They are “cruel, power hungry and dangerously irrational,” in the words of one British journalist. They are “violent and irrational” according to a journalist in neighboring Thailand. Our own State Department leadership has condemned their “xenophobic, ever more irrational policies.”
On the evidence of the last few days alone, those are all perfectly accurate descriptions. But in one very narrow sense, the cruel, power-hungry, violent, and xenophobic generals who run Burma are not irrational at all: Given their own most urgent goal—to maintain power at all costs—their reluctance to accept international aid in the wake of a devastating cyclone makes perfect sense. It’s straightforward, as the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt put it Monday: “The junta cares about its own survival, not the survival of its people.” Thus, the death toll is thought to have reached 100,000, a further 1.5 million Burmese are now at risk of epidemics and starvation, parts of the country are still underwater, hundreds of thousands of people are camped in the open without food or clean water—and, yes, if foreigners come and distribute aid, the legitimacy of the regime might be threatened.
Especially foreigners in large numbers, using high-tech vehicles that don’t exist in Burma, distributing cartons of rice marked “Made in the USA” or even “UNDP.” All natural disasters—from the Armenian earthquake, which helped bring down the Soviet Union, to Hurricane Katrina, which damaged the Bush administration—have profound political implications, as do the aid efforts that follow them, and the Burmese generals clearly know it.
Hence the “logic” of the regime’s behavior in the days since the cyclone: the impounding of airplanes full of food; the refusal to grant visas to relief workers and landing rights to foreign aircraft; the initial refusal to allow U.S. military (or indeed any foreign military) to supply the ships, planes, and helicopters needed for the mass distribution of food and supplies that Burma needs. Nor is this simple anti-Western paranoia: The foreign minister of Thailand has been kept out, too. Even Burmese citizens have been prevented from bringing food to the flood-damaged regions, on the grounds that “all assistance must be channeled through the military.”
The result: Aid organizations that have staff on the ground are talking about the hundreds of thousands of homeless Burmese who may soon begin dying of cholera, diarrhea, and other diseases. This isn’t logic by our standards, but it is logic by theirs. Which is why we have to assume that the regime’s fear of foreign relief workers could even increase as the crisis grows, threatening them further.
If we fail to persuade the junta to relent soon—despite what I hope are assurances that Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières,and the American military will bring only food, not regime change, much as we all might like to see it—then we have to start considering alternatives. According to some accounts, the U.S. military is already looking at a range of options, including helicopter food deliveries from offshore ships, or convoys from across the Thai border. The U.S. government should be looking at wider diplomatic options, too. The U.N. Security Council has already refused to take greater responsibility for Burma—China won’t allow the sovereignty of its protectorate to be threatened, even at the price of hundreds of thousands of lives—but there is no need to act alone. In fact, it would be a grave error to do so, since anything resembling a foreign “invasion” might provoke military resistance.
Unfortunately, the phrase “coalition of the willing” is tainted forever—once again proving that the damage done by the Iraq war goes far beyond the Iraqi borders—but a coalition of the willing is exactly what we need. The French—whose foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, was himself a co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières—are already talking about finding alternative ways of delivering aid. Others in Europe and Asia might join in, along with some aid organizations. The Chinese should be embarrassed into contributing, asked again and again to help. This is their satrapy, after all, not ours.
Think of it as the true test of the Western humanitarian impulse: The international effort that went into coordinating the tsunami relief effort in late 2004 has to be repeated, but in much harsher, trickier, uglier political circumstances. Yes, we should help the Burmese, even against the will of their irrational leaders. Yes, we should think hard about the right way to do it. And, yes, there isn’t much time to ruminate about any of this.