I have no answers, I just wanted to relay the question for discussion. How dire is the situation? “[T]he death toll is thought to have reached 100,000,” she writes, “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.” If that’s not graphic enough, watch this. Note that she’s not — necessarily — calling for an invasion, but the only alternative I can think of is airdrops, an imperfect solution insofar as it can deliver medical supplies to the population but not the personnel needed to administer them. What’s left?
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 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.
The junta is allowing foreign aid into the country, just not foreign experts or equipment; in the case of the World Food Programme, that means less than 20 percent of the daily food allocated for relief has been delivered. Realistically, no one’s going in there with guns blazing to dislodge the army and inherit a broken country unless it’s the UN, but who’s going to commit troops for that mission and risk having to deal with a Burmese insurgency replete with niceties like mass starvation and malaria mixed in? As far as I can see, we’re stuck with airdrops plus whatever leverage China can exert over the regime to admit foreign aid workers — an exertion you’d think they’d be willing to make if only to spare themselves a catastrophe happening next door when the Olympics finally get going this summer. Exit quotation: “This is the worst government in the world. Same as Saddam Hussein. Why you cannot help us?”