As the stalemate between the international community and Myanmar’s junta continues, aid groups estimate as many as 1.5 million people are at risk. So why can’t we just invade?

In 2005, UN members unanimously endorsed that “each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” With the “responsibility to protect” comes the idea that sovereignty can, in some circumstances, be breached when a State fails in the duty to its people. In 2006, the “responsibility to protect” notion was adopted by the UN Security Council.

France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner says it’s time to use this provision to get aid into Myanmar; ignore sovereignty issues and march help in. But Kouchner is on fairly flimsy ground here.

For a start, sovereignty is something that can’t so easily be thrown aside. If you don’t respect it, you end up very quickly sliding into the terrain of double standards. Why act on Myanmar for example, but not on the longer-standing problem of Sudan? What of cyclones in South America? When they affect Cuba for example, the West isn’t exactly too quick to intervene. Yet it’s the same type of natural disaster.

You also have to be careful about invoking Security Council Resolutions, given the perception that they’re decisions made only by the rich and powerful with little respect for smaller nations’ wishes. There is currently huge pressure and calls to reform the SC, which is perceived as an unduly privileged body of the UN.

Moreover, the whole idea of intervention, which presumes that “the intervener” always knows what it’s doing, is flawed – as the Iraq case has dramatically brought out.

It’s interesting that most of the countries calling for intervention in Burma are distanced from the area. As soon as you look at the map, it strikes you. So why are we not asking ASEAN countries to get their act together? Why is no-one thinking regionally?

In the same way that South Africa is being pressured to change its position on Zimbabwe in order to assert its influence on the failing nation, ASEAN’s members could be encouraged to pressure Myanmar. ASEAN is the only international body in which Myanmar is being a bit co-operative, so this is an important route for action.

The body has shown it can intervene successfully in its own region — for example in its handing of Indonesia’s haze issue from burning forests. There have been some agreements between Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia to help on the ground. And Myanmar would not want to annoy Singapore and its huge army.

If you take the long view, the military regime at the moment is incredibly unlucky at what’s happening. After months of international pressure from abroad, the thing that will kill the junta may well be this natural disaster. It is very difficult for politically unstable regimes to survive natural disasters. The French Revolution, for one, was kicked off in a year of widespread famine. Natural disasters can help precipitate regime changes. This is something for foreign countries to bear in mind. Of course that doesn’t help the people on the ground but you can’t ignore the political complexity.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey