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Silence From Our Sabre Rattlers as Burma's Dying Cry Out to be Saved


What are we waiting for? Where now is liberal interventionism? Over 100,000 people are dead after a cyclone in the Irrawaddy delta and the United Nations has declared that one and a half million people, deprived of aid for a week, are at risk of death. Barely ten per cent are reported to have received any help at all. The world stands ready to save them. The warehouses of Asia are crammed with supplies. Ships and planes are on station. Nothing happens.

Anyone who has visited this exquisite part of the world will know how avoidable is further catastrophe to the delta people. They are resourceful, peaceable and hugely resilient. Like those of low-lying Bangladesh next door, they are used to extreme weather. Their agriculture is fertile and they are self-sufficient in most things. But no one can survive instant starvation and disease.

They need not wait. There are three giant C130s loaded and ready in Thailand. There are American and French ships in the area, fortuitously on a disaster relief exercise, with shelters, clothing, latrines, medicines and water decontamination equipment. Above all there are helicopters vital in an area where most roads are impassable by flooding and fallen trees. The Australian aid agency, World Vision, has 600 staff in Burma and tons of supplies waiting in Dubai. The world cannot prevent natural calamities, but since the tsunami of 2004 it has learned how to cope with their aftermath.

Nothing can be done because the Burmese military regime refuses to permit it. Instead it is wasting time this weekend holding a nationwide referendum, devoid of open debate, to legitimise its hold on power and exclude the opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The regime last week impounded the only two UN relief planes that managed to land in Rangoon, forcing the UN to suspend further flights. The regime's leader, hiding in his jungle "capital", refused even to take a call from the secretary-general, Bang Ki Moon. Visas are denied to doctors and logistical experts. What has been allowed in from China, Thailand and Indonesia is a trickle and must be distributed by the Burmese army, which cannot cope. Where 40 relief planes a day should be landing at Rangoon there is barely one.

Hundreds of thousands of people are thus condemned to death by one thing alone, the viciousness of a dictatorship more concerned with its pride and xenophobia than with the wellbeing of its citizens. Like Soviet regimes of old, the Burmese government would rather pretend that disasters have not occurred than admit it cannot handle them. When the cyclone tore off the roof of Rangoon's Insein jail, crammed with 10,000 prisoners, and part of it caught fire, the guards opened fire and killed 36. An aid worker told the BBC, "They are murdering their own people."

I have opposed many of the macho military interventions conducted by the west over the past decade. Their justifications have been obscure, their motives mixed and their morality situational, especially those aimed at "regime change". Those in Afghanistan and Iraq had the additional defect of built-in failure.

On the other hand the west did intervene to try to stop humanitarian catastrophes in Bosnia from 1992, Somalia in 1993, Kosovo in 1998 and Sierra Leone in 2000. The failure to intervene in Rwanda in 1994 and more recently in Sudan's Darfur province was generally attributed not to timidity but to the logistical difficulty of deploying power in the African interior.

These interventions were not ideological, whether "liberal" or "neo-con". They were to save lives from being lost by the thousand. They were covered by international law (possibly not Kosovo) because the UN charter's respect for territorial integrity also stipulates that it "shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures" to avert a humanitarian crisis.

This was reinforced when the Security Council in 2005 and 2006 imposed a responsibility on the international community to protect people whose governments failed to do so. It castigated in particular the "intentional denial of humanitarian assistance". Such an extension of the concept of military intervention was advocated by Tony Blair in his Chicago speech of 1998, when it was dismissed by the Americans (pre-9/11) as irresponsible. Today it is widely regarded as legitimate, even by those opposed to much of the belligerent militancy that ensued under Blair and George Bush.

It is hard to think of a more glaring application of the humanitarian principle than today's Burma. In none of the above interventions was anything like the same number of lives at risk as the 2m now threatened in the Irrawaddy delta. This is eight times the 230,000 reckoned to have died in the 2004 tsunami.

In Burma, the airlifting of supplies from offshore vessels to stricken areas would indeed be an offence against the sovereignty of Burma. But the intervention would not constitute an attack on a government or occupy its territory. Indeed it would be occasioned strictly because of the lack of government in a particular territory. It would be to save the lives of people abandoned to their deaths by their rulers.

Yet where today are the brave rattlers of sabres against the Iraqis, the Afghans and the Iranians? The American ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, says he is "outraged by the slowness of the response" of the Burmese authorities. His outrage will bring scant comfort to those dying in the delta.

On Friday the British and French foreign ministers, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, announced that "we look to the regime" to lift restrictions on aid distribution. Nobody "looked to" Milosevic to stop slaughtering Kosovans or the rebels to stop the killing in Sierra Leone. We intervened.

The Foreign Office remarked last week that there was "no excuse" for delay and then thought of one. The British chairman of the UN security council, John Sawyer, claimed that the 2006 resolution referred only to "acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity rather than government responses to natural disasters." But in 2001 there was no evidence that the Taliban were committing such acts, yet Britain intervened. And what is happening in Burma if not an "intentional denial of humanitarian assistance."

The option of sending in relief supplies by air may well face logistical objections. Ships and heavy-lift equipment must be in position, with air cover to ensure the safety of the operation from possible retaliation by the Burmese. There must be some sense of order on the ground to ensure that drops are other than random, though at some point a starving and dying population would presumably welcome any help rather than none.

It may be the case that diplomatic pressure on the regime might soon force it to reverse its negligence - though at present this is unlikely. Indeed the west's policy of merely hurling abuse at it looks counter-productive. A regime that turns away the Red Cross, will not take calls from the UN or even listen to its friendly super-power China seems immune to pressure.

There is no justification under the UN charter for intervening to topple the Burmese military regime. That task would rightly be opposed by other powers in the region and must one day be performed by the Burmese themselves. But aid drops over the Irrawaddy delta are nothing to do with that case. The outside world has waited a week, and protested to no effect.

Either way some enforced intervention must surely be planned. The British aid minister, Douglas Alexander, said last week it would be "incendiary". He did not explain why a "dump-and-run" of emergency supplies in the delta would be incendiary - compared, for instance, to his antics in Afghanistan.

He cannot hold to the thesis that Burma is not ripe for "liberal intervention" because the loss of life is the result of a natural disaster rather than political or military oppression. What is this fine distinction between a massacre and what the military are now inflicting on the Burmese people? A corpse is a corpse.

This catastrophe is not past but ongoing. A western world adept at intervening elsewhere on a humanitarian pretext is suddenly inert. Why? I suspect the reason is that it has too much intervention on its plate already. The Burmese must die because we are too busy pretending to save Afghans and Iraqis. To such cynicism has liberal intervention sunk.