A year ago, Cyclone Nargis wrecked Burma. About one hundred forty thousand people are thought to have died, with another 2.2 million people displaced or otherwise affected. The storm destroyed homes, killed livestock, salted rice paddies, sank fishing boats and shredded what little respect anyone had left for Burma’s ruling military junta.
Indeed, to the horror of people around the world, the so-called State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) rejected most outside assistance. Denunciations and even threats of military intervention filled the air. Today Burma is healing, though deep scars from the storm remain. Political progress has been nil: No one expects next year’s promised elections to be fair. Today, however, some humanitarian groups offer measured words of praise for Burma’s government. Looking back, it’s apparent that attempting coercion would have been disastrous.
Cyclone Nargis hit Burma at night, sweeping over the Irrawaddy Delta. The storm loosed death and destruction in its path: poor nations are most at risk from natural disasters, and few countries are poorer than Burma (renamed Myanmar by the junta). Not only were the people in Nargis’ path more vulnerable, but their government had few resources to deploy on their behalf. Few storms have killed more. The United States, certainly, has never suffered anything like it.
“Military intervention has become the panacea for hawks and doves alike.”
The horror was compounded when the junta — long remarkable for its brutality, irrationality and inscrutability — refused to freely allow outside aid. The regime kept American and French naval ships offshore, refusing to permit the landing of supplies. Foreign plane shipments of assistance were impounded. Aid workers were denied permission to enter the delta. What little assistance was accepted was distributed by the Burmese military, which even interfered with attempts by Burmese citizens to help those in need. Before the cyclone hit, few people would have imagined that the junta’s reputation could fall any lower. But fall it did.
As the misery of the Burmese people increased, so did support for military intervention. The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt pointed to UN Security Council Resolution 1674, passed three years ago, which established “the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, whose report undergirded the resolution, also had called for applying the principle during “overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes, where the state concerned is either unwilling or unable to cope.”
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, among others, invoked the so-called “responsibility to protect” to force aid upon the SPDC. He left unspecified what that would mean beyond a Security Council resolution insisting on cooperation. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband argued that “All instruments of the UN should be available,” including, apparently, military force. One website insisted: “No more waiting for permission. UK, U.S., and France must deliver aid now.”
Slate columnist Anne Applebaum called for consideration of “alternatives” in order to help “the Burmese even against the will of their irrational leaders.” Ideas on exactly what to do varied from full-scale military intervention to more limited measures — dropping aid from planes, flying food from ships via helicopter, or convoying assistance across the Thai border and daring the junta to shoot. And while Applebaum and others advocated a multilateral effort, no expedition would have been mounted without the United States. For America to get engaged would have risked inaugurating a third war in a distant and rugged country with a fractured polity and deep ethnic divisions, not to mention one with its own long-running guerrilla conflict.
The best case would have been a climb down by the junta. Or a couple of short firefights, ending any interference by the regime. But more concerted resistance would have threatened the lives of military personnel, aid workers and storm victims alike. Kenneth Bacon of Refugees International boldly declared: “forceful efforts to interfere with relief deliveries would turn the responsibility to protect into a right to protect.” But that would have required more forthright intervention, including military strikes or “boots on the ground.”
Widespread conflict almost certainly would have left the Burmese people worse off and justified the regime’s fear of an American invasion similar to the 2003 attack on Iraq. Lex Rieffel of the Brookings Institution and David I. Steinberg of Georgetown explained that “Cyclone Nargis appeared to provide a perfect opening for a similar operation,” especially since “the United States has been conducting annual military exercises with neighboring Thailand, historically the great enemy” of Burma.
Of course, any fighting would have led to proposals for regime change and nation-building. No doubt, Burma needs to be remade. But not by the United States. And not at a time when Washington was very busy elsewhere in the world dealing with other bitter, even intractable conflicts. Indeed, sweeping away the SPDC would not have resolved the relationship between the central government and the various ethnic tribes, such as the Karen, in the east, which have been fighting for autonomy since Burma achieved independence.
For understandable reasons, then, most policy makers remained unenthusiastic about attempting to coerce Burma. John Holmes, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, opined: “I’m not sure that invading Burma would be a very sensible option.” And the SPDC gradually opened the delta to Western aid even as it tried to profit from the international community’s activities. Three months later Holmes reported that “a much-feared second wave of deaths from starvation or disease has not happened.” He also said that “This is now a normal international-relief operation.”
The Burmese military’s turnaround led some NGOs to develop a “strange new respect” for the SPDC. For instance, one unnamed UN program director told the New York Times that after the Burmese recognized they could not handle the disaster, “they did a lot. A huge national response occurred.” Last October the International Crisis Group reported that developments since the storm
show that it is possible to work with the military regime on humanitarian issues. Communication between the government and international agencies has improved. Visas and travel permits today are easier and faster to get than before. Requirements for the launch of new aid projects have been eased. By and large, the authorities are making efforts to facilitate aid, including allowing a substantial role for civil society.
Since then the regime has become even more responsive (though not, of course, more democratic). Twice as many aid workers are now active in the delta as before Cyclone Nargis. A former Oxfam adviser on Burma opines: “The overall response of the government has been remarkable. They are ‘getting it’ more and more each day that they are involved in the recovery process.” Frank Smithuis of Doctors Without Borders told the New York Times: “You can work here very well, and to say that you can’t is a lie.” Indeed, “the military at times has actually been quite helpful to us.”
Of course, no one sugarcoats the regime’s human-rights record. But the relationship between the domestic military junta and outside humanitarian agencies has been transformed. Which would not have happened had the West attempted coercion. Forcible intervention would certainly have destroyed the prospect for cooperation over the long-term and likely spread conflict across Burma, even to areas not directly affected by Cyclone Nargis. And having broken what was left of Burma, the West — meaning America — would have been left attempting to reconstruct another impoverished, strife-torn land.
Military intervention has become the panacea for hawks and doves alike. Thus the groundswell of support for coercion in Burma a year ago. But caution proved to be the better part of valor: intervention would have created far more problems than it would have solved. Humanitarian intervention remains a foreign-policy oxymoron.