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May 21, 2008

Military Humanitarianism Won't Help Myanmar


by Leon Hadar

Reading the memoirs of European colonialists who led the efforts to extend Western control over parts of Asia and Africa in the 19th century, one cannot help but be moved by what seem to be the genuine convictions held by these diplomats, soldiers, businessmen, and missionaries that they were helping spread civilization among the backward people of the world, who should have been grateful for the assistance and guidance of Europe's paternalistic powers.

According to that myth of the White Man's Burden, selfless devotion and not – God forbid! – political, military, or economic interests, were behind the imperialist drive of Britain and France in what is now called the Third World.

That the Indians, the Chinese, or the Africans would resist that show of goodwill exhibited by these supposedly altruistic outside powers seemed to reflect another sign of intellectual underdevelopment displayed by "these people" and their ungrateful and power-driven leaders.

One could hear the echoes from this past in the recent urging by British, French, and American officials and pundits that the leaders of Myanmar should be forced to open their borders to Western aid agencies as part of an effort to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which has devastated the country.

Both British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have proposed that the United Nations Security Council should consider the use of collective military action to get the aid into the country.

At the same time, columnists in influential American and European newspapers have argued that the most effective way to help the suffering power of Myanmar is by doing a "regime change" in Yangon and replacing the military junta there with international peacekeeping forces engaged in "nation-building."

Both Mr. Miliband and Mr. Kouchner represent left-of-center governments and have insisted that they are not trying to bring back to life old-fashioned imperialism, only trying to advance what has been referred to as "humanitarian interventionism."

This principle seems to suggest that democratic governments have the right and the obligation to intervene in the affairs of other nation-states, including by deploying military power, when their governments are perceived – by the democratic governments and their elites – as abusers of the rights of their own people.

You don't have to be a fan of the cruel and paranoid regime that rules Myanmar to question this somewhat revolutionary principle, which runs contrary to the traditional notion of national sovereignty that has been pivotal in the modern international system.

Indeed, violating that rule, in particular by using military power, has been considered an act of war. That the British and the French in the early 21st century, not unlike their esteemed predecessors in the 19th century, rationalize such moves by portraying themselves as "do-gooders" who are standing-up to the "evildoers" makes very little difference here.

But it's a slippery slope when you start challenging common principles and violate accepted rules that for better or for worse have helped secure a fragile peace in the international system.

Who is going to decide what a "democratic" government is and how to define "abuse"? Why shouldn't the international community have the right and the obligation to intervene in Saudi Arabia to help provide political rights to more than half of the population (women) there? And what about the rights of the Roma people in parts of Europe? Or for that matter, the African-American victims of hurricane Katrina in Louisiana or the victims of white racism in America's inner-cities?

The Saudis, the Europeans, and the Americans would consider such proposals as absurd (and rightly so) and would certainly question the intentions of those raising them.

In much of the discussion about the role of the aid agencies in Myanmar (or in other parts of the world), one very rarely hears about the way many of these organizations have gradually been transformed into another Big Business whose motivations and policies need to be addressed.

And the notion that the Europeans and the Americans may have non-altruistic reasons for establishing a foothold in Myanmar, which happens to be located in a strategically and economically important part of the world, is certainly a legitimate issue to raise in the aftermath of the American military fiasco in Iraq.

The architects of the Iraq adventure also advanced the notion that all they wanted to do in Mesopotamia was liberate Iraq from a cruel military regime.

Copyright 2008 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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