Burma: a deluge of moral posturing

Western governments seem more concerned with lecturing the Rangoon regime than offering assistance to those hit by Cyclone Nargis.

Kirk Leech

Topics Politics

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As hundreds of thousands of survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma nine days ago, wait for relief supplies amongst debris and dead bodies, Western politicians and commentators seem to be mostly concerned with moralising over the difficulties of delivering aid. Some are even debating whether disaster relief should be forced on the Burmese, who are governed by a military regime. Distrustful of Burmese leaders, Western nations are unwilling to let them distribute the aid themselves. Many even view the tragic disaster as a potential force for good, hoping that it will help to undermine the Burmese regime. It seems no disaster is so bad that political capital and shallow posturing cannot be made from it.

Cyclone Nargis is, by any standards, a terrible disaster. The storm struck the regions around the Burmese capital Rangoon on 3 May, wiping out entire villages. A 12-foot wall of seawater obliterated houses and anything else that stood in its way across most of the vast Irrawaddy Delta. It has been reported that over 95 per cent of buildings in the affected area have been demolished (1).

This area is inaccessible at the best of times, but now bridges are down, roads are impassable, and boats – the only effective means of transport – are as useless as piles of wet kindling. At the time of writing, there is an estimated figure of 23,000 dead (around 40 per cent of them thought to be children) and 42,000 missing (2). These figures do come with a caveat; there has been no full census in Burma since 1937 (3). Still, however one looks at it, this is a major and tragic catastrophe.

The Burmese need as much help and relief as necessary, to be delivered as quickly as possible. If the Burmese government wants to organise the distribution of the aid, then so be it; the aid should come without conditions. So far, Burma has accepted aid mostly from neighbouring countries – India, Thailand and China – but it is unwilling to open its borders to the West. The reasons for this are not hard to fathom.

As ex-relief worker Conor Foley pointed out in the Guardian last week, some aid agencies and Western governments are intent on using the crisis in Burma to push for political change: ‘Some have argued that aid should be made conditional on the government agreeing to meaningful political reform and dialogue with the pro-democracy movement. But if the government rejects this, then refusing aid will simply increase the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable people.’ (4) What has been evident since the disaster is that events in Burma have quickly been turned into a morality play centred on the Burmese regime.

Burma (renamed Myanmar by the governing military junta in 1989) has been under military rule since 1962. For most of the past 46 years, Western powers paid little attention to the country beyond giving it a few rhetorical slaps on the wrist, holding United Nations debates and imposing sanctions. However, the crackdown on the Buddhist monk-led protests in Burma last year led to increasingly strident denouncements of the regime, and there were attempts to encourage China to side with Western diplomatic efforts to force through changes in Burma (5).

The current storm of criticism of Burma’s seemingly intransigent approach to offers of Western expertise, but not aid, is a continuation of this pressure. For some Western politicians and commentators, events in Burma have proved an opportune moment to display their moral worth and the Burmese government’s gross moral turpitude.

Some commentators can barely hide their joy at the impact the disaster may have on the Burmese regime. Bronwen Maddox, writing in The Times (London), stated: ‘It is impossible not to hope that the catastrophe in Burma undermines one of the most oppressive and unpleasant dictatorships in the world.’ (6) Just imagine if a newspaper columnist had written days after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, with its estimated death toll of 230,000, that at least it would potentially lead to the ending of the civil war in Sri Lanka and hamper the efforts of Muslim rebels in Indonesia. Burma is being treated in a very different way here – many are pinning their hopes on the disaster being a harbinger of a positive change.

Much of the criticism of the Burmese government centres on the fact that it only wants to let in aid and not aid workers. This refusal to open its borders and airspace to Western agencies has led to widespread condemnation. I’m no supporter of the Burmese regime, but the junta really cannot be blamed for doubting the motives of Western powers, in particular the US and European governments. As David Steinberg, an expert on Burma, has observed: ‘From what I have heard, the US wants to send in an assessment team, to which the Burmese object. They are very suspicious of the US because of our vitriolic language toward the regime and our call, in effect, for regime change.’ (7)

If you think Burma is simply an isolationist and paranoid regime, just look at how the US responded to the cyclone. Three days after the disaster, First Lady Laura Bush, in a rare White House question-and-answer session, criticised the Burmese government’s plans to proceed with a referendum on a new draft constitution, then chastised it for not making it easier for Western aid relief to get into the country. She also blamed the regime for not alerting its people to the coming cyclone and suggested that the Burmese army may misuse any aid given by the US (8). The White House then announced that its embassy in Burma had made a donation of just $250,000 for emergency relief. Though the US has subsequently thrown in another $3million, the message here was clear: we want it done our way.

Later, the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, urged the junta to open the country’s borders, stating that: ‘This is not a matter of politics. This is a humanitarian crisis.’ (9) In fact, for the US government, the aftermath of the cyclone is very much a matter of politics, and an opportunity to heap pressure on the Burmese to begin political change.

Given this unfolding scenario, does one really expect the Burmese government to open its borders to countries explicitly demanding its removal from power? Is it any wonder they are suspicious of Westerners demanding to be let in just because they say they work for a relief agency?

It is not only the US administration that has been using the disaster in Burma for its own advantage. In the UK, under-fire Foreign Office minister Lord Mark Malloch Brown said: ‘The junta has neither the will nor capacity to distribute aid.’ He seemed to suggest that the regime would use the disaster to deal with its domestic opposition. In the House of Commons, Labour MP Denis MacShane, ex-minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, accused the Burmese military of conducting a campaign of genocide against its people. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and a man in search of both a personality and profile, argued that aid should be parachuted into Burma within the next two or three days, ‘whether the authorities there like it or not’ (10) .

Those simply trying to get aid relief into Burma, rather than using the disaster to prop up their own political careers, have thankfully reacted against such bombast. Justin Byworth, international programmes director at World Vision International, argues forcefully: ‘The priority is to get more humanitarian aid in now. We don’t need to be lambasting a government that is doing its best to open up a little.’ (11)

But if there is one man who is using the Burmese crisis more than anyone else to promote his own agenda, and his country’s profile, it is gung-ho French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner. Since the election of President Sarkozy last year, France has adopted an increasingly activist and often bellicose foreign policy, urging greater action against supposed international threats such as the Iranian nuclear programme. Kouchner is the living embodiment of the humanitarian intervener. He has advocated the ‘right to intervene’ (thus ignoring the domestic democratic structures of nations) in every crisis from Biafra in the 1960s to the Balkans in the 1990s. spiked has labelled Kouchner ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’ (12).

Kouchner is using his new powerful position to put into action his belief in the ‘right to intervene’. He believes Western powers have a moral imperative to supply humanitarian aid, even to nations who don’t want it. For him, national sovereignty and domestic democratic structures are less important than ‘doing good’. Kouchner’s response to the problems of getting aid into Burma has been to argue that the United Nations should, if necessary, use force to deliver aid. Kouchner’s argument, backed by the French ambassador to the United Nations, is that the UN now recognises the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine in situations where governments cannot or will not protect their own citizens. In these situations, the UN would act on behalf of those citizens – a sort of international loco parentis.

Though not legally binding on UN members, this concept has become established as an acting principle, even if it means violating the national sovereignty of member states. In practice, however, the prospect of such intervention is entirely one-sided. Effectively, might is right (13). Just imagine if Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez had, in a moment of generosity or political theatre, decided to fly relief aid to the inhabitants of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The response of the White House would be entirely predictable.

The ‘responsibility to protect’ and ‘the right to intervene’, far from helping the people of Burma, would fatally imprison them within the embrace of Western largesse and allow Western military powers to operate without borders or responsibility. The image of UN troops fighting their way into the flooded Irrawaddy Delta with an ArmaLite rifle in one hand and a bag of rice in the other is not so far fetched.

One is reminded here of the remark of an anonymous American army major to the journalist Peter Arnett during the Vietnam War. Asked why the army had attacked the town of Ben Tre, the major’s response was: ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.’

Kirk Leech is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. He is currently undertaking postgraduate research in development and environment at King’s College London.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that Burma needs democratic revolution not intervention. Frank Furedi said politics without sovereignty is not politics at all. Brendan O’Neill asked why the calls for democracy in Nepal were met with ambivalence in the West. Elswhere, Philip Hammond looked at how ’68ers became warmongers and Bernadette Gibson pointed out that aid agencies punish those they’re trying to help. Or read more at spiked issue Asia.

(1) Burma death Toll could reach 100,000, Guardian, 8 May 2008

(2) France urges UN to Force cyclone aid on Myanmar, International Herald Tribune, 7 May 2008

(3) A Challenge Getting Relief to Myanmar’s Remote Areas, New York Times 7 May 2008

(4) Crisis Measures, Guardian, 7 May 2008

(5) For further discussion of the reaction to the monks’ protests, see Burma needs democratic revolution, not intervention, by Mick Hume

(6) Hated Burma junta is facing one hell of a challenge to its isolation, The Times, 7 May 2008

(7) Cyclone Aid and China’s Role, New York Times, 6 May 2008

(8) Myanmar Reels as Cyclone Toll hits Thousands, New York Times, 8 May 2008

(9) Myanmar Faces Pressure to Allow Major Aid Effort, New York Times, 8 May 2008

(10) Get tough with Burma, says Clegg, BBC News, 9 May 2008

(11) World concern over use of donated funds, Guardian, 8 May 2008

(12) See Is this the most dangerous man in Europe?, by Philip Hammond

(13) See ‘Sovereignty and the Politics of Responsibility’, by Philip Cunliffe, in Politics without Sovereignty, a Critique of Contemporary International Relations, Christopher J. Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe and Alexander Gourevitch (eds), UCL Press, 2007.

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Topics Politics


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