Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility To Protect (update 17)

After a long weekend visit by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his humanitarian chief John Holmes to Myanmar, two things have happened:

1. The Myanmar government has pretty much opened its doors to all non-military-provided aid. A flurry of visas have been approved for virtually all UN agency employees and many NGO workers also. Planes are now coming into Yangon Airport at 10 to 15 a day. The UN itself says it's reached a million people as of yesterday (though not all of them with sufficient supplies, perhaps) in addition to the several hundred thousand more than the government itself has given aid to. Despite all this, it is not an easy job to operate in Myanmar.

2. Almost as soon as Mr. Ban left the country, the regime announced it was extending the house arrest of democracy leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi for another year. She's spent 12 of the last 18 behind bars, so this is no surprise. It does, however, send an unmistakeable signal: we're keeping politics and humanitarian aid separate.

And, in my view, that's how it belongs. Certainly, the detention of Aung Sun Suu Kyi is deplorable, as are most things about the Burmese regime. But the regime's immediate reaction to offers of aid for the cyclone victims was one of paranoia. It's taken more than three weeks to convince them that the aid workers don't want to overthrow their government. Even now they won't let in aid by military ships, so France, for example, is transferring its aid from a warship to a civilian ship. Inefficient, yes. But more effective than nothing.

The delay has doubtless cost many lives, but now the long recovery begins, and aid will continue -- possibly billions of dollars of it, according to Holmes -- to flow into the country for months. Any attempt to overthrow the government or defy it with (largely futile) aid drops would likely have led to a cutoff of all aid and a politicization of the aid process. Now, we can look forward to more open UN and NGO access to cyclone victims, both for immediate aid relief and long term recovery and reconstruction, for many months to come. For all the flack that Mr. Ban and Mr. Holmes took for their sluggish diplomacy and lack of results, in the long run it appears that they've chosen the best tack.

This is not to say we shouldn't confront the regime's laughable constitutional referendum process, its brutal suppression of democracy, its continued detention of the leader of the democratic movement. We should. (Creatively, if that's what it takes.) But we should confront it separately. That's exactly what the UN is doing. The UN has a "good offices" political mission, led by Ibrahim Gambari, and hasn't remained silent about Aung Sun Suu Kyi. Mr. Ban, along with Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour and General Assembly President Sergim Kerim, condemned the house arrest. Granted, all of this probably won't make the political process in Myanmar any fairer, but at the very least, keeping Gambari's mission separate from Holmes's will save hundreds of thousands of people in the Irrawady Delta. At this point, I'll settle for that.

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