Monday, May 12, 2008

Burma emergency enters its second week

At the beginning of last week, we were talking about a natural disaster. As this week begins, it is a man-made one that confronts the world. Sixty years ago next month, the world faced a similar man-made crisis.

With respect to the new emergency, there is one big question: how can the international community bring aid into Burma on a scale that will help the victims despite a local government that is unwilling to cooperate?

First, we should see that resolutions are passed by the Security Council that would compel the Burmese junta to accept international relief. But if the government of Burma still objects, then creativity will be required. We will need to consider the most secure means by which to bring relief aid into populations impacted by the cyclone. Bangkok Pundit has two posts (here and here) that point to why an outright invasion of the country would not be as easy as it looks, blogging:
The biggest problem is it will take time to get enough troops and hardware on the ground and to prepare. By that time, most of the people would be dead or have survived. The cyclone provides a rationale for the invasion, but I don't think an invasion would help the victims of the cyclone.
Indeed, time is of the essence. Now, my hunch is that the cyclone would have wiped out any Burmese military installations in coastal regions where the cyclone hit. It seems to me that aid might well be slipped in to towns and villages on the stricken delta region without much opposition. As far as I know, Myanmar does not have much of a navy. A commenter at TJTS blog (where Fonzi responded to a call for "an invasion of Burma" published in the Asia Times), a commenter named Hobby writes:
As for an invasion, I don't think a military invasion is what is required, but rather an humanitarian invasion - I think it's worth trying parachuting in supplies, together with helpful disaster relief/health/engineering type advice (not propaganda) written in Burmese, just to spread the word about what should be done.
Indeed, the choice is not necessarily either/or. That is, either let them die, or invade the country.

We need to focus on the geography of the affected region. We are talking about coastline, swampy flooded coastal terrain (see map). This terrain is remote, largely inaccessible by land, putting any junta military forces that would obstruct relief efforts at a huge disadvantage. Geography ought to work to the benefit of foreign navies coordinating relief efforts.

The outside world ought to be able to deliver large quantities of supplies into villages by speedboat and helicopter launched from naval vessels. The operation would be conducted from the sea, offshore the worst-affected region, the Irrawaddy Delta.

The historical precedent we need to consider here is not the tsunami relief effort of 2005 in Ache Indonesia, but the Berlin Airlift -- the West's response to the Berlin Blockade of 1948.

If a previous generation of Americans, French and British -- having just endured the worst war in history -- could mount such a heroic effort on behalf of Berliners (their former enemies), it is incumbent upon this generation to attempt so much for the Burmese. Like the Berlin Airlift that began sixty years ago next month, the coming international relief effort for Burma will be like nothing the world has ever seen.
Photographs: show the Berlin Airlift.


  1. I hope you don't mind me commenting on this subject again, but I think an invasion of any sort would be extremely ill-advised. Part of the reason the Soviets allowed the airlift to continue is because they were trying to rebuild after a devastating war. They knew that they couldn't have won a war with the west, not that soon after V-E day. On the other side, the west was very willing to go to war over the airlifts.

    The Junta works differently. They take the events of international politics as elements of personal pride. They would, I believe, have no problem attacking aid convoys to save face. And, I also believe, the international community is not willing to escalate the situation as much as the Burmese generals are.

    Besides all this, there is also the risk to aid workers - if they become to be perceived by tyrannical governments as the advance force of an invading army, they will all be put in danger.

  2. J-P, your comments are always appreciated.

    "They would, I believe, have no problem attacking aid convoys to save face."

    If they did this sort of thing, I think they would lose face, not only in the estimation of the world, but especially before their own people and soldiers.

    The risks hypothetical, the opportunity to mitigate a peoples' desperation simple: provide them with food, water, medical attention, shelter.

    This word "invasion" has connotations that do not seem inevitable. That's why I think we might think in terms of the Berlin Airlift.

    Even if our resolve to go to war is less than it was in 1948, the Burma regime is not the USSR. Stalin had just won a great war. Today's regime lacks even the moral authority of Stalin.

  3. Your comment about the moral authority of Stalin hits on a point that always stops me cold. In many ways, the Junta has been backed into a corner. Another concern is what these generals might do to their own people if we pushed too hard - say, by going after those people who accepted direct and unapproved aid from foreigners.

    On the other hand, you make a good point - how long should good people stand by while the innocent are preyed upon?


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