Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Disaster in Burma: Bad Government Response, Worse Resort to International Law

The Burmese disaster has grown from small to staggering. The recent cyclone has caused a tremendous amount of damage. Like all such natural disasters, the Burmese cyclone serves as a harbingers of additional, man made, disasters. I will mention two.

First, the Burmese disaster has demonstrated that secretive tyrannies, like those of the present junta, can survive only as long as they can stand alone. But self sufficiency in all things is increasingly impossible in a globalized world. The Burmese junta stands at a crossroads with no good options for it. One alternative is to keep its borders closed. That would prevent outside interference but might exacerbate the internal political situation. Its power and infrastructure weakened, the junta might well be deemed to have lost its mandate form heaven. Such a regime is more likely to be challenged by within. There are many ambitious members of the current junta and even more ambitious outsiders (generously supported by foreign patrons) eager to lead a march on the junta.

Alternatively, the junta could attempt to open its doors, even only just enough to accept enough aid to prevent internal unrest. But this is a dangerous alternative. States do not give without strings. The international community (or at least those which are followed by the global media) has been itching to rid itself of this junta in favor of a more conventionally compliant government. This is an itch without ideological fastidiousness. It is harder to exploit a developing economy that is not fully plugged into the system. And there is a lot of money ready to be invested in exploitable places.

And, of course, there is always democracy. What could be more heartwarming than more pictures in global media sources of happy individuals casting their vote for a government of their choice--as long as that choice includes only alternatives that might not upset other, more powerful, economic and political actors. That is a sad consequence--donor nations will take the opportunity to topple (or weaken) the regime in the hopes of overthrowing it. But the consequence may not be a deep and well institutionalized democratic system. Violent and quick changes of this type are more likely to lead to popular tyranny than to stable and deep democratic institutions. Aristotle has taught is at least that much. But I guess one stakes one's opportunity where one can find them--and the donor states might use the form of democracy to exercise power behind the scenes. In any case, and whatever the deficiencies of a successor regime, opening doors might well lad to such regime change in the absence of a well orchestrated and deliberate opening to the rest of the world. But the Burmese junta is not the Cuban Communist Party (or even that of Vietnam) and they do not have the luxury of time for planning a controlled engagement with the outside world.

It is in this context that one can understand the very important political nature of the question posed by the question of aid to Myanmar. This makes the American reaction both perverse and suspicious: "US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today urged Burma's junta to allow international aid into the country to help victims of the cyclone, saying it should not be a political issue. "What remains is for the Burmese government to allow the international community to help its people. It should be a simple matter. It is not a matter of politics," Rice told reporters." Burma Death Toll May Rise Higher, The Irish Times, May 7, 2008.

Second, and perhaps more important, is the use of the Burmese disaster as an excuse to extend the reach of international law, extend the power of the United Nations to intervene unilaterally in the internal governance of states, and curb the power of states to determine appropriate courses of actions as states. It appears that the French, perhaps eager to outdo the pushy charity of the Americans, recently suggested that states do not have a right to keep other states from extending their charity in the event of a natural or other disaster. The
French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, suggested that the United Nations should invoke its “responsibility to protect” civilians as the basis for a resolution to allow the delivery of international aid even without the permission of the military junta.“We are seeing at the United Nations if we can’t implement the responsibility to protect, given that food, boats and relief teams are there, and obtain a United Nations resolution which authorizes the delivery and imposes this on the Burmese government,” Mr. Kouchner told reporters in Paris. He is a co-founder of the aid group Doctors Without Borders.
Seth Mydans, Myanmar Faces Pressure to Allow Major Aid Effort, The New York Times, May 8, 2008; see also France Suggests Bypassing Myanmar Reticence Over Aid, Reuters, May 8, 2008. At least it was to the United Nations, that the French were broad minded enough to assert, have the right--indeed the duty--to disregard sovereign will as expressed by a duly constituted and recognized (even if tyrannical) government and deliver its global charity directly without the consent of the state.

Elements of the international aid community joined in this call to arms against state intransigence. See, e.g., U.S. Campaign for Burma, Tell the UN Secretary General Now: United Nations Must Order Aid Be Allowed Inside Burma, (referencing the French call for international unilateralism). And that is no surprise considering the double hats worn by the French foreign minister. Myanmar Faces Pressure to Allow Major Aid Effort, supra. After all, who are the leaders of a state to halt the provision of aid deemed useful by the international non-governmental community. And who knows better about the need for aid than those whose business it is to deliver it. "According to Naing Aung, secretary general of the Forum for Democracy in Myanmar – based in Thailand – “the intervention of international experts is vital, because the regime is unable to cope with the emergency”. Cyclone Nargis, pressure on the junta to accept international aid, Asia News, May 5, 2008. They are right of course, but also so terribly wrong. To alleviate suffering now, they mean to change the stage on which future actions can be assessed.

The United Nations has appeared to be reluctant to run with this idea for the moment, especially since the pressure on Myanmar might be sufficient to force the junta's hand. "In 2005, the United Nations recognized the concept of “responsibility to protect” civilians when their governments could or would not do it, even if this meant intervention that violated national sovereignty. But it has been rarely applied." Myanmar Faces Pressure to Allow Major Aid Effort, supra. At the same time it has enlisted the media and the international NGO community to do its dirty work--leaking documents is a nice step in that direction. "A leaked UN internal document accused Burma of "dragging its feet" in refusing to allow aid workers visas, adding disturbingly there is no indication of when "this will be sorted out."" David Williams, Burma Cyclone Death Toll Set to Reach 100,000 as Secretive Junta 'Holds Up Aid Efforts,' The Daily Mail, May 7, 2008.

Still, the French paint a pretty picture. The French would have the international community (presumably through the apparatus of the United Nations): (1) determine when conditions in any state are severe enough to warrant charity, (2) when the refusal of a state to permit the introduction of this charity from one or another source is unreasonable, (3) determine the form and character of the charity to be delivered, (4) determine the bearer of such charity (presumably either through a U.N. agency or more likely through agencies of other states of global non-governmental actors, (5) presumably use force, if necessary, to deliver this charity for the good of the recipients.

There is nothing more bracing than the manifestation of control by a global community intent on doing good. It is even more bracing when these acts of kindness are ostensibly so benign. But but as the poor the world over understand--charity does not come cheap. In this case, charity is the velvet glove over the steel glove of a global effort to rid itself of a regime many states have tired of. It is also a cover to permit the free movement of the international charity community. It it meant to move power from states (at last from poor and recipient country states) and shift it to international or supra national entities. States will not be deemed capable of determining their own best internal interests with respect to aid from abroad in the same way that under supra national financial regimes, states are incapable of arranging their economic affairs.

There will be no winners from this tragedy--the Burmese state apparatus will be sunk under the weight of its own arrogance and fear. Political states, especially those which in earlier times might have been candidates for the wrong end of unequal treaties or annexation into the empires of powerful states will find their sovereignty further eroded in the face of a transfer of a power to know when things are bad and to decide to act on them from the state to the international community. Of course, this shift does not affect France--yet. But it certainly affects those states whose sovereignty is already eroded int he face of the power of multinational corporations, and supra national organizations. But worst of all, of course, is that while leaders dither and great matters of state are debated, the people suffer. "Residents of the former capital along with many Buddhist monks have joined forces in their attempts to clean the streets and re-establish order. According to witnesses quoted by The Irrawaddy newspaper, the army is occupying itself in relief efforts only in those residential areas of the city where the ruling class live. " Cyclone Nargis, pressure on the junta to accept international aid, Asia News, May 5, 2008. In this, of course, the world has changed very little from the beginning of recorded history.

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