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Edge on Disaster


The Time to Invade Burma is Now—and Time is Running Out

May 19th 2008

Unknown - Burma Cyclone
Burma cyclone corpses

ALSO SEE: Burma Generals

Every day, the death toll in Burma rises, following Cyclone Nargis over two weeks ago. Every day, the calls for international action grow. Every day, the diplomats and politicians talk. Every day, the efforts to negotiate with the regime yield little result. And every day, the regime tightens the noose around its people.

Even today, although there are reportedly small signs of improvement, aid is still restricted. Aid workers are obstructed. British Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch Brown, visiting Rangoon, claims the aid operation is “starting to move,” but admits that only 25% of the cyclone victims have received assistance. The regime now claims 78,000 dead, but the real figure is much, much higher. Several days ago the International Committee of the Red Cross put the death toll at almost 130,000 – and that figure has certainly increased further by now. The UN has said as many as 2.5 million people are in urgent need of help, and has called for an air or sea corridor to be opened to channel aid to Burma. Lord Malloch Brown has called the crisis “a huge human catastrophe.”

Even if more aid reaches the country, the suffering will continue unless international aid workers are allowed in to monitor the distribution, assess the situation and provide much-needed expertise. Yet Burma’s military regime continues to refuse access. Last week the military put up roadblocks to prevent foreigners from entering the affected areas, saying the situation is under control.

An under-reported but important dimension to this, is that a large proportion of the population in the affected Irrawaddy Delta region come from the Karen ethnic group. The Karen ethnic group has been the target of the military regime’s policies of ethnic cleansing bordering on genocide for decades. The regime is hostile not only to all forms of opposition, but to non-Burmans and non-Buddhists. The fact that the Karen are a different ethnicity, and that many of them are Christians, may well have featured in the regime’s decision to put a stranglehold on aid efforts.

How much longer can this go on? There has been tough talk – but so far, it remains talk. The Burmese regime has had two weeks to negotiate – it has shown its true colours. Much of the aid has been seized by the authorities and sold on the streets for profit, or used for propaganda purposes. There are reports that when the Generals visit the disaster zones, they distribute aid for the cameras – and then, in the utmost cruelty, the victims are forced to return the relief packages once the cameras have gone.

In some areas, Burmese civilians who have cleared the roads of fallen trees and scattered roofing have been forced by the authorities to put the debris back on the road, so that regime officials and soldiers can be filmed by state media “helping” to clean up after the cyclone. But after a few poses for the camera next to a fallen tree, the officials move on and the civilians must clear the remainder by themselves. As if that were not bad enough, Burmese people attempting to distribute aid have been attacked by the regime’s militia. And there are now unconfirmed reports that women in the disaster area are being raped by Burmese soldiers.

The regime’s inhumanity and depravity is sickening. The time has come now, surely, to act. Of course diplomacy and negotiation should always be the first step, and military intervention the last resort. But diplomacy and negotiation are not defined by infinity. Deadlines, benchmarks and timeframes should be set out. And if international aid workers are not given unrestricted access by a specified date, the UN should put its much trumpeted “responsibility to protect” provisions in action.

If China vetoes action rendering the UN powerless, an independent multilateral coalition should be formed by the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other allies – operating under the responsibility to protect mandate, even without a specific UN authorization. They should do whatever it takes to ensure the delivery of aid and expertise to Burma. The time for such action is fast approaching. The regime should be given hours, at most two days, to comply.

If the US, the UK and France were willing to act, they should do so wholeheartedly. That means a land operation with international aid workers and aid accompanied by military protection. Air drops are better than nothing, but the impact would be limited. Supplies dropped from the air could land in flood water or paddy fields and be left to rot, or seized by the regime. There is no guarantee the people can reach the aid if it is dropped from the sky. So even if some aid is dropped from the air, a land operation should follow.

It is also time to bring the junta to justice. This regime, one of the worst in the world, should be brought to the International Criminal Court. Already the list of crimes against humanity committed by the Generals is long – the widespread and systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, torture, killings, the use of human minesweepers, the forcible conscription of child soldiers and the destruction of more than 3,200 villages in eastern Burma alone since 1996. Add to this catalogue of horrors the regime’s deliberate denial of aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis. It is not just the failure to issue visas to international aid workers. It is not simply neglect. The deliberate diversion, manipulation and denial of aid must surely count as an “inhumane act” deserving of prosecution.

Burma is yet another test case for the world. The time for talking is over. For the US and the UK, this is an opportunity to show that it will intervene not only when its own interests are threatened, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, but when there is a clear moral case to do so. For the UK specifically, this is an opportunity to show that it has not, after all, forgotten its former allies in Burma whose loyalty has for 60 years been betrayed. After the genocide in Rwanda, world leaders said “never again.” If the UN and countries such as the US which are in a position to act, to get aid in and break this regime’s iron rule, continue to opt for endless negotiation rather than action, once more we will be crying out “never again.”

Photo Credit: Delta Tears

Benedict Rogers is the author of A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People (Monarch, 2004), and has visited Burma and its borderlands more than 20 times. He also serves as Deputy Chairman of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

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