Support 100 years of independent journalism.

15 May 2008

Burma’s tragedy exposes the world’s lack of a disaster strategy

Forced intervention would be folly, but there are better weapons in the west’s arsenal than military

By Aloysius McDowell

As we go to press the European Union’s aid chief, Louis Michel, remains in the long queue of aid officials and relief experts waiting in Bangkok for visas to enter Burma. The military junta will not let an emergency get in the way of strict procedures for keeping prying foreign eyes away from its cruel regime. As a result, more than ten days after Cyclone Nargis ripped through the Irrawaddy Delta area, hundreds of thousands of desperate Burmese are still waiting for food and shelter. Millions more face disease and destitution as life-saving supplies fail to reach those in need. As the EU aid commissioner pesters Burmese authorities for a meeting on how to open up a relief corridor to move food, water, medicines and shelter, the death toll inevitably rises.

Meanwhile, across Burma’s northern border, China has suffered its worst earthquake for 30 years, in the province of Sichuan. The death toll there, officially 15,000 as we go to press, will inevitably mount as rescue workers discover the true scale of the impact. Two terrible disasters. Yet the response of the respective countries could not be more different. Our columnist Lindsey Hilsum tells us from Sichuan that the relief effort is on a huge scale, with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao immediately mobilising 50,000 troops and around £15m in emergency aid. In a country without NGOs, the state expects to provide for the people in disasters and does so with an army trained to deal with such events (see

Unhappily, China’s disaster doubles Burma’s woes. First, it necessarily dilutes the aid effort. Second, China is the country within the region which might most easily have brokered Burmese co-operation in an international relief programme. And a negotiated deal is desperately needed. For, despite tough talking, initially from the US and France and then notably and foolishly from David Cameron, that the generals must be forced to heel by military intervention, all agencies and experts on the ground warn against such a strategy. Dramatic air drops will not reach those in need and a cruel and reckless regime such as the generals’ would give no thought to the safety of the Burmese people in its response to such provocation. The suffering would merely be greater.

Certainly, an armed intervention could be justified under the United Nations post-Rwanda “responsibility to protect” doctrine, as David Miliband has stated. And a moral case could be made, too, for invading Burma, imprisoning the generals and charging them with crimes against humanity. We may even agree with Tony Blair’s “Chicago doctrine” of liberal interventionism in an interconnected world. But if the aim is to save lives, talk of force against 400,000 Burmese troops is folly, as Miliband has also made clear.

This does not leave us impotent. There are better weapons in the west’s arsenal than military planes. Patient humanitarian aid is taking effect. Save the Children’s 500 aid workers already inside Burma have managed to reach 100,000 people. The rate at which aid is arriving in the country is at last speeding up. In addition, the US could make better use of its influence on Burma’s neighbours in the region (not least on friends within Asean, as David Fullbrook argues on page 16). Asean intervention could prove more acceptable to Burma than the EU’s, as was shown last June when China facilitated a meeting between US and Burmese government representatives. Quiet diplomacy can sometimes be more effective than shouting.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Burma’s generals may not, after all, survive the catastrophe of Cyclone Nargis. Many of their troops were reported to have shown little enthusiasm for putting down last September’s “saffron uprising”. The cyclone could be their last military parade.

Yet there are still things to shout about. Why does each disaster take the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs so completely by surprise: why are there no standby helicopters, planes, international relief troops? If China can mobilise so effectively in the face of a major earthquake, why is the rest of the world so lamentably ill-prepared each time catastrophe strikes?

Green shoots of (home) growth

Perhaps the Prime Minister should consider hiring Jamie Oliver as an adviser. At least the irritatingly cheerful chef has a practical solution for one of our economic woes. For the obvious response to the news that consumer inflation has reached a 13-month peak, driven partly by rising food costs, would be for every household to grow more vegetables – which is precisely what Oliver has been encouraging us to do for ages.

Growing your own offers an impressive mix of virtue and self-interest: you can eat better (freshly picked asparagus! Baby carrots!), save money and eliminate from your carbon footprint all those food miles that used to bring your “bonbon winter squash” or “fairy tale eggplant” from the United States by air.

Allotments had been in slow decline since the Second World War. It is fair to say that these bijou plots were not considered exactly à la mode. But in the past ten years the numbers have begun to grow again, encouraged by green and foodie concerns. Plus there’s the fact that urban trends now favour compost over Cavalli; it is infinitely more fashionable to show off your organic credentials, by serving up home-grown arugula, for instance, than to flaunt the latest garments from the catwalks of Milan.

In London, with limited garden space, the demand for allotments is very strong. The new mayor wants councils to provide more. Let’s hope he can deliver, because, for once, the end really would justify the beans.

Topics in this article: