More than 60,000 people may have died as a result of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, and at least 1.5 million are homeless or otherwise in desperate need of assistance. The Burmese military junta, one of the most morally repulsive in the world, has allowed in only a trickle of aid supplies. The handful of United States Air Force C-130 flights from Utapao Air Base here in Thailand is little more than symbolic, given the extent of the need.
France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, has spoken of the possibility of an armed humanitarian intervention, and there is an increasing degree of chatter about the possibility of an American-led invasion of the Irrawaddy River Delta.
As it happens, American armed forces are now gathered in large numbers in Thailand for the annual multinational military exercise known as Cobra Gold. This means that Navy warships could pass from the Gulf of Thailand through the Strait of Malacca and north up the Bay of Bengal to the Irrawaddy Delta. It was a similar circumstance that had allowed for Navy intervention after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.
Because oceans are vast and even warships travel comparatively slowly, one should not underestimate the advantage that fate has once again handed us. For example, a carrier strike group, or even a smaller Marine-dominated expeditionary strike group headed by an amphibious ship, could get close to shore and ferry troops and supplies to the most devastated areas on land.
The magic of this is that an enormous amount of assistance can be provided while maintaining a small footprint on shore, greatly reducing the chances of a clash with the Burmese armed forces while nevertheless dealing a hard political blow to the junta. Concomitantly, drops can be made from directly overhead by the Air Force without the need to militarily occupy any Burmese airports.
In other words, this is militarily doable. The challenge is the politics, both internationally and inside Myanmar. Because one can never assume an operation will go smoothly, it is vital that the United States carry out such a mission only as part of a coalition including France, Australia and other Western powers. Of course, the approval of the United Nations Security Council would be best, but China — the junta’s best friend — would likely veto it.
And yet China — along with India, Thailand and, to a lesser extent, Singapore — has been put in a very uncomfortable diplomatic situation. China and India are invested in port enlargement and energy deals with Myanmar. Thailand’s democratic government has moved closer to the junta for the sake of logging and other business ventures. Singapore, a city-state that must get along with everybody in the region, is suspected of acting as a banker for the Burmese generals. All these countries quietly resent the ineffectual moral absolutes with which the United States, a half a world away, approaches Myanmar. Nonetheless, the disaster represents an opportunity for Washington. By just threatening intervention, the United States puts pressure on Beijing, New Delhi and Bangkok to, in turn, pressure the Burmese generals to open their country to a full-fledged foreign relief effort. We could do a lot of good merely by holding out the possibility of an invasion.
The other challenge we face lies within Myanmar. Because a humanitarian invasion could ultimately lead to the regime’s collapse, we would have to accept significant responsibility for the aftermath. And just as the collapse of the Berlin Wall was not supposed to lead to ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, and the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein was not supposed to lead to civil war, the fall of the junta would not be meant to lead to the collapse of the Burmese state. But it might.
About a third of Myanmar’s 47 million people are ethnic minorities, who have a troubled historical relationship with the dominant group, the Burmans. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroine of the democracy movement, is an ethnic Burman just like the generals, and her supporters are largely focused on the Burman homeland. Meanwhile, the Chins, Kachins, Karennis, Karens, Shans and other hill tribes have been fighting against the government. The real issue in Myanmar, should the regime fall, would be less about forging democracy than a compromise between the Burmans and the other ethnic groups.
Of course, Myanmar is not the Balkans or Iraq, where ethnic and sectarian rivalries were smothered under a carapace of authoritarianism, only to erupt later on. Myanmar has suffered insurgencies for 60 years now, and may be ripe for a compromise under a civilian government. But neither can we be naïve. Just because Myanmar is not Yugoslavia doesn’t mean it isn’t like Russia; it is a mini-empire ruled by the ethnic-Burman military that could crumble into its constituent mountainous parts, especially as the democracy advocates have demonstrated little ability to run a country. Here in Mae Sot, a center for non-Burman ethnic dissident groups, complaints over the disorganization of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s movement are rife.
It seems like a simple moral decision: help the survivors of the cyclone. But liberating Iraq from an Arab Stalin also seemed simple and moral. (And it might have been, had we planned for the aftermath.) Sending in marines and sailors is the easy part; but make no mistake, the very act of our invasion could land us with the responsibility for fixing Burma afterward.
Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.