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Perspectives on humanitarian aid

Sunday 1 June 2008, by Marc JOHNSON

Cyclone Nargis, which struck southern Burma on 2-3 May, killing over 60,000 people, has generated an international debate about the nature of humanitarian aid, and the need for stronger international law to deal with cases where national governments fail or refuse to provide adequate aid. The indifference of Burma’s military regime, which neglected to warn the population about the coming cyclone, has failed to provide significant aid, and has systematically refused offers of assistance, has probably caused a number of deaths equal or greater than those who died in the natural catastrophe. Marc Johnson was present in Burma when the cyclone hit, and spent the month of May working on relief efforts

The ongoing crisis in the Ayarrawady delta, where half of the estimated 2.5 victims of cyclone Nargis are still waiting for even the bare minimum food aid and temporary shelter, has sharply revealed the limits of the international aid system, in both its geopolitical and its operational dimensions. Let us first discuss the geopolitical aspect of the current crisis.

Burma’s military junta is paranoid about a US-British invasion, and would apparently rather sacrifice over a hundred thousand of its citizens than to allow western navies to provide the helicopters and large scale water purification systems that are waiting in international waters on British, French and US aircraft carriers. Likewise, the regime is convinced that allowing western humanitarian NGOs into the country would provide a cover for an army of spies and democracy promotion activists, determined to provoke a ’colour revolution,’ with the help of the Burmese opposition groups massed on the Thai-Burmese border. The Burmese regime has accepted smaller amounts of aid from neighbouring countries, chiefly Thailand and India, and from UN organisations (in recent years, the regime has forced the UN to progressively replace all western heads of UN missions with Asians, which seems to have reduced the at times paranoid suspicion which the Burmese regime has of all foreign organisations).

Those Asian countries say that their non-confrontational approach is resulting in a gradual increase in the number of foreign personal, and the quantity of aid being delivered. Complaints – such as when the king of Thailand discovered that the labels on bags of rice saying ’a gift from the people and the armed forces of Thailand’ were being removed at Rangoon airport and replaced with the names of Burma’s top military commanders and their families – are made strictly in private. Critics – like Debbie Stotthard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma[NOTE 1] say that the political and business elites in India and China are more interested in maintaining their privileged trading position, now that most US and many EU multinationals have ended their business in Burma because of the sanctions regime. It is also clear that the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has neither the mandate nor the determination to enforce minimum human rights conditions on its members. Recognising ASEAN’s limited impact, Singapore’s veteran statesman Lee Kuan Yew warned, already in January, that "the members of Asean who could influence them will be Thailand, and beyond (that) China and India. The rest of us—we are a kind of background muzak," [NOTE 2]

On the other hand, Asian politicians share – in a much more moderate and reasonable version – some of the Burmese regime’s suspicions about the west and its ’aid industry.’ Most Thai political and military leaders engaged on the Burma dossier assume that the long-term goal of US policy in the region is to install a pro-western government in Rangoon which would revoke the treaty giving the Chinese navy a base in Burmese waters, and the contracts giving Chinese companies the lions’ share of Burma’s oil and natural gas industries. Presumably, new contracts would be signed with US and (a few) European companies, as happened in Iraq and other ’beneficiaries’ of externally engineered regime change. Many local commentators are also cynical about the west’s passionate defense of humanitarian and democratic values in places like Burma and Sudan – where there are minimal western business interests, compared to a much higher tolerance for dictatorships and corruption in countries where western multinationals have major investments.

Japan, traditionally the most generous aid donor in Burma, has tried cutting its aid in the past, but has apparently concluded that sanctions and denying aid does not work. It has recently quietly resumed aid funding – as well as investment in hydroelectric power stations near Burma’s borders that will sell energy to India, China and Thailand, but probably leave local rural Burmese people in the dark, without electricity.

Even at the operational level, cyclone Nargis has illustrated huge divergences in perceptions and priorities between the actors.

The Burmese regime still insists that any foreign aid must be distributed by the bloated Burmese military (which absorbs 48% of the budget in this, the poorest country in Asia). It initially attempted to take control of even national donations, placing roadblocks on all routes into the Irrawaddy delta, and trying to confiscate material being delivered spontaneously by Burmese citizens. The wave of anger against this cynical move was so great that – for the first time since 1988 – the regime backed down in the face of public opinion, and now more-or-less tolerates the huge wave of solidarity from Burmese citizens towards their compatriots in the delta. Thousands of informal citizens groups are now working to deliver aid, as are hundreds of monasteries in this devout Buddhist country. Monks were at the forefront of the pro-democracy demonstrations in September 2007, and many ordinary Burmese believe that the regime’s decision to open fire against monks and other protesters provoked a cosmic imbalance, with cyclone Nargis as the result. The current wave of spontaneous solidarity is creating not only much higher expectations among Burmese people about their right and ability to organise freely and to play a role in public affairs, but it is also generating thousands of organic leaders, who are emerging in each segment of society as the most competent and most determined in finding ways to beat military and police harassment to deliver food, clothing and other aid.

Western NGOs have allowed themselves to become caught up in the game between the Burmese regime and the western powers. Historically, much western aid to the Burmese opposition groups and the large refugee population on the Thai side of the border has been channeled through missionary groups, who’s main goal is the Christianisation of Burma’s ethnic minorities, who mostly live in the mountainous border regions. With their societies disrupted by years of civil war, and with local economies dominated by the heroin, gem-mining and illegal logging businesses, and by the trafficking of tens of thousands of of girls and women every year into the brothels of Thailand, many minorities are so dislocated and desperate for support that they welcome the missionaries, their promise of practical aid, and the ’good news’ of their powerful religion.

International humanitarian NGOs – most of which would distance themselves from the more extreme missionaries – have in practice lined up behind the donor governments on which they depend to finance their activities. Rather than enter Burma on tourist visas and begin work immediately, many of these NGOs accepted a US/UN ’recommendation’ and declared their humanitarian affiliation on their visa requests, knowing that this would almost certainly mean that they would not be admitted. Thankfully, many organisations have since quietly abandoned this stance, and have entered Burma by any means available. So far, it seems that the military regime is tolerating the action of expats, as long as they do do not leave Rangoon.

More worrying than the visa game, western humanitarian organisations have also chosen to remain quiet about the negative side of western government policies in the region – the failure of the sanctions regime, which has contributed to the misery of the Burmese population, and only increased the anti-western paranoia of the junta, the dissruption of Burmese society by the missionaries and their unholy alliance with Thai, Burmese and minority warlords connected to the drug business and illegal gem mining, and agricultural policies which protect western markets against Asian farmers, while creating a huge, subsidised western food mountain – which the humanitarian NGOs can then deliver to countries like Burma as ’aid’. This dumping actually further weakens local farmers, by destroying their markets, and can even encourage a change in taste from local foods to imported western products (bread instead of rice). But the NGOs can count on donor governments to fund a series of projects to help farmers adjust to these new challenges...

The coming weeks and months will see continued pressure on the Burmese regime to allow greater access of western aid professionals to the disaster region. But the regime’s refusal to cooperate, and its indifferent neglect of its own people, will increase calls for a stronger codification in international law of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). Many countries of the global south are wary about a new UN convention or agreement that would increase the pretexts on which western powers – principally the USA – could invoke sanctions or even military intervention against recalcitrant regimes. But the same countries – including Thailand and India – are also increasingly embarrassed by the Burmese regime, and are under pressure from their own populations to promote a more responsible and ’rights-based’ foreign policy and regional cooperation system. The key to any progress – both on specific Burma issues and on any new global agreement on Responsibility to Protect, will be the attitude of the Chinese government. It has shown itself able to deal with domestic humanitarian catastrophes. But is it ready to modify its traditional unconditional defense of national sovereignty, in favour of greater pressure on regimes, like the Burmese, which fail or refuse to assure even the fundamental right of their own people – the right to life.



2. slang for elevator music. See “Lee Kuan Yew Criticizes Burma’s Military Rulers,” The Irrawaddy, 8 January 2008