Burma – the case for intervention

By David Aaronovitch (THE TIMES, 13/05/08):

We were four men of a certain age, sitting above the pews at the altar end of Great St Mary’s Church in Cambridge, late last Friday afternoon.

The doors were open to the sunshine outside and to King’s College opposite, and the occasional cultural speculator would look in and then, usually, wander off again. We speakers said what we liked. The audience asked what they liked. And, given that the Burmese disaster was relevant to our discussion, we might as well have been on the Moon.

The first speaker argued that we had to be very careful, we in the West, about assuming that we knew what other peoples wanted, or that we could give it to them – unless there was some kind of regional or local connection, we could rarely intervene to good effect. The second speaker, also an academic, took the line that given “our” history of rapacity in the Third World, our intervention was neither wanted nor needed, and we should butt out. I burbled on in the warmth about these being counsels of despair, but aware that my own arguments for interventionism looked rather more exotic and unrealistic than back in, say, 2002, before Iraq.

Meanwhile, on Earth, the Burmese junta – which does not permit such discussion – was preventing outside aid reaching its own people hit by Cyclone Nargis, failing itself to act on their behalf, refusing to take calls from the UN and all the while finding the necessary manpower to police a rigged constitutional referendum. The result is likely to be that tens of thousands of people have died as a consequence of deliberate governmental neglect, to add to those killed directly by the cyclone.

It was easy to understand the impulse that led David Cameron to agree with some Americans, that aid ought to be dropped to needy Burmese in defiance of their dreadful Government. For some reason Mr Cameron’s deadline for the junta’s co-operation with the international community was today, though he is in no position to set one. And despite there being a wartime SOE-type romance in dropping supplies into occupied territory, it is hard to see how such assistance can benefit people on the ground. Even so, I applaud the sentiment.

Not everyone does. There has been, right from the first day of this crisis, a wing of the anti-interventionist movement that has sought to shift blame for the aid debacle from the Burmese generals to the West in general and America in particular. I first heard it from some professor interviewed on the Today programme, and have read it several times since. The junta (this apologia suggests) is just paranoid, this paranoia is justified because of the West’s hostility, and therefore it makes sense from the Burmese point of view not to admit foreign aid workers, who might be CIA spooks.

In a way I prefer this adamantine daftness to the slippery arguments of those who have used the Burmese disaster to attack liberal interventionism, while suggesting that in this particular instance there are grounds for some kind of uninvited action. Their reasoning runs like this: Burma’s crisis is different and more urgent than was the case in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, because of the immediacy of the humanitarian disaster. So the stakes are clear, and whereas it would be illegal to remove the Burmese junta, it is somehow legal to invade Burmese air space and docks to deliver and defend supplies. Presumably (though the anti-interventionist interventionists don’t spell it out) we would protect our aid convoys from attack, so the possibility of military action is implicit.

But they must secretly know, as we all do, that it’s too late. It’s too late again. A country may, of course, be hit by a natural disaster, no matter what the ideological nature of its government. But the way it reacts to a catastrophe will be entirely consistent with its form of administration. For several decades Burma has had a Government whose authoritarianism and isolationism has made it almost inevitable that the consequences of any natural disaster would be magnified by its craziness. We have all known this because we watched on our screens just eight months ago as freedom protests were suppressed.

True, after the Second World War there grew up a kind of admiration of the mobilisatory capacities of totalitarian governments. Stalin had saved Soviet heavy industry from the Germans by moving it physically from Belorussia to the Urals. The command economy had proved its worth by building gazillions of T34 tanks. By the late 1950s and 60s this was translated into praise for the Sputniks and Gagarins of the Soviet space effort and in the 70s into warm words about Cuba’s health system.

It was a hallucination. The democracies had done as good a job in war production as the dictatorships, and were to prove massively superior at technological innovation. By the late 1970s it was becoming clear that the only thing real communism – or any totalitarianism, including theocracy – was good at, was repression.

The Burmese Government acts the way it does not because of any action by the West, but because it inhabits a fearful, but uncontested world. Its assumptions cannot be tested by a free press, let alone challenged by alternative political parties. The only sounds are its own pronouncements; it exists in an echo chamber in which it hears its own voice and imagines that it is listening to the authentic voice of Burma. Utterly isolated from the real needs of the ordinary Burmese – who dare not express their desires – it nevertheless identifies its own hold on power with the abstract interests of the people. The junta imagines it is the people, and therefore imagines that those who oppose it are against the people. It will deny, to the last moment, that there is a disaster, and when forced to acknowledge it, will blame outsiders and traitors.

We see this from Robert Mugabe, who has probably already planned the means of his “victory” in the second round of the Zimbabwean presidential election. If he is permitted to get away with this, then the Zimbabwean catastrophe – whatever its cause – is only a matter of time.

How often do we need it proved? The issue isn’t whether we have the right to intervene – because the consequences of vicious dictatorships usually catch up with us in time – but whether or not, practically, we can. Everything else is a polite conversation in a sunny church.