It is entirely reasonable, as Jeff Sparrow does, to bewail the parsimony of the United States and other countries towards Burma at a time of internal crisis. The Burmese military dictatorship cannot cope with the disaster that has befallen its people, and the international community has a moral obligation to assist, despite its strategic irrelevance.
Well, no, not quite. It is quite reasonable that there should be a great international effort to assist the Burmese people, but bilateral aid from a government goes to a government. In this case, it would be aid to a brutal military regime that officially spends 40% of the nation’s budget on itself, not including the vast sums that are laundered through its drug-funded banks.
The Burmese dictatorship has a history of syphoning off funds intended for its people to support itself, not helping the people for whom the aid is intended. So if the US and others are reluctant to provide funds, there is a very good reason for it.
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What then should the international community be doing to help the Burmese people? It should be supporting NGOs that are still struggling to get visas to enter Burma, who will deliver aid directly to the people who need it, and not to a dictatorship that will say “thank you very much” and then pocket it.
Let’s be clear here: despite what it occasionally says, the Burmese military dictatorship does not exist to serve the Burmese people; the Burmese people exist in order to support the military — the government is just the mechanism by which this occurs.
Assuming NGOs can get into Burma in useful numbers — and if the dictatorship was at all concerned about its people it would simply open the doors and allow them and their aid to flood in — the best thing they can do for the Burmese people is to stay. They need to stay longer than the Burmese government will want them to, which will be as short a time as possible.
Indeed, the longer the international NGO community is in Burma, the weaker will be the grip of the military dictatorship. Indeed, the greatest problem the Burmese people have faced is being cut off from the outside world. This could, possibly, now change. And this is what the Burmese dictatorship doesn’t want.
It is not yet clear which way the situation will unfold. It could be that, desperate, the people rise again against the dictatorship. And again they would probably face its guns. But there is a small sliver of hope, that with outsiders inside Burma in significant numbers, the secrecy that has veiled that country for the past 40 years could be lifted.
If the international community needs strategic reasons to act in a particular way, Burma is a significant oil producing country and, poised between India and China, is critically strategically placed. It is also an object lesson in repressing one’s own people and getting away with it.
The Burmese cyclone is a major tragedy, and there must be help. But the structural problem of the military dictatorship is vastly exacerbating this immediate natural disaster, and remains the critical long-term problem. The focus of the international community, then, needs to be on both problems, and not just throwing money at a dictatorship that will use it against its own people.
Damien Kingsbury is author of South-East Asia: A Political Profile (Oxford), and is Associate Head (Research) of the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University.