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