled with Muslim nations hostile both to it and the United States.

For the United States, it’s different. The Obama administration is trying to unwind from overextended positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. It needs the help of regional powers that have real reach and positive interests inside Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid a catastrophic clusterf*ck that would damage U.S. interests and cripple the Obama presidency.

That means Iran. And Syria.

Not Israel.

I anticipate unending efforts by Israel’s supporters in the U.S. Congress, media, and think tank commentariat to make the political cost of dealing with Iran unsupportable for the Obama administration. And with the economy stuck in a mile-deep rut, President Obama may in fact decide not to pick a fight over Iran and do little more than prolong the bloody standoffs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The possibility that Freeman was brought down by an ad hoc operation run on a shoestring by a rogue ex-AIPAC official working the political and media pipe organ like the neo-conservatives did in the run-up to the Iraq war is an indication that the guns are in place, the mines are laid, and—more disturbingly—that the Obama administration wandered into the battlefield bereft of a plan, arms, or allies close at hand and got its hat handed to it.

However, while the Schumers and Liebermans of this world celebrate Freeman’s withdrawal and engage in their enthusiastic osculation of AIPAC’s obliging hindquarters, they should consider that continued confrontation in the Middle East and drift in U.S. policy will have real costs for American interests and the world.

In order to pull the world out of recession, it’s better to have functioning states and economies in the Middle East and South Asia and working relationships with global and regional powers--not billion-dollar sinkholes for destabilizing security spending and defiant antagonism to Russia, China, and Iran.

That means we need concerted multi-lateral efforts to ratchet down the existential crises looming in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, potentially, Iraq. The world system is in shaky shape and today we may not be able to afford the domestic political division, confrontation-and-conflict based foreign policy, and international instability that indulging the Israel lobby traditionally brings.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Things Fall Apart

The Taliban's War on Popular Sufism--and Pakistan

Via All Things Pakistan comes the sad news that the Pakistan Taliban blew up the tomb of the revered 17th century Pashtun poet and Sufi saint Rehman Baba near Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province on March 5.

It is hard to see this event in less than dire terms, and as a signal that the Taliban will not be deterred from securing its survival and advantage by the Islamic character of the Pakistani nation.

The Pakistan Taliban, probably emboldened by its victory in obtaining government acquiescence in the imposition of sharia law in the valley of Swat, executed this outrage in order to further demoralize and divide Pakistan’s moderate polity.

Rehman Baba’s tomb was targeted because it was a Sufi shrine, anathema to the Taliban brand of Islamic fundamentalism.

Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes the possibility of transcendent religious experience in this lifetime through the assistance of a charismatic teacher. Possibly, Sufism represents an attempt to reconcile traditional local religious practices with Islam as the latter swept across North Africa and South Asia.

Pakistan is dotted with the tombs of Sufi teachers and poets, which are popularly regarded as shrines and opportunities to obtain some kind of spiritual assistance, similar to the role that saints and relics play in popular Catholic practice.

As such, Sufism has always skirted close to idolatry or shirk in the eyes of Muslims cleaving to the absolute monotheism of orthodox Islam. The Salafi school of Islam and its strict sub-set of Wahabbism championed by Saudi Arabia (and famously practiced by Osama bin Laden) are notoriously hostile to Sufism. "Quburriyah"—apparently a contemptuous Arabic epithet meaning “tomb worshipers”—is used on Islamist websites to characterize Sufism.

Within Pakistan, there also appears to be a distinct desire to attribute the anti-Sufi campaign to the influence of Arab and Egyptian fundamentalists—outside agitators, if you will.

However, there are deep and significant local roots to the Pakistan Taliban’s opposition to popular Sufism.

Taliban religious doctrine grew out of South Asian Sufi traditions—its leader, Mullah Omar, has taken on the mystical trappings of a charismatic Sufi leader--but represents an effort to reconcile indigenous Sufism with the strict orthodoxy of the Arabic Islamic practice as promoted by the religious teacher Maulana Mohammed Ilyas (1885-1944) and his Tablighi Jama’at religious movement, centered on the north Indian town of Deobond and also called the Deobondi movement. The movement stresses concrete action over contemplation, and a revival of Islam through heightened religious observance, preaching, and prostelization.

Today, Tablighi Jama’at is perhaps the largest religious movement in the Islamic world. The second largest annual gathering of Muslims in the world (after the haj to Mecca) is the TJ’s annual congregation, the Bushwa Itjema, in Bangladesh.

Mullah Omar and many Taliban trained at Deobondi-inspired madrassas set up in western Pakistan.

Ilyas’ Deobondi movement was Sufi in its traditions, but represented a conscious effort to prevent the extinction of the minority Muslim faith within British India by asserting a distinct, separate Muslim identity through emphasis on adherence to sharia law and the orthodox Prophetic canon of Koran and Sunnah, and by purging the indigenous popular Sufi form of Islamic observance of corrupting non-Islamic elements.

Writing in a collection of essays entitled Sufism and the “modern” in Islam, (Martin van Bruinessen, Julia Day Howell, I.B.Tauris, 2007) Yoginder Sikan described the relation of the Ilyas’ strain of Deobondi fundamentalism to popular Sufism:

Also branded as “un-Islamic” and occupying a central place in what Ilyas saw as “un-Islamic” customary tradition, was the entire domain of popular Sufism. This included practices related to worship at the shrines of saints, such as prostration at their graves, musical sessions, and unrestricted mixing of the sexes.

Equally condemnable was a range of beliefs and social practices relating to the authority of the Sufis, whether living or dead. The notion that the buried Sufis were still alive and could intercede with God to grant one’s requests was fiercely condemned as
un-Islamic” and as akin to shirk, the sin of associating partners with the one God.

Ilyas’ reformed Sufism…had crucial implications for the constitution of religious authority…[T]he TJ directly challenged the authority of the custodians of the religious shrine (sajjada-nishin)…who were seen as having a vested interest in in preserving popular custom for their own claims to authority rested on these.

[Ilyas] therefore effectively dismissed as ultimately of little worth the claims to authority of the sajjada-nishin, based on the reports of the miracles (karamat) performed by the saints whose shrines they tended. He stressed that punctilious observance of the sharia, and not karamat, was the only way to rise in God’s eyes.

There it is.

According to the tenets of Taliban theology, attacks on popular Sufi religious practice are inseparable from the imposition of sharia law.

In fact, given the extremely close relation between the Deobandi movement and the Sufi tradition from which it sprang, it’s almost inevitable that the Pakistan Taliban would actively confront what it saw as the abuses of popular Sufism in order to assert its fundamental identity and authority.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the Pakistani Taliban would follow their successful campaign to impose sharia law in parts of NWFP with a conspicuous attack on a popular Sufi shrine.

Beyond the demands of Deobandi faith, igniting a religious struggle against popular Sufism is almost a tactical necessity. Fighting against the Pakistani army and Frontier Corps is not the same as battling the NATO and U.S. unbelievers in Afghanistan.

The Pakistan Taliban are locked in a battle with the military forces of an Islamic state and need the trappings of a sustained Islamic religious struggle inside Pakistan in order to sustain its legitimacy, motivate its followers, and divide its opposition.

In fact, attacking Sufi religious practices is probably integral to the entire Taliban strategy of polarizing Pakistani society by attacking a weak link—the popular but difficult to defend (on strict Islamic terms) worship of local saints whose interred bodies reputedly have magic powers.

The central province of Punjab hosts several important Sufi shrines, raising the terrifying specter of attacks on heterodox religious practices in Pakistan’s heartland by an ostentatiously righteous, militant, and ascendant religious group whose stated mission is to rescue Islam not only from the West but from idolatry within its own ranks.

And, as a reading of Sikan indicates, challenging popular Sufism also means challenging the authority of the custodians who obtained legitimacy, wealth, and power from their control of the shrines and promises to link the Taliban to a populist, anti-elitist message that may find resonance in the impoverished areas of Pakistan far beyond its Pashtun base.

The United Arab Emirates paper The Nation pointed out how the Pakistan Taliban’s attack on popular Sufism is linked to an assault on the local elites trying to stem the tide of its advance:

Journalists said that, prior to both high-profile attacks, militants had confronted the shrines’ caretakers, warning them to put a stop to religious practices that are frowned upon by orthodox Muslims, such as prayers to the deceased saints and devotion to their living heirs, known locally as piri-faqiri.

“All the Taliban groupings loathe piri-faqiri and are prone to attacking any site that is used to practise it,” said Shaukat Khattak, the bureau chief of Samaa TV in Peshawar.

The Swat Taliban faced their stiffest resistance from Pir Samiullah, a gaddi nashin [one who holds the throne of a shrine—CH] who had formed a militia of followers and killed about 100 militants. He was shot dead in December in a battle with the Taliban, after army units called in for support went to the wrong location.

His corpse was exhumed by militants and put on display at the main square of Mingora, the capital of Swat region, to be buried later at an undisclosed location.

“They violated all the traditions of the area because they did not want his followers to build a shrine,” said the widow of a Swat politician assassinated by the Taliban, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On the All Things Pakistan message boards, the thoughts of more than one commentator immediately turned to the tomb of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad ali Jinnah, in the heart of Karachi, an immense borderline-idolatrous mass called Mazar-i-Qaid (National Mausoleum) symbolizing the legitimacy and authority of the regime, as a possible target.

The fear and the outrage of ATP’s commentators reveals a dreaded awareness that the Pakistan Taliban is not just about pushing the U.S. and the West out of Afghanistan, or maintaining the autonomy and religiosity of the Pashtun regions against the encroachments of the central government.

The Taliban is on the attack, and it has a profitable bone to pick with heterodox Islam and Islam-sympathetic secularism as well. It possesses the doctrine, the will, and, fatally, the means, opportunity, and incentive to conduct a terror campaign against Pakistan’s secular-leaning, equivocally Islamic elites in order to cow them into submission.

And one victim of the Pakistan Taliban’s relentless pursuit of orthodoxy and polarization will be the weakly articulated commitment to cosmopolitan culture, tolerance, and syncretic traditions that form the shaky underpinnings of Pakistan’s modernist multi-ethnic state.

Inevitably, the famous lines of W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming spring to mind:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

But Rehman Baba should have the last word (courtesy of ATP):

Such have your sorrows overpowered me,
That I’ve lost every place in and out.

My sobs have rendered people restless,
Like fire of a burning dry wood engulfing the moisture,

In your pain, I’m weeping like a candle,
But you are smiling at me like a bright morn.

My heart’s hanging in your path,
Like your black hair dangling in front of your face.

Tis’ a norm for all the sorrows to be crushed under your feet,
When you are burdened with that single grief.

They come towards you, leaving me behind,
All those who advisingly forbade me from your path.

Such is the effect of yours over the face of Rehman,
Like a flame of fire over a thinly dry stalk.

Monday, March 09, 2009

China, the Taliban, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

China Matters has pieces up at Asia Times and Counterpunch under the pen name “Peter Lee”.

The Asia Times piece, Taliban Force a China Switch, concerns indications that must worry Beijing that the Taliban has discarded a central pillar of traditional foreign policy in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan: the relative immunity of Chinese citizens and interests to attack.

The piece also looks at China’s recent approach to the Pakistan Islamist party, Jamaat-i-Islaami, and speculates that Beijing might be establishing a channel to Afghan warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has a history of working through JI in the past as his interlocutor with the ISI and the Pakistani government.

Further information on Hekmatyar—and the concerted efforts to woo him into the Karzai government, efforts that have received some encouragement from the U.K. and the U.S.—can be found at Counterpunch.

If this report from via the Pakistani media on March 9 is true, Hekmatyar’s road to America’s good graces has suddenly become a lot rockier:

KABUL: Hizb-e-Islami Monday claimed killing 19 US troops in Lughman province of Afghanistan.

The organization of former Afghan prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar Khan attacked a convoy of US soldiers in Tehsil Shang of Lughman province, killing 12 troops.

Three US tanks were also destroyed in the clash which continued for two hours.

The militants of Hizb-e-Islami also killed 7 US troops in district Burqi of Logar province when they were searching houses.

Friday, March 06, 2009

China Prepares to Hunker Down for Three Years to Weather the Global Economic Crisis

But Will It Be Enough?

The Independent’s Clifford Cooney puts his hoof in it:

With China facing its worst financial crisis in a century, Premier Wen Jiabao assured comrades that the economy would still grow by 8 per cent this year.

Worst Chinese financial crisis in a century?

Worse than the 16% drop in GDP and the death of 40 million people when the Great Leap Forward crashed and burned in 1961?

Well, maybe Cooney’s talking about a crisis in the financial system, not the general economy.

But worse than the hyperinflation under Chiang Kai-shek during World War II?

Hard-money libertarian Richard Ebeling tells us:

In June 1937, 3.41 yuan traded for one U.S. dollar. By December 1941, on the black market 18.93 yuan exchanged for a dollar. At the end of 1945, the yuan had fallen to 1,222 to the dollar. And by May 1949, one dollar traded for 23,280,000 yuan.

Maybe Cooney is thinking of the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 which threw China’s entire population of eunuchs—perhaps the era’s closest analogue to financial writers-- into unemployment?

Actually, Cooney’s trouble is simply careless reporting (or to be fair, maybe careless editing).

China Daily reports:

China's highest leadership… recently said that this year would be "the toughest year" so far this century for the rural economy given falling produce prices and the grim employment situation.

Get it? This century a.k.a. the last eight years. That makes sense.

The article (China Daily, not Cooney) provides more useful information on the government’s thinking.

The wages of migrant workers accounts for half of rural incomes. Of the roughly 130 million rural workers employed outside their hometowns, about 20 million returned home without jobs.

It’s important that unemployed migrant workers can hunker down on the farm instead of rioting there, or in the cities.

The government is approaching the income issue holistically, by boosting the purchase price of wheat (to provide a direct shot of income to rural families) and by providing RMB 20 billion in subsidies to rural areas for the purchase of electrical appliances (to boost rural purchasing power and also sustain utilization—and employment—in the coastal factories).

The government’s challenge in sustaining and growing rural incomes does not appear to be insurmountable.

If we accept that the Chinese economy flat-lines, instead of growing at the 8% that the government optimistically says it will (and is the minimum to keep up with demographics and avoid a reduction in per capita rural income), the math for the countryside looks something like this:

2008 per-capita rural income = 4,761. 8% of that is RMB 381. Multiply that small number by the big number—700,000,000 rural people, you get RMB 267 billion, about $40 billion USD at the current exchange rate. That would be on top of the RMB 600 billion (US$ 86 billion) the government is already spending on rural subsidies, according to Xinhua.

That adds up to $126 billion in rural stimulus in 2009.

By an interesting coincidence, the Chinese government announced that it will run a budget deficit of RMB 950 billion—or $130 billion—in the coming year in order to do its Keynsian thing for the nation’s economy.

That’s 3% of GDP—not excessively high, but not great, according the boffins at the IMF. 3% is the level that the EU tries to cap for its members. 3% is also a lot better than the USA will be doing in 2009.

However, by running prudent and careful fiscal policy in previous years -- reflected in low deficits and debt -- China has created fiscal space that it can now use to fight the downturn, said [Vivek Arora, International Monetary Fund Senior Resident Representative in China].

"In this sense, China is in a relatively strong position," he told Xinhua.

In comparison to other countries, China's deficit-GDP ratio was "at the higher end of the middle range", said Gao Peiyong, deputy head of the CASS Institute of Finance and Trade Economics.

The United States set its budgeted deficit at 12.3 percent of its GDP for fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009, while the 27-nation European Union forecast 12 of its members will see their deficit-GDP ratios exceed 3 percent this year.

The interesting, dare I say $390 billion question is, what happens if the world can’t get its economic act together in the next couple years.

China can’t run these big deficits indefinitely, as Xinhua noted:

[T]he biggest challenge for China's fiscal authorities will be how to sustain a continuous deficit expansion in the coming two to three years, [Gao Peiyong, deputy head of the CASS Institute of Finance and Trade Economics] said.

Prior to announcement of this year's budget, China’s debt to GDP ratio was 18.3%, comfortably below the red line of 60%. That’s RMB 5.5 trillion of outstanding government debt on a GDP of 30 RMB trillion. Three years of trillion-RMB deficits is probably sustainable, but it would bring China up to the same debt level that the USA is currently at (before the current stimulus package)—somewhere in the mid-30s. That’s not a place where China would want to be, for economic/inflation reasons.

Three years may be enough time to see the light at the end of the tunnel in a recession, but not a depression.

Recessions are bumps in the road on the way to sustained, consistent global growth. Depressions are a hole in the road that can take a decade to climb out of, once you fall in.

That’s why the Chinese government is regarding the Obama administration’s floundering on the financial question with a combination of exasperation and anxiety.

From Beijing’s view, better to acknowledge the insolvency of AIG, BofA, Citibank, and a raft of European banks as soon as possible, force the shareholders to take their haircuts, and get the global financial system back in the business of lending again—and the global economy back in the business of growing.

China will be hard-pressed to ameliorate a recession that lasts longer than three years. A sustained global depression tacked onto the crash of the Western financial system may indeed yield China’s greatest financial crisis in the last century—and rescue Clifford Cooney from the embarrassment of today’s column.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Forgotten Burma/Myanmar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s not all sunshine and flowers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MSF’s Humphris writes:

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

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

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

Ridiculously small.

But what about previous results?

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

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

The total amount requested: $477 million dollars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In September, Refugees International wrote hopefully:

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

Humphris wrote:

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

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

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

May 12, 2008

Enter the Mistral!

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

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

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

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

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

Remember the Mistral?
From the Annals of Burma Relief

Remember the Mistral?

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

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

But it’s not there.

What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

C'est incroyable!

Yeah, well somebody tell Bernard Kouchner.

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

May 19, 2008

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

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

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

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

Imagine that.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I get the picture.

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

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

Not true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 20, 2008

Myanmar, the Assessment Teams Fetish, and America’s ASEAN Miscalculation
The Dangers of Playing Politics with Disaster Relief

In the matter of Myanmar, you can have humanitarian aid or you can have politics...but you can’t have both.

I’ve taken a certain amount of heat for questioning the blanket condemnation of the Myanmar regime’s disaster relief measures in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

Some of the dissatisfaction has to do with my unwillingness to accept at face value the assertions in the international media that the government’s response to the cyclone has been callous and criminally incompetent.

Myanmar was knocked on its behind by Cyclone Nargis. Any government response will be, by some measure, inadequate. That’s why these things are called “disasters”.

I look at the aftermath of the great Bhola Cyclone disaster of 1970 and see a lot of parallels between the response of the Pakistan government and the Myanmar regime. Based on the limited information from the field, I give Myanmar a low but passing grade.

I also look at the fact that the Irrawaddy delta is Myanmar’s economic heartland and I credit the Myanmar government with sufficient survival instincts to understand that an effective relief and recovery operation is crucial to the regime’s viability. About 15% of the country’s riceland has been devastated. The government can’t just write it—or the farmers that till the land--off.

Myanmar is not availing itself of foreign military assistance—especially helicopter capability—that could speed relief to some areas and save lives. However, as the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami demonstrated, foreign military aid can not be effectively deployed without effective coordination and cooperation between the foreign military providing the equipment and crews and the local military providing the local knowledge, manpower, and support.

There is, to my knowledge, no precedent for successful independent foreign intervention in a disaster of this scale. The idea that France and the United States could mount an effective large-scale rescue unilateral mission without the Myanmar military is a fantasy. Every moment spent discussing unilateral intervention under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine is a waste of time and lives.

On the other hand, have there been any demands that France and the United States explicitly commit themselves to joint rescue operations under the direction of the Myanmar military so they can get about the business of saving lives?


The second area of criticism appears to be China Matters’ challenging of the incessant assertions in the international press that “the junta is not letting in aid”.

No backing down on this one. Aid is coming into Myanmar and it’s being distributed by the Myanmar government. Foreign NGOs and aid teams, primarily from Asia, are also working inside Myanmar.

Myanmar has accepted ASEAN as a mechanism for receiving aid. More on that later.

What is not getting into Myanmar is foreign aid teams that the UN and the USA are insisting must be admitted in order to make independent assessments without Myanmar government input of how and where aid should be distributed.

The United States attempted, unsuccessfully, to make admission of its assessment teams a precondition for supply of aid during the initial rescue stage, but quietly abandoned this unpalatable and unnecessary demand.

Now that disaster relief is moving into the recovery and reconstruction stage, the US assessment team demand has reemerged as a linchpin of American strategy and a mainstay of its propaganda campaign against the Myanmar regime.

Reporting this situation as “not letting in aid” is, in my opinion, misleading and dishonest.

Which brings us to the third and most explosive area of contention: my assertion that the United States is playing politics with aid relief in order to put pressure on the Myanmar regime.

Scot Marciel, a career foreign service officer was appointed America’s ambassador to ASEAN last year, with the specific and primary charge of putting pressure on the Myanmar regime. And he hasn’t changed his tune since the Nargis disaster.

At the time of his appointment, AFP reported that Marciel’s priority mission was to use ASEAN as a tool against the Myanmar regime:

The prospective first US envoy to the ASEAN said Wednesday that his key priority was prodding the Southeast Asian group to press Myanmar's military junta to embrace democratic reforms.

Scot Marciel, ambassador designate for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) affairs, said at his confirmation hearing in the Senate that he planned to "travel extensively throughout the region" to improve ties."

One of my highest priorities, if confirmed, will be to work with ASEAN and its member nations ... to convince Burma's rulers to end their brutal repression and begin a genuine dialogue leading to a democratic transition," he said. Burma is Myanmar's previous name....

"The problem of Burma represents one of ASEAN's biggest challenges, but also an opportunity," said Marciel, who will continue to hold his current post as deputy assistant secretary of state on confirmation as US envoy to ASEAN.

He said that if the United States and ASEAN as well as others in the international community reversed Myanmar's "dangerous downward spiral," it would be of "enormous benefit" to the people in that country and the entire region.

Shortly after his confirmation, Marciel appeared on a panel at the Asia Society with a leader of Burma’s government in exile.

A report covering the panel, entitled “A saffron revolution in the making?”, quoted Marciel:

Marciel, spoke of the `intense diplomatic involvement' of the US in Myanmar, particularly, after the crackdown on Burmese demonstrators last September.

Rejecting allegations that the US is not doing enough to bring about change in Myanmar, Marciel says: `We are a nation based on freedom which we try to promote worldwide. Burma is a compelling case. Consequently, Burma's path is worrying us. Burma's record has steadily declined in every field - from human rights through economic corruption to public health. Burma's major exports, besides precious stones and natural gas, also include refugees, disease and drugs. Burma's present regime, which lacks legitimacy, support and ideas, should organise a broad-based dialogue with all parties in accordance with the UN's call for an "all-inclusive dialogue".'

A specific conclusion of the panel was that ASEAN’s interest in admitting Myanmar to its free-trade zone should be quashed:

By allowing Myanmar to be a member of the free-trade zone, Asean would be directly supporting the military junta and not the people of that country, who would not derive any benefit whatsoever. Most of the nation's wealth is concentrated in the hands of the junta leadership, which is resilient enough to convert its revenues, received in US dollars, into the local currency at the prevailing black market rates, according to the panelists.

In Hanoi in January, he repeated the theme “Burma is going downhill on all fronts” and indicated the US desire for ASEAN to play an active role in the campaign against the Myanmar regime:

"Our sense is that there is no easy solution, but for Burma to begin to turn around in a very general sense, it's not really going to happen and can't really happen under this regime," he said.
"Everybody says they weighed in diplomatically -- the Indians, the Chinese, the ASEANs (Association of Southeast Asian Nations members). What we're saying is, please keep doing it. A one-time weigh-in isn't so helpful."

For bonus points, please note that Marciel continually refers to the country as Burma (the government-in-exile’s favored term) instead of the official name of Myanmar.

I think it’s clear the US had a policy of isolating and destabilizing the Myanmar regime on humanitarian as well as democratic grounds before Cyclone Nargis created a special challenge—and opportunity.

And that makes the current US attitude toward ASEAN—that plucky collection of economically vibrant democracies (excluding China and India) that Mr. Marciel was sent to cultivate—rather interesting.

ASEAN is not following the US lead. It certainly isn’t using the crisis to put pressure on Myanmar.

On the contrary, ASEAN has stepped up to organize a donor’s conference to organize aid for Myanmar.

ASEAN wants to work with Myanmar; Myanmar wants to work with ASEAN.

I might point out that at this point rapid delivery of international recovery aid for Myanmar’s rice industry is absolutely critical.

And the Myanmar government—for which rice is its life blood—has already made a detailed assessment.

Myanmar’s ministry of agriculture has prepared a plan for $243 million of international assistance, mostly seed and fertilizer, to get the critical monsoon season paddy planted in the next fifty days in the area devastated by the storm.

The donors’ conference is scheduled to be held on May 25 in Myanmar’s capital, Yangon (or, if you prefer, Rangoon, in Burma), the type of sovereign state treatment that the United States does not like to see pariah regimes receiving.

Even worse, instead of putting pressure on Myanmar, ASEAN is prepared to act as an intermediary trusted by Myanmar to accelerate the delivery of aid!

"We will establish a mechanism so that aid from all over the world can flow into Myanmar," Yeo [Singapore’s Foreign Minister] said, speaking at an emergency meeting in Singapore of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, which includes Myanmar.

"Myanmar is also prepared to accept the expertise of international and regional agencies to help in its rehabilitation efforts," he told a news conference.

And what about those freelancing disaster assessment teams?

Referring to the continuing limitations on help from countries outside Southeast Asia, he said: "We have to look at specific needs — there will not be uncontrolled access."


America is not pleased!

The United States and Scot Marciel quickly lost respect for ASEAN’s judgment, capability, and relevance.

The AP covered Marciel’s testimony before Congress on May 20:

The United States on Tuesday questioned the relevance of a scheduled fundraising conference for cyclone-battered Myanmar, saying it was more important for military rulers in the Southeast Asian state to provide swift increased access to disaster-hit areas.

Continuing with the assessment team fetish, Marciel declared:

"Without an adequate and independent assessment of the situation and current needs, as well as a commitment by the regime to provide the necessary access, a pledging conference is unlikely to produce the results we seek," US envoy to ASEAN Scot Marciel told a Congressional hearing.

The World Bank, in the person of ex-State Department boffin Robert Zoellick, also stood ready to extend the middle finger to ASEAN, again with the inevitable mention of assessment teams:

George Yong-Boon Yeo, Singapore's foreign minister, told reporters he envisioned a "major role to be played by the World Bank and the ADB," the Asian Development Bank, even though neither institution has done business in Burma since 1990.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan met with World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick in Washington last week. Zoellick pledged technical expertise, not loans, to the emergency response. Yeo indicated yesterday that he expected the World Bank to circumvent its restrictions in assisting Burma, which is also known as Myanmar.

But Sarah Cliffe, director of operations for the World Bank's East Asia and Pacific region, issued a statement late last night saying that Zoellick "made it clear that the Bank's assistance, through ASEAN, will constitute expertise in assessing the devastation and planning for reconstruction and recovery." She added that "there is no suggestion that the World Bank will now provide financial support to the Government of Myanmar, which has been in arrears to the Bank since 1998."

No love from the UK, either:

Britain's Asia minister Mark Malloch-Brown said in London on Monday after returning from Myanmar that the authorities and international humanitarian organizations had widely differing views as to immediate needs.

"Getting a needs assessment done in time for the donors' meeting is critical to get everyone on the same page," he told reporters in London. "Unless you have an agreed assessment ... you just get nowhere with the donors' meeting."

Assessment teams again! Anybody see a pattern here?

You think the US and the UK are, maybe, working together to put obstacles in front of the donor’s conference? Like they won’t agree to provide aid unless their assessment teams are allowed in? Maybe? Just maybe?

This, to me, is the nub.

It’s not that Myanmar doesn’t want aid. It is that the United States government is demanding that supply of aid be preconditioned on admission of international assessment teams.

The United States will assert that its policy is a necessary response to Myanmar’s poor performance in disaster relief and/or the general odiousness and incompetence of the regime.

I don’t think that argument’s sustainable, either on the admittedly incomplete reports we’ve been hearing from the field or based on the realities of disaster relief—and the necessity of active participation and direction by the government of the country receiving the relief—in general.

I think it’s politics: an attempt to exploit the disaster and Myanmar’s need for international aid in order to get teams in the country to collect information discrediting the government and strengthening the case for an internationally-administered humanitarian mandate (responsibility to protect, anyone?); provide the basis for making the provision of aid conditional upon foreign monitoring and control; and create new economic pressure points against the regime. And, if we deemed the regime’s provisions of information, access, or execution less than satisfactory, bingo! a new basis for sanctions!

[N.B.: In 2006, John Bolton was able to place Burma on the permanent agenda of the National Security Council. The act of placing Burma on the agenda was itself rather meaningless. All that means is that the issue is raised at every meeting, the council either acts on the matter or “remains seized”, meaning the can is kicked down the road til the next meeting.

Because it’s a matter of agenda, not action, permanent members of the Security Council can’t veto the placement. The United States was therefore able to take advantage of a favorable alignment of temporary members of the Security Council and place Burma on the permanent agenda--over China’s vehement objections—by a vote of 10 for, 4 against, and 1 abstention.

The US action drew on a report commissioned by Vaclav Havel and Desmond Tutu on behalf of their fellow Nobel laureate, imprisoned Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. The 70-page report, Threat to the Peace: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act on Burma, prepared pro bono by a Washington law firm, made the sweeping and dubious claim that Burma’s internal repression—including its burgeoning HIV/AIDS crisis—represented a threat to regional peace that justified action by the Security Council.

The Chinese made it clear that, no matter how long Burma remained on the agenda, it considered the placement a “preposterous” interference in the internal affairs of a member state and would veto any UN Security Council resolution relating to it. So the permanent agenda item has purely propaganda value.

The Havel/Tutu report recommended mandatory intervention under Section 41 (the non-military, sanctiony one) of Chapter VII of the UN Charter to require the Burmese regime to free Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and work with the UN on a plan for national reconciliation and return to democracy.

It also urged the Burmese regime to permit “immediate, safe, and unhindered access to all parts of the country” for UN and other international humanitarian missions.

So the US policy supporting sovereignty-busting humanitarian intervention in Burma has a pedigree dating back to 2005. Therefore, it's not too surprising the US is pushing for independent and adversarial assessment teams in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis—although Chinese opposition virtually guarantees that the UN Security Council will never pass a resolution on that basis. Old wine in new bottles.—CH, 5/21/08]

Then again, maybe not letting in the inspectors—excuse me, the assessment teams—is just as big a crime as not running a proper relief effort:

"Let me be clear: if assistance is not allowed in, and thousands of Burmese perish, the responsibility for this catastrophe will fall squarely on the shoulders of Senior Gen. Than Shwe," the head of the country's ruling junta, and other leaders, Marciel said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia.

If you don’t recognize this as a page from the US diplomatic playbook, you haven’t been paying Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela.

It might be a recipe for regime change...but not for effective humanitarian aid.

And, if you think ol’ China Hand has gone off the paranoiac Bush-bashing deep end, I’ll bet you dollars to donuts the Myanmar junta is thinking exactly the same thing I am.

If Myanmar strong man Than Shwe is monitoring US chatter, here’s what he’s hearing:

[Marciel] called the government's response to Cyclone Nargis appalling and blamed its failure to give foreign aid workers greater access to victims for putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.

"Every day that goes by and more people suffer, increasingly the blame falls on the government."
Democrat Joseph Crowley called the generals' response to the storm a "crime against humanity." "They know deep down inside that what they're doing is wrong, that they're morally corrupt," he said.
[Representing the Republicans], Dana Rohrbacher said he hoped the disaster would spur change in the country's leadership. "This is criminal behavior," he said.

Bottom line: I doubt those US assessment teams will get anywhere near Yangyon or the delta.

More importantly, ASEAN will regard the US effort to push assessment teams onto the relief agenda with a combination of disgust and disappointment.

A genuine humanitarian effort involves engaging with the Myanmar government and accepting its decisions and judgment. Hard to do, I know, especially for the US government, which has been condemning the regime for months.

It might even mean aiding a successful recovery that gives a nasty regime an undeserved second wind—exactly the opposite of what the Bush administration has been hoping to accomplish.

I think that Secretary of Defense Gates was ready to go that route.

But the State Department apparently has other ideas. It may have been seduced by the idea of a rare freedom agenda win, and saw an unexpected opportunity in the disaster to marginalize, delegitimize, and harass the Myanmar regime by beating it around the ears with the “assessment teams” stick.

Using the crisis to undermine the legitimacy, stability, and rule of the Myanmar regime: that’s politics.

Understandable, perhaps even admirable. But politics just the same. Rather ruthless.

And risky.

Trouble is, in the wake of an enormous natural disaster you can’t have humanitarian aid and transformational diplomacy at the same time.

Gotta choose on or the other.

The U.S. appears to have chosen...unwisely.