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Burma (Myanmar) dodges a bullet

The big lesson: Threats to force aid into the delta may have pushed the junta to relent.

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The outside world finally made its point, perhaps at the barrel of a gun. Burma's leader has agreed to let in foreign aid workers – mainly Asian – to help save 2 million people left vulnerable after the May 3 cyclone. But did Gen. Than Shwe partly relent under rising threats of an "aid invasion"?

The answer, if it can ever be known, will be critical to a difficult question only recently put before the global community: Should a country be invaded if its government does not protect its people from massive harm?

That idea, known as "responsibility to protect," was endorsed by the United Nations in 2005, a decade after it failed to prevent the Rwanda genocide. The notion is that no country, in this increasingly borderless world, is an island, entire of itself.

This month, the doctrine, which in theory would allow breaking once-inviolate national sovereignty to prevent large-scale tragedy, was cited by France in a call for armed intervention in Burma. At least 78,000 people perished during the cyclone, but many more now face a perilous future without direct foreign aid – which Burma's reclusive and cruel junta had opposed for nearly three weeks.

It helped France's case that the US Navy stood ready off Burma's coast to launch aid into the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta, and that the Navy had assisted Indonesia's recovery after its 2004 tsunami.

But China, along with other nondemocratic nations, blocked France's efforts at the UN, just as it impeded serious intervention in Darfur. (Authoritarian leaders find sovereignty a useful shield to protect their own ruthless rule.) China then may have advised its allies in Burma (also called Myanmar) to avoid a coercive intervention and to accept foreign help.

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