Silence From Our Sabre Rattlers as Burma's Dying Cry Out to be Saved

What is this fine distinction between a massacre and what the military are now inflicting on the Burmese people? A corpse is a corpse.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

What are we waiting for? Where now is liberal interventionism? Over 100,000people are dead after a cyclone in the Irrawaddy delta and the UnitedNations has declared that one and a half million people, deprived of aidfor a week, are at risk of death. Barely ten per cent are reported to havereceived any help at all. The world stands ready to save them. Thewarehouses of Asia are crammed with supplies. Ships and planes are onstation. Nothing happens.

Anyone who has visited this exquisite part of the world will knowhow avoidable is further catastrophe to the delta people. They areresourceful, peaceable and hugely resilient. Like those of low-lyingBangladesh next door, they are used to extreme weather. Their agricultureis fertile and they are self-sufficient in most things. But no one cansurvive instant starvation and disease.

They need not wait. There are three giant C130s loaded and ready inThailand. There are American and French ships in the area, fortuitously ona disaster relief exercise, with shelters, clothing, latrines, medicinesand water decontamination equipment. Above all there are helicopters vitalin an area where most roads are impassable by flooding and fallen trees.The Australian aid agency, World Vision, has 600 staff in Burma and tons ofsupplies waiting in Dubai. The world cannot prevent natural calamities, butsince the tsunami of 2004 it has learned how to cope with their aftermath.

Nothing can be done because the Burmese military regime refuses topermit it. Instead it is wasting time this weekend holding a nationwidereferendum, devoid of open debate, to legitimise its hold on power andexclude the opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The regime last week impounded the only two UN relief planes thatmanaged to land in Rangoon, forcing the UN to suspend further flights. Theregime's leader, hiding in his jungle "capital", refused even to take acall from the secretary-general, Bang Ki Moon. Visas are denied to doctorsand logistical experts. What has been allowed in from China, Thailand andIndonesia is a trickle and must be distributed by the Burmese army, whichcannot cope. Where 40 relief planes a day should be landing at Rangoonthere is barely one.

Hundreds of thousands of people are thus condemned to death by onething alone, the viciousness of a dictatorship more concerned with itspride and xenophobia than with the wellbeing of its citizens. Like Sovietregimes of old, the Burmese government would rather pretend that disastershave not occurred than admit it cannot handle them. When the cyclone toreoff the roof of Rangoon's Insein jail, crammed with 10,000 prisoners, andpart of it caught fire, the guards opened fire and killed 36. An aid workertold the BBC, "They are murdering their own people."

I have opposed many of the macho military interventions conductedby the west over the past decade. Their justifications have been obscure,their motives mixed and their morality situational, especially those aimedat "regime change". Those in Afghanistan and Iraq had the additional defectof built-in failure.

On the other hand the west did intervene to try to stophumanitarian catastrophes in Bosnia from 1992, Somalia in 1993, Kosovo in1998 and Sierra Leone in 2000. The failure to intervene in Rwanda in 1994and more recently in Sudan's Darfur province was generally attributed notto timidity but to the logistical difficulty of deploying power in theAfrican interior.

These interventions were not ideological, whether "liberal" or"neo-con". They were to save lives from being lost by the thousand. Theywere covered by international law (possibly not Kosovo) because the UNcharter's respect for territorial integrity also stipulates that it "shallnot prejudice the application of enforcement measures" to avert ahumanitarian crisis.

This was reinforced when the Security Council in 2005 and 2006imposed a responsibility on the international community to protect peoplewhose governments failed to do so. It castigated in particular the"intentional denial of humanitarian assistance". Such an extension of theconcept of military intervention was advocated by Tony Blair in his Chicagospeech of 1998, when it was dismissed by the Americans (pre-9/11) asirresponsible. Today it is widely regarded as legitimate, even by thoseopposed to much of the belligerent militancy that ensued under Blair andGeorge Bush.

It is hard to think of a more glaring application of thehumanitarian principle than today's Burma. In none of the aboveinterventions was anything like the same number of lives at risk as the 2mnow threatened in the Irrawaddy delta. This is eight times the 230,000reckoned to have died in the 2004 tsunami.

In Burma, the airlifting of supplies from offshore vessels tostricken areas would indeed be an offence against the sovereignty of Burma.But the intervention would not constitute an attack on a government oroccupy its territory. Indeed it would be occasioned strictly because of thelack of government in a particular territory. It would be to save the livesof people abandoned to their deaths by their rulers.

Yet where today are the brave rattlers of sabres against theIraqis, the Afghans and the Iranians? The American ambassador to the UN,Zalmay Khalilzad, says he is "outraged by the slowness of the response" ofthe Burmese authorities. His outrage will bring scant comfort to thosedying in the delta.

On Friday the British and French foreign ministers, David Milibandand Bernard Kouchner, announced that "we look to the regime" to liftrestrictions on aid distribution. Nobody "looked to" Milosevic to stopslaughtering Kosovans or the rebels to stop the killing in Sierra Leone. Weintervened.

The Foreign Office remarked last week that there was "no excuse"for delay and then thought of one. The British chairman of the UN securitycouncil, John Sawyer, claimed that the 2006 resolution referred only to"acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity rather thangovernment responses to natural disasters." But in 2001 there was noevidence that the Taliban were committing such acts, yet Britainintervened. And what is happening in Burma if not an "intentional denial ofhumanitarian assistance."

The option of sending in relief supplies by air may well facelogistical objections. Ships and heavy-lift equipment must be in position,with air cover to ensure the safety of the operation from possibleretaliation by the Burmese. There must be some sense of order on the groundto ensure that drops are other than random, though at some point a starvingand dying population would presumably welcome any help rather than none.

It may be the case that diplomatic pressure on the regime mightsoon force it to reverse its negligence - though at present this isunlikely. Indeed the west's policy of merely hurling abuse at it lookscounter-productive. A regime that turns away the Red Cross, will not takecalls from the UN or even listen to its friendly super-power China seemsimmune to pressure.

There is no justification under the UN charter for intervening totopple the Burmese military regime. That task would rightly be opposed byother powers in the region and must one day be performed by the Burmesethemselves. But aid drops over the Irrawaddy delta are nothing to do withthat case. The outside world has waited a week, and protested to no effect.

Either way some enforced intervention must surely be planned. TheBritish aid minister, Douglas Alexander, said last week it would be"incendiary". He did not explain why a "dump-and-run" of emergency suppliesin the delta would be incendiary - compared, for instance, to his antics inAfghanistan.

He cannot hold to the thesis that Burma is not ripe for "liberalintervention" because the loss of life is the result of a natural disasterrather than political or military oppression. What is this fine distinctionbetween a massacre and what the military are now inflicting on the Burmesepeople? A corpse is a corpse.

This catastrophe is not past but ongoing. A western world adept atintervening elsewhere on a humanitarian pretext is suddenly inert. Why? Isuspect the reason is that it has too much intervention on its platealready. The Burmese must die because we are too busy pretending to saveAfghans and Iraqis. To such cynicism has liberal intervention sunk.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community