With the immense humanitarian disaster occurring in Burma / Myanmar right now, there’s been a great deal of frustrated commentary from people appalled by the situation and desperate to come up with feasible ways to help. Watching the Burmese junta keep ample international stocks of food from its own people only to incompetently protect itself is sickening, and with the government’s past history from last September’s protests and the disregarding of the 1990 election, an honest person naturally wonders what can be done to overcome such a horrific government.
The all-important concept in such a situation is the idea of Responsibility to Protect, first proposed by the Canadian government. This doctrine states that national sovereignty takes a backseat when a government is committing massive abuse of its population, and that foreign governments have the right to intervene on behalf of that nation’s people’s well-being. Following the letter of this theory, other governments could ignore borders and sovereignty when the population is under grave threat and the subject nation’s government refuses to help or actively contributes to the problem.
Despite the poisoning association of this concept with the Iraq war — one where idealism trumped realistic potential — Responsibility to Protect does not have to mean the complete military overthrow of a government. While in a utopian martial world we could go real-life Rambo IV, the idea is both out of the question for the overstretched U.S. military and frought with internal problems similar to Iraq. (Even though Aung San Suu Kyi represents an established, popular democratic leader to take charge of a new government, the inevitable guerrilla war against the junta dead-enders — the bad guys like them are familiar with the only way to fight more powerful armies — and the management of pre-existing ethnic conflicts within Burma make for a potentially ugly situation for any foreign power.)
That said, to me it seems that the only workable option involves a series of military and humanitarian steps around air delivery of supplies:
- The UN Security Council or another large, international group — a reunion of SEATO? — should publicly declare its intention to enter Burmese airspace to deliver aid to the Burmese people, even over the objections of the Burmese government. This isn’t something that could possibly be done unilaterally; it needs to come from many governments. It’s a lot easier to demonize one or two countries than 20.
- The member states should announce all-out flyovers and supply drops to the region. Fighter or gunship escorts would be a must, because even though the intentions would be publicly announced as peaceful, it would be ridiculous to rely on a hostile government’s goodwill.
- Air deliveries avoid the pratfalls of a ground occupation, but still provide a sizable lifeline of aid. Militarily, the Burmese army and air force could do very little against a multinational air force — their only hope would be a guerrilla ground campaign, one that’s not an option here.
- Aid can be delivered by air on a large-enough scale to, at the very least, force the Burmese government to acknowledge the necessity of outside help and open up its borders to more effective land- and sea-based assistance.
All of this needs to happen quickly, before things hit the post-disaster diseases and get exponentially worse. This is also just the immediate aid: the fact that one of the world’s famous rice-producing regions is now under saltwater is another huge, complicating factor that will only add to the food problems hitting Burma and the world. There are no easy choices, but flyovers, to me, seem like the best option in a worsening crisis. In the meantime, there’s always Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam, Unicef and Doctors Without Borders.