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In Burma, A Price for 'Stability'

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, May 18, 2008

TOKYO -- Quiet Asian diplomacy is proving as ineffective as Western bluster and U.N. moralizing in getting comprehensive aid to the victims of Burma's cyclone. They are being left to die in the tens of thousands by a world that promised but failed to develop the tools of humanitarian intervention.

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda did not hesitate to call Cyclone Nargis "a disaster of major proportions." But when I pressed him on supporting Western proposals to force Burma's ruling junta to open up to a needed flow of emergency supplies and foreign experts, Fukuda recoiled.

"When a government is saying 'Don't come, we won't let you in,' is it right to push our way into that country? We really have to think about that. Would that behavior really be humanitarian?" he asked, adding: "It is precisely for these circumstances that we have a U.N. . . . We would really like the U.N. to actively engage" with Burma.

But the United Nations, which in 2005 formally acknowledged its "responsibility to protect" civilians from the crimes and human rights abuses of their own governments, says that it is having little luck in pressuring the junta to let U.N. experts help the country's 1.6 million to 2.6 million "severely affected" cyclone victims.

Polite appeals from Fukuda, Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and other regional leaders have fared only marginally better. Asian aid workers have now been promised 160 visas. But in a week of interviews with leading Japanese politicians, civil servants and military officers, I found not a trace of disagreement with Fukuda's view that outsiders should avoid forceful intervention in such crises.

This is not because of a lack of compassion. Instead, the politics of disaster play differently in Asia than in the West, whether the focus is Burma's cyclone, China's deadly earthquake or the looming recurrence of famine in North Korea.

Coverage of human suffering is not nearly as extensive here, and governments do not face the emotional public campaigns to help other nations' victims that are mounted in the United States and Europe. Asian leaders treat humanitarian disaster as a cause to pursue statecraft and diplomacy as usual, rather than as a moment to show the public that they care.

Realpolitik, under siege in the West, is alive and well in Asia. China is breaking with old patterns in publicizing the devastation inflicted by its giant earthquake. But Beijing is also carefully following a political agenda in choosing which neighbors it will allow to send in relief.

And China, which is locked in intense competition with India for influence in Burma, is actively blocking U.N. action on the aftermath of the cyclone. In our conversation, which occurred one week after the May 3 storm struck Burma, Fukuda indicated that he wanted the United Nations to be more active in the present emergency. But he offered general support for China's hands-off approach to Burma:

"Asian countries are still in the process of moving toward democracy . . . and achieving economic development as well. If you try to impose on these countries -- do this or that -- in a rather roughshod manner . . . there are some countries that cannot respond positively."

Such an emphasis on internal stability -- even for governments that abuse and terrorize their citizens -- has been the main stumbling block to developing international standards and tools needed to carry out the U.N. General Assembly's 2005 World Summit Outcome declaration.

That document promised to provide universal "human security," defined as "freedom from fear and freedom from want." It also approved the principle of the United Nations' "responsibility to protect" defenseless populations, a provision championed by former secretary general Kofi Annan after the 1999 Kosovo crisis.

It is almost as if Annan foresaw the cruel dilemma that has been created by the dictatorship's blockade on foreign aid. There can be no more fundamental right than the right to food, yet the regime's paranoia prevents readily available relief supplies from being distributed to starving, homeless peasants who are being left to perish because of their rulers' political creed of fear.

What Annan probably did not foresee was the resistance by some and the inertia of others in the General Assembly when it came to living up to their word. No serious work has been done since Kosovo and Iraq to prevent the world from once again being faced with the equally unpalatable choices of armed intervention or acquiescing in massive death and deprivation.

The reluctance of Burma's Asian neighbors to support intervention makes that course impractical. Instead, regional realpolitik -- and its acceptance of extreme human misery as a price to be paid for "stability" -- allows the junta to get away with murder committed in the name of national sovereignty.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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