On Point: Limited Options in Burma

by Austin Bay
May 13, 2008

How many peoplehave died in Burma (Myanmar) since Cyclone Zargis struck the South Asian nationon May 3? Last Tuesday, Burma's dictatorship officially put the death toll at34,000, with another 30,000 missing. The United Nations estimated 60,000 dead.Western governments and media argued 100,000 dead might be a better figure, oncethe statisticians account for casualties caused by disease and displacement.

            Add "delay" tothe disease and displacement -- in the case of Burma, delay caused by adictatorship resisting aid efforts (most from Western nations) and emergencysupplies.

Burma's regimeis pursuing a modified "Darfur strategy," at least the Darfur political strategyas pursued by Sudan's dictatorship in Khartoum. For the last three years, theSudanese government has been resisting, thwarting, dodging and blockinginternational relief and peacekeeping efforts in Darfur, carefully relenting --by an inch or two -- when the public and economic pressure reaches a momentarycrescendo.

The Burmesejunta knows the script.

Enter U.N.Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Expressing his frustration and anger at thejunta's next-to-nil response to the cyclone disaster, Ban said: "This is notabout politics. It is about saving people's lives. There is absolutely no moretime to lose."

Correct onsaving lives and doing so quickly. As for "not about politics"? Completebaloney. Ban knows it, but he makes a diplomat's gesture to the murderers inhopes of achieving the immediate goal of providing aid to 2 million destitutesurvivors.

PresidentGeorge W. Bush called the military junta "isolated or callous." He's pulling hispunches, too, for the same reason as Ban. "Paranoid, brutal, calculating andcallous" is a much more thorough description of dictatorships in general butespecially criminal regimes that leverage natural disasters as genocidalweapons.

Terribleexamples litter the 20th century. With starvation as the weapon, Stalin's Russiamass murdered Ukrainians in the 1930s. Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan's various"intra-state" wars are more recent cases. Saddam Hussein's regime created anecological disaster by desertifying the splendid agricultural marshlands of thelower Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in order to destroy Shia Arab communities.

After JanEgeland, a former U.N. aid coordinator, said, "If we let them (the junta) getaway with murder we may set a very dangerous precedent," essayist RomeshRatnesar wrote in Time magazine that it was time to consider invading Burma, orat the minimum violate Burmese airspace (and sovereignty) by air-droppingsupplies to the victims.

Ratnesar'srather hazy and logistically ignorant operational advice is more "invade to aid"rather than regime change. He justifies his position on the basis of savinghundreds of thousands of lives, which is a goal no one should dismiss.Eliminating a mass murderer is certainly a long-term payoff of toppling SaddamHussein's regime, though it will be a decade or so before more than a handful inthe "international community" of commentators and humanitarian aid advocatesfollow Bernard Kouchner's lead and acknowledge that.

The "KosovoPrecedent" -- invading to stop mass murder -- is a thorny one. Russia portraysKosovo as a Western European and U.S. plot to unravel "states they don't like,"while Western European and U.S. diplomats maintain Kosovo is unique -- asingular, special situation.

Kosovo,however, is invoked by advocates of military force in Darfur. The Clintonadministration, however, invaded Kosovo after four years of fencing withSlobodan Milosevic's thug regime in Serbia -- and after making Milosevic its"peace partner" in Bosnia. For 12 years (1991 to 2003), the United States foughta "slow war" with Iraq. It took the policy sea-change of 9-11 to move the UnitedStates (which has enormous interests in the Middle East) to remove Saddam'srogue regime.

In Burma, a few(the junta) wield vast physical power over the rest. Ditto North Korea. DittoSudan. Economic sanctions, economic rewards, harsh words, warm words and sharpthreats may nudge these regimes, but the dictators only move when it's in theirinterest. When 100,000 deaths serve the interest of the local thugs, then therealistic options are starkly limited.

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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