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    Southeast Asia
     May 10, 2008
The case for invading Myanmar
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - With United States warships and air force planes at the ready, and over 1 million of Myanmar's citizens left bedraggled, homeless and susceptible to water-borne diseases by Cyclone Nagris, the natural disaster presents an opportunity in crisis for the US.

A unilateral - and potentially United Nations-approved - US military intervention in the name of humanitarianism could easily turn the tide against the impoverished country's unpopular military leaders, and simultaneously rehabilitate the legacy of lame-duck US


President George W Bush's controversial pre-emptive military policies.

Myanmar's ruling junta has responded woefully to the cyclone disaster, costing more human lives than would have been the case with the approval of a swift international response. One week after the killer storm first hit, Myanmar's junta has only now allowed desperately needed international emergency supplies to trickle in. It continues to resist US and UN disaster relief and food aid personnel from entering the country. Officially, 60,000 people have died; the figure is probably closer to 100,000.

The US is prepared to deliver US$3.25 million in initial assistance for survivors, which if allowed by the junta could be rapidly delivered to the worst-hit areas using US Air Force and naval vessels, including the US C-130 military aircraft now in neighboring Thailand, and the USS Kitty Hawk and USS Nimitz naval warships, currently on standby in nearby waters.

With the host government's approval, the US military led the multinational emergency response to the 2004 tsunami, including in the politically sensitive, majority Muslim areas of Aceh, Indonesia. The response to Myanmar's tragedy, in comparison, is being undermined by the play of international power politics, including most notably the military government's antagonistic relations with the US.

Washington has long-held economic sanctions against the regime, which were recently enhanced through financial sanctions against individual junta members, their families and business associates. Despite the economic suffering the sanctions have had on the grassroots population, many Myanmar citizens support the measures against their perceived abusive government, according to one Myanmar researcher. Early last year, the US tried to have Myanmar's abysmal rights record put onto the UN Security Council's agenda, but the motion was later vetoed by Myanmar allies China and Russia.

In the wake of the cyclone, the criminality of the junta's callous policies has taken on new human proportions in full view of the global community. Without a perceived strong UN-led response to the natural disaster, hard new questions will fast arise about the UN's own relevance and ability to manage global calamities.

This week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher suggested that the UN invoke its so-called "responsibility to protect" civilians as legitimate grounds to force aid delivery, regardless of the military government's objections. On Friday, a UN spokesman called the junta's refusal to issue visas to aid workers "unprecedented" in the history of humanitarian work.

Because of the UN's own limited powers of projection, such a response would require US military management and assets. US officials appear to be building at least a rhetorical case for a humanitarian intervention. While offering relief and aid with one hand, top US officials have with the other publicly slapped at the Myanmar government's lame response to the disaster.

Shari Villarosa, head of the US Embassy in Yangon, has challenged the veracity of the government's official death count, telling reporters that storm-related casualties could eventually exceed 100,000 at a time the junta claimed 22,500 had perished. The junta has since revised up its official death toll figure to around 60,000.

US First Lady Laura Bush, who last year publicly goaded Myanmar's population to rise up against the military junta during the "Saffron" revolution, has in the wake of the cyclone revived her criticisms, referring to the government as "inept" and claiming that despite it receiving forewarning it failed to alert its citizens of the impending cyclone.

"It should be a simple matter," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, referring to the junta's refusal to allow foreign aid workers into the country. "It's not a matter of politics. It's a matter of a humanitarian crisis."

Armed and ready
Should the junta continue to resist foreign assistance while social and public health conditions deteriorate in clear view of global news audiences, the moral case for a UN-approved, US-led humanitarian intervention will grow. Fistfights have already reportedly broken out over food supplies in Yangon, raising the risk that Myanmar troops could soon be called to put down unrest in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Last September, Myanmar's army opened fire against and killed an unknown number of street demonstrators.

Apart from putting significant US military assets on standby, there are no indications yet that President George W Bush or the Pentagon is preparing a unilateral rescue operation. Yet policymakers in Washington are now no doubt weighing the potential pros and cons of a pre-emptive humanitarian mission in a geo-strategically pivotal and suddenly weakened country that Bush administration officials have recently and repeatedly referred to as an "outpost of tyranny".

Within that policy matrix, the deteriorating situation presents a unique opportunity for Bush to burnish his foreign policy legacy. Some note that a US military response to Myanmar's humanitarian crisis would follow in the footsteps of Bush's presidential father, George H W Bush, who after declaring victory over the Soviet Union's communist threat, moved to demonstrate to the post-Cold War world that US military might would be a force for global good.

That included his government's US military-led humanitarian aid mission in civil war- and famine-struck Somalia in August 1992 that morphed later in the same year into a full-blown US Marine invasion of the capital Mogadishu, including the airport and main port, to protect the integrity of future aid deliveries from marauding militias. That military mission was mostly abandoned by 1993 after fierce fighting between US troops and Somali militias, while television images of a slain US soldier being dragged through Mogadishu's streets took the idealistic edge off the supposedly humanitarian military exercise.

This time, it is almost sure-fire that Myanmar's desperate population would warmly welcome a US-led humanitarian intervention, considering that its own government is now withholding emergency supplies. Like his father then, Bush is now clearly focused on his presidential legacy, which to date will be judged harshly due to his government's controversial pre-emptive military policies, waged until now exclusively in the name of fighting global terror.

In an era when the US routinely launches pre-emptive military strikes, including its 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2003 Predator drone assassination attack against an alleged al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, a similar drone attack in 2006 in northwestern Pakistan, and last week's attack against a reputed al-Qaeda ringleader in Somalia, it is not inconceivable that the US might yet intervene in military-run Myanmar, particularly if in the days ahead the social and political situation tilts towards anomie.

Whether or not a US military intervention in the name of humanitarianism would, as in Somalia, eventually morph into an armed attempt at regime change and nation-building would likely depend on the population's and Myanmar military's response to the first landing of US troops. Some political analysts speculate that Myanmar's woefully under-resourced and widely unpopular troops would defect en masse rather than confront US troops.

While Myanmar ally China would likely oppose a US military intervention, Beijing has so far notably goaded the junta to work with rather than against international organizations like the UN, and more to the point, it lacks the power projection capabilities to militarily challenge the US in a foreign theater. Most notably, the US would have at its disposal a globally respected and once democratically elected leader in Aung San Suu Kyi to lead a transitional government to full democracy.

Many have speculated that Myanmar's notoriously paranoid junta abruptly moved the national capital 400 kilometers north from Yangon to its mountain-rung redoubt at Naypyidaw in November 2005 due to fears of a possible pre-emptive US invasion, similar to the action against Iraq. Now, Cyclone Nagris and the government's woeful response to the disaster have suddenly made that once paranoid delusion into a strong pre-emptive possibility, one that Bush's lame-duck presidency desperately needs.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be reached at swcrispin@atimes.com

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