Tuesday 27 May 2008

Send Civilian Aid to Myanmar, Not Military

M.D. Nalapat

Manipal, India — Should another hurricane like Katrina hit the United States, perhaps in Florida, and Cuban leader Raul Castro offer to send units of the Cuban army to deliver succor to those affected, the Bush administration may hesitate to allow those units "unrestricted access" to the country.

Similarly, were a typhoon or other natural calamity to ravage Poland, that country's rulers may hesitate to welcome an influx of Russian and Chinese troops, even though these would be bringing with them relief supplies rather than armaments.

Given that regime change in Myanmar is explicitly on the agenda of the United States and the European Union, both should have anticipated the cold reaction of the generals in Myanmar to their increasingly peremptory "requests" to provide relief.

The French are returning home rather than handing over their supplies to countries allowed entry into Myanmar, such as India and Thailand. At least one of the European Union's former colonial superpowers is playing as indefensible a variant of politics as the thuggish and archaic geronotocrats in uniform in Myanmar. These are men hardly likely to flinch from the prospect of hundreds of thousands of their own citizens suffering because of the absence of relief, for their only motivation is self-preservation.

Once George W. Bush and Tony Blair invaded Iraq in 2003, despite the obvious helplessness of that country, a signal went out to West-phobic regimes across the world that each was fair game for the regime changers in the United States and the European Union. Rather than increase the decibel pitch of their ultimatums to the generals, those countries that have explicitly endorsed regime change as policy need to work out ways of ensuring that supplies reach those needing them, even if this means less than a pound of flesh from the ample hides of those in command in Nyaypidaw.

Rather than isolation, a policy of vigorous engagement with civil society in Myanmar is likely to create sufficient domestic pressure for change. By staying away, the United States and the European Union have weakened the democracy movement in Myanmar, losing any leverage that they might have had in pressing for change.

In this context, India's policy shift is instructive. From explicitly backing the democracy movement, by 2002 New Delhi changed course, engaging the junta. This was entirely for domestic reasons, as there was need to ensure that insurgents in India's northeast did not continue to find sanctuary and supplies from within Myanmar.

Since then, India has joined with ASEAN in opening contacts with the junta. As a consequence, warships and aircraft of the Indian defense forces have been welcome visitors to Myanmar since the cyclone struck. A road bridge connecting India to Malaysia and beyond is being built through Myanmar, and for the first time in two decades, Indian oil companies are not being excluded from securing supplies in competition with China.

Indeed, the spread of links with India has helped Myanmar to lessen the otherwise pervasive Chinese influence within the country, an influence that has expanded substantially because of the US-EU policy of untouchability toward Myanmar

Certainly the junta is paranoid in believing that U.S. troops, for instance, may be less interested in providing relief than in mapping out zones to facilitate a future air attack on the country, or to secure intelligence or human assets to subvert the regime. In international law – unless the era of colonization is considered as the model – it is unprecedented for one country to demand that its military teams be given full and unconditional access to another country where it is considered the foe of the regime in authority.

Policymakers in the United States and the European Union continue to remain blind to subliminal local fears of European re-conquest – resulting in policies that are visibly dysfunctional. Many of the problems now faced in Iraq, for instance, originated in the collapse of infrastructure and services following the harsh regime of sanctions that was imposed on the country in a futile bid to drive Saddam Hussein from office.

Exactly like the junta in Myanmar, Saddam and his cohorts were unconcerned about the suffering of their people, focused exclusively on perpetuating their despotism. The lessons of Iraq need to be factored into policymaking toward Myanmar.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the best bet for her people, but unless the people of Myanmar are in contact with others in the world who support their democratic rights, they will remain handicapped in their peaceful struggle for change. What is needed in Myanmar is a peaceful movement to force the generals out of office, and for this to happen, there must be engagement and not isolation.

Rather than warships and warplanes, civilian vessels should be sent to deliver supplies, and those in uniform should give way to the thousands of civilian disaster relief and aid workers in the United States and the European Union, so the people of Myanmar can escape the hell into which an uncaring junta and the ravages of nature have pushed them. In the face of death and desolation, politics as usual need to be put aside.

-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)

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