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On Point

Limited Options in Burma


by Austin Bay
May 13, 2008

How many people have died in Burma (Myanmar) since Cyclone Zargis struck the South Asian nation on May 3? Last Tuesday, Burma's dictatorship officially put the death toll at 34,000, with another 30,000 missing. The United Nations estimated 60,000 dead. Western governments and media argued 100,000 dead might be a better figure, once the statisticians account for casualties caused by disease and displacement.

            Add "delay" to the disease and displacement -- in the case of Burma, delay caused by a dictatorship resisting aid efforts (most from Western nations) and emergency supplies.

Burma's regime is pursuing a modified "Darfur strategy," at least the Darfur political strategy as pursued by Sudan's dictatorship in Khartoum. For the last three years, the Sudanese government has been resisting, thwarting, dodging and blocking international relief and peacekeeping efforts in Darfur, carefully relenting -- by an inch or two -- when the public and economic pressure reaches a momentary crescendo.

The Burmese junta knows the script.

Enter U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Expressing his frustration and anger at the junta's next-to-nil response to the cyclone disaster, Ban said: "This is not about politics. It is about saving people's lives. There is absolutely no more time to lose."

Correct on saving lives and doing so quickly. As for "not about politics"? Complete baloney. Ban knows it, but he makes a diplomat's gesture to the murderers in hopes of achieving the immediate goal of providing aid to 2 million destitute survivors.

President George W. Bush called the military junta "isolated or callous." He's pulling his punches, too, for the same reason as Ban. "Paranoid, brutal, calculating and callous" is a much more thorough description of dictatorships in general but especially criminal regimes that leverage natural disasters as genocidal weapons.

Terrible examples litter the 20th century. With starvation as the weapon, Stalin's Russia mass murdered Ukrainians in the 1930s. Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan's various "intra-state" wars are more recent cases. Saddam Hussein's regime created an ecological disaster by desertifying the splendid agricultural marshlands of the lower Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in order to destroy Shia Arab communities.

After Jan Egeland, a former U.N. aid coordinator, said, "If we let them (the junta) get away with murder we may set a very dangerous precedent," essayist Romesh Ratnesar wrote in Time magazine that it was time to consider invading Burma, or at the minimum violate Burmese airspace (and sovereignty) by air-dropping supplies to the victims.

Ratnesar's rather hazy and logistically ignorant operational advice is more "invade to aid" rather than regime change. He justifies his position on the basis of saving hundreds of thousands of lives, which is a goal no one should dismiss. Eliminating a mass murderer is certainly a long-term payoff of toppling Saddam Hussein's regime, though it will be a decade or so before more than a handful in the "international community" of commentators and humanitarian aid advocates follow Bernard Kouchner's lead and acknowledge that.

The "Kosovo Precedent" -- invading to stop mass murder -- is a thorny one. Russia portrays Kosovo as a Western European and U.S. plot to unravel "states they don't like," while Western European and U.S. diplomats maintain Kosovo is unique -- a singular, special situation.

Kosovo, however, is invoked by advocates of military force in Darfur. The Clinton administration, however, invaded Kosovo after four years of fencing with Slobodan Milosevic's thug regime in Serbia -- and after making Milosevic its "peace partner" in Bosnia. For 12 years (1991 to 2003), the United States fought a "slow war" with Iraq. It took the policy sea-change of 9-11 to move the United States (which has enormous interests in the Middle East) to remove Saddam's rogue regime.

In Burma, a few (the junta) wield vast physical power over the rest. Ditto North Korea. Ditto Sudan. Economic sanctions, economic rewards, harsh words, warm words and sharp threats may nudge these regimes, but the dictators only move when it's in their interest. When 100,000 deaths serve the interest of the local thugs, then the realistic options are starkly limited.


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