Gunboats, aid agencies and genuine benevolence

Western governments are awfully clever when it comes to taking advantage of a crisis in another country.  Sri Lanka’s tsunami struck many of them as the perfect opportunity to slip through a power-sharing deal with the LTTE. People had to be helped.  And P-TOMS was swiftly and rather improbably put forward as the only way of ensuring that aid reached Tamil areas.  Cyclone Nargis is proving an equally convenient occasion on which to advance the agenda of regime change in Myanmar.  Many families have been left destitute. And Western NGOs are apparently indispensable for their recovery.  General Than Shwe might just have to be overthrown if he won’t allow thousands of foreigners to run around the country without restrictions on their ability to satisfy any desires that they may have to undermine his Government. Myanmar is in a bad way.  The United Nations says that the disaster has already resulted in more than 100,000 deaths.  High winds, torrential rain and storm surges destroyed almost all homes and a good deal of the other infrastructure right across the Southern region.  Flooding is now affecting many areas.  Crops were spoilt and water sources polluted.  Two million people are faced with the prospect of hunger and disease either today or in the very near future.

General Than Shwe probably isn't doing his best to help.  The Military Regime has to worry about how to maintain its grip on the country and prevent activists from moving towards a more effective uprising than the one that took place last August and September. Myanmar did call for international aid.  But the authorities weren’t keen to admit relief workers and they haven’t permitted expatriates who were already in the country working on development projects to travel to the affected areas.  They say that aid should be delivered by local organisations.  The Army is in charge of everything.

The West has had a few things to say about that.  General Than Shwe has been blamed for slowing the relief effort and thereby putting his people in big trouble.  Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister and a former member of Sri Lanka’s International Independent Group of Eminent Persons, suggested almost immediately that it was time to implement the infamous principle of the Responsibility to Protect.  The United Nations must intervene to save the survivors even if that means using force against the Myanmar Government. Gareth Evans, the former Australian Foreign Minister and a good friend of Sri Lankan NGOs, argued in an article last week that General Than Shwe could well be charged with Crimes Against Humanity.  Western NGOs simply have to be given the go-ahead to move into the country at their full strength. Sri Lankans might find that assertion a bit suspect after their experiences here with the tsunami.  Western NGOs descended in droves and demonstrated very little ability to do a good job while clearly possessing almost no capacity for coordination amongst themselves.

But they had all the money.  Sri Lankans working as individuals or through religious institutions, political parties and so on were the first on the scene after the disaster and provided food, medical treatment and assistance with clearing rubble and burying the dead.  Local officials also responded efficiently despite in quite a few cases being affected themselves.  But they were all pushed aside within a week.  Sri Lankan relief organisations also lost a considerable number of their own staff to well-paid positions in Western NGOs.  Capacity shifted to the outsiders.  Yet they had little understanding of the situation in the country.

Western NGOs tended to assume that they were arriving in a failed state. Government systems were usually ignored and pretty much always undermined. Sri Lankans got almost everything in kind instead of the often more effective option of money with which to plan for themselves.  Food was imported and handed out in parcels.  Millions of inappropriate shelters were put up while they were wondering where to build hundreds of thousands of identically substandard houses.  Boats, bicycles and sewing machines were commissioned and passed onto whoever happened to be there at the time. Policies were hard to find.  And it was almost all branded.  People were subconsciously told that they should feel eternally indebted.  It was an incredibly disempowering process for almost all concerned.  But publicity work was made easy.

General Than Shwe undoubtedly has rather less honourable concerns.  The Myanmar Government is incredibly secretive and doesn't like allowing foreigners to enter the country under normal circumstances never mind when it's in the middle of trying to deal with a disaster.  It isn't really surprising.  The Military Regime surely knows that it has very few friends in the West.

Western governments are now eagerly talking about what could be done to ensure that they get their way.  David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, discussed on the radio the other day everything from unauthorised airdrops, through the military accompaniment of aid convoys, to a full-scale invasion.  The French and Americans conveniently have warships in the area already and it wouldn’t take long for a British boat to join them.  It sounds almost like a plan.  Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, regularly reiterates his determination not to rule anything out here.  The West appears to be awfully keen on keeping their options wide open on this issue.

It is completely mad.  Airdrops would be the only possible means of intervening that just might avoid a war.  But they wouldn't be much help. The Red Cross says that food isn't the main problem because ordinary people from the surrounding areas are providing rice and additional supplies can be trucked in over time by local organisations.  Oxfam and others like it claim that their partners on the ground are already doing such work.  And it would be rather difficult to drop shelter, clean water and doctors from a plane. The United Nations would surely never agree to what would be a largely symbolic gesture.  Airdrops apparently only get to the people who need them in a small minority of cases anyway.

War would be a totally ridiculous way of helping people in Myanmar.  The Military Regime isn't about to give up power without firing a shot and it has an army of almost 500,000 soldiers.  It's reasonable to assume that success in such circumstances would look a lot like it has elsewhere. Afghanistan and Iraq spring to mind immediately. The West clearly won’t go that far.  George Bush is keeping a bit quieter this time around because he knows that there are already far too many wars on the to-do list for his last months in the White House.  Americans would take an awful lot of convincing to go to war in Myanmar.  And there is China.  And India.

General Than Shwe has plenty of reasons to be suspicious of the call for full access to the country for Western NGOs.  Some of them are bound to become involved in other issues.  Western NGOs are at the heart of the international campaign against the Military Regime.  It's thanks to them that so many people in their home countries who aren't the slightest bit interested in world affairs have a strong opinion on the situation.  Aung San Suu Kyi is well-known in the West.  And they are surely already funding activities designed to encourage the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. Western NGOs are full of people who think that something should be done to help the process on its way and it wouldn't be surprising if a fair number of them used the opportunity for those very ends.

The Military Regime undoubtedly deserves everything it gets.  But the problem is that all of this bluster takes time that would be better spent searching for other ways to get whatever is needed to Myanmar.  Western governments should be offering money to neighbouring countries and groups like the Association of South East Asian Nations.  The Myanmar Government has rather less reason to worry about their real intentions.  And the thing is that none of this posturing is likely to work as intended by the West. P-TOMS only succeeded in breaking up a shaky government coalition.  We all know what happened next.  The LTTE showed that it wasn't very interested in power-sharing in Sri Lanka.  Myanmar won't change until it's ready either. Humanitarian disasters are just that.  The right response is to look at the situation and assess the most likely way of achieving success.  It's about saving lives.  Separate agendas should be saved for other occasions.  But Western governments just don't seem capable of responding to a crisis with pure and simple altruism.

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