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May 06, 2008

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The government in Burma is horrible. But that is no reason to attach these sorts of conditions to assistance in the face of disaster.

What are you talking about? The U.S. gov't under George W. Bush is all about collective punishment for people with the "wrong" government, this is just another example.

Heh. This Administration basically had a casual, "so what?" attitude towards New Orleans being devastated by a storm: why should they be expected to show any more concern when it's Yangon?

What, is the American disaster team supposed to invade over their government's objections?

I think you're vastly mistaken about who's playing politics while people die here: The government which imposes a trivial requirement: Our aid being provided by our people. Or the government which would rather it's own people die, than comply with the trivial requirement.

Our government, meanwhile, has decided this is a good time to play politics

Um...Reuters has a slightly different story:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - First lady Laura Bush urged Myanmar's military rulers on Monday to accept a U.S. disaster response team that so far has been kept out, saying it would clear the way for broader relief in the wake of a devastating cyclone.

Um...Reuters has a slightly different story:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - First lady Laura Bush urged Myanmar's military rulers on Monday to accept a U.S. disaster response team that so far has been kept out, saying it would clear the way for broader relief in the wake of a devastating cyclone.

That reads curiously to me as the same story, but with a more pleasing pro-administration spin in its choice of language.

Why is it necessary for Burma to "accept a U.S. disaster team," Slart? Why is it that all the other countries of the world offering help are just offering help, and not attaching such a demand?

Notice that a phrase such as "clear the way for broader relief" contains no actual meaning beyond being simply a way to politically phrase a political demand.

Me, I'd notice a difference if, say, I was struggling to figure out how to survive while hoping for a disability claim to be approved, and on the one hand if someone or ones offered to donate some cash to my cause, or if they instead offered to send me a "team" that would ""clear the way for broader relief"," while everyone else just hit my PayPal account.

(Note: hypothetical all too purely hypothetical at present.)

What, is the American disaster team supposed to invade over their government's objections?

Why stop now?

Why is it necessary for Burma to "accept a U.S. disaster team," Slart?

It's not. I think we've just made it clear that we're not simply going to ship their government bales of cash, though.

What do you imagine broader relief to mean, Gary? I imagine something like what we did for Indonesia back in 2004. Could be me imagining things, though.

There are definitely two spins on this.

May 6 (Bloomberg) -- Myanmar's death toll from the weekend cyclone rose to at least 22,000 today as the nation's military rulers accepted only a trickle of the aid being offered by the rest of the world.

The government hasn't responded to requests for expedited visas and more open borders, said the United Nations. The UN began distributing 30 tons of locally stockpiled food as relief workers outside the country awaited permission to enter. Acceptance of aid may be complicated by the West's embrace of dissidents who seek an end to the ruling junta.

Same NYT, a slightly different take:

A growing list of countries have pledged aid and assistance but there appeared to be disagreement as to how to handle Myanmar’s authoritarian government, which may be suspicious of international interference.

“If it were a different situation we would be mobilizing some helicopters now,” said Tony Banbury, the regional director of the United Nations World Food Program. “We recognize that the government may not want international helicopters flying in their country for better or worse.”

The US Navy and US disaster teams were critical in relief efforts after the tsunami. Lectures on human rights aside, we mostly seem to be saying let us into your country and we’ll, um, help. The UN and “the West” seem to be in much the same position.

I think you're vastly mistaken about who's playing politics while people die here

There's no question that the Myanmar [*] regime is playing politics with relief efforts. However, that doesn't keep President Doofus from playing politics as well. European aid agencies are also being kept out, but you don't see the heads of the EU countries making conditions for offering aid.

[*] Is Myanmar or Burma the "correct" name for the country? My feeling is that Burma is the colonial name, and Myanmar is the "native language" name, but isn't Mynmar associated with the regime? I am totally confused at this point...

My post was submitted late -- others have responded better. Fell free to ignore.

but you don't see the heads of the EU countries making conditions for offering aid

We've already offered aid. In fact, we've already delivered aid. What's being said, here, is something like: let us in, and we can help you even more effectively.

Meanwhile, the UN disaster assesement team waits in Thailand. If we pretend they aren't, though, things will turn out just peachy.

"I think we've just made it clear that we're not simply going to ship their government bales of cash, though."

I'm no expert on disaster relief, but it's my understanding that shipping bales of cash isn't usually on offer.

Shipping bales of food, tents, blankets, medical supplies, and other supplies, it's my understanding, is.

"Lectures on human rights aside, we mostly seem to be saying let us into your country and we’ll, um, help."

I've been traveling, and even if I had full reading time and attention available, it's not at all clear to me I'd have deep insights into the details of our government's policy towards Burma this week, but one thing I'm sure of is that I can't determine what the detailed policy is based on a press aide's briefing language.

Foreign policy briefings are a tool of foreign policy; they're progaganda; they're not transparent accounts of What The Government Thinks. Treating them as the latter would be a huge and ahistoric error.

"[*] Is Myanmar or Burma the "correct" name for the country?"

Depends who you ask: the regime, or most other Burmese.

I'd suggest consulting the interwebs.

I wouldn't put "playing politics" with disaster relief past the Bush administration, but I also don't think it's unreasonable to stipulate what type of relief will be provided. Unconditional aid to a criminal government is unreasonable. Keeping out disaster-relief teams is unreasonable.

From what I understand, aid workers aren't being let in without visas and the government in Burma/Myanmar is not issuing visas. This was according to NPR yesterday evening, but I haven't heard about any change in that yet.

(Oddly, what we are complaining about Burma doing now is the same thing we did with New Orleans after Katrina. Other countries wanted to send in aid workers, but Bush & Co. wouldn't let them in...)

World Food ProgramPF gives what percentage to the actual food? 30-40? Their cash reserves are over a billion before the 200 million and the other money made off the rice price run by soft power civil society. The billion is needed for employees.

The delivery of the goods and services must be done by NGO or military employees. Why not let the army deliver the food and NGOs do the survey for aid?

Other countries wanted to send in aid workers, but Bush & Co. wouldn't let them in

The part of the story I remember was that Bush wanted to send in the National Guard to help, only Louisiana wouldn't authorize him to. So there is a sort of similarity, there.

I also recall that a huge portion of offered aid was in the form of oil from Iran, in exchange for lifted economic sanctions. Possibly there was aid that we ought to have taken, but I don't think that item passes the smell test.

WRT Myanmar vs. Burma: a few years back the multi-author team of specialists writing a history of modern Southeast Asia, of which I was editor, almost collapsed over precisely this issue. After lengthy and heated debate - covering some of the points mentioned in the Wikipedia article Gary linked to above - we finally decided that we should/would call polities what they were called by their rulers at the time, so it was Myanmar before the British took over, Burma under British rule and the independent "Union of Burma," and Myanmar again (in English) since 1989. (It's "Myanma" in the local language - all agree on that.) Our core/compromise position was that to persist in calling it "Burma" nowadays was essentially a symbolic protest against the regime; whereas as individuals we might choose to make such a political statement, it probably was inappropriate in a textbook.

Despite this compromise, one member of our group felt so aggrieved by it that in discussing the wars between Siam (AKA Thailand) and said country in the 18th century, he could not bring himself to call the latter "Myanmar." But nor would I as editor allow him, after our discussion, to call it "Burma." So in the chapter on traditional Siam, it refers only to "invaders from the West" - you have to read the Myanmar chapter to find out who they actually were!

FWIW, there is no serious debate over the proposition that the current regime in Myanmar is rotten, among the nastiest in the world. This, however, does not in itself relieve foreigners/foreign governments, including the USA, from all responsibility for the way that we act toward the country in times of crisis, as others have noted above. Just saying "Well, they're worse," though undoubtedly true, is not particularly helpful.

I agree with the various sentiments to the effect that our diplomacy is absolutely ham-handed. You can take that as understatement if you wish.

Still, it boils down to this: Myanmar is welcome to financial and material aid, but the reality of it is that aid in the form of organized assistance is literally impossible if the group of assistants is held up at the border. This applies regardless of whether the assistants in question are from the UN, the US or anywhere else. Saying as much is simply noting a point of fact.

And of course there are ways and ways of saying as much, and means to make that statement that aren't a public pillorying of the people responsible at the expense of actually getting the job done. Ham-handed, as I said.

OT, dr. ngo, I've been reading Will Durant's The Story of Civilization, and was wondering what historians in the here and now think of his works, several decades after he wrote them. I think as a writer, he's an interesting guy, and he certainly does do a lot of footnoting. It certainly is interesting, reading (for example) about an India in which Gandhi is still alive at the time of writing. Or about Japan, written in advance of WWII.

According to German papers helpers from both the EU (no strings attached) and the US (possibly strings attached) are not allowed into Burma, only helpers from "friendly" countries (as e.g. China; the PRC doesn't often criticize the human rights situation in Burma). Even those seem to be excluded from the actually affected areas but have to stay in the Rangoon area.
Additionally the Junta was warned several days in advance of the impedding catastrophe and did exactly nothing, not even a warning to the public was given.

Authoritarian regimes tend to view humanitarian disasters as opportunities to cement their own power at foreign expense. That's what's going on here: The Burmese government wants the aid material, but no foreign aid workers from most countries, because distributing the aid themselves strengthens the government, while foreign aid workers distributing it will improve the local reputation of countries criticizing the regime.

China is an exception only because China having a good rep in Burma doesn't hurt the Burmese government.

Personally, I find James Fallows's position on the proper nomenclature for Burma convincing.

Fallows' position is certainly a defensible one, but I myself don't find it "convincing."

For one thing, this is not a new regime in Burma (comparable to the new rulers of "Aztlan" in his hypothetical). They've been in power since 1962. We may - and I certainly do - find them reprehensible, but they're not going away, and I suspect we can find more useful means of expressing our displeasure with them than going, "Nyah, nyah, we're not going to call your country what you want, so there!," which is mostly what insisting on "Burma" entails.

Moreover, they have NOT changed the name of the country. What they changed - twenty years ago now - is the official English translation of the name. BFD.

We can, of course, attempt to deny the regime dignity and legitimacy by insisting on the old name, much as we called Taiwan "China" (actually "The Republic of China") for decades after 1949, thus thwarting the efforts of the Peking regime (or Peiping regime, if you're a real hardass purist) in "Red China" to achieve recognition as the rulers of the mainland. That really helped, didn't it?

I'm pretty agnostic on it myself. Names are just words; not true or false, just more or less helpful. In that part of the world, I tend to use "Myanmar," because that's what most others understand. Here in the US (e.g., in identifying the source of some paintings I own) I tend to refer to "Burma," because most Americans don't know where/what "Myanmar" is. Or I wind up, like the publications Fallows cites, calling it "Myanmar" and then in the next sentence, or even the next breath, glossing this as "Burma" for my uncomprehending listener.

By all means call it "Burma" if you like; you're in very good company if you do, including Aung San Suu Kyi. But it's not necessary, IMHO, to suggest that this is the only "proper nomenclature" for the country, and imply that anyone who utters the term "Myanmar" is propping up a regime that otherwise would topple of its own villainous weight.

OT (but Slarti started it!): As far as I can tell, no serious/academic historian has taken the Durants seriously for at least half a century, maybe more. If their work is considered at all, it's as "popularization," generally a dirty word in the profession. (The French refer to haute vulgarisation, IIRC.)

They wrote well - hence their popularity - and are probably not actually Wrong in most of what they write about. (When they were writing, most history was political/military/diplomatic, focussing on rulers, and/or intellectual/cultural, focussing on elites. These areas will have changed less since they wrote.) So if you're enjoying the book(s) and feel that you're learning something, more power to you.

OTOH, their interpretation is going to be way way way out of date, and of necessity they are/were ignorant of advances in social and economic history - to say nothing of gender history, ecological history, historical demography, etc. - over the past few generations.

What you might want to do once you have finished - assuming you wish to continue - is go find a modern "world history" (William McNeill is the best-known pioneer of the contemporary movement, but even his major works are thirty years old) and read it for comparison. I bet you'll be amazed at how much you discover that the Durants never even mentioned, as well as by some interpretative arguments that turn what you thought you "knew" right on its head. Any tentative generalizations you may reach about what "history teaches us" based just on the Durants are likely to be in need of extensive re-assesment at that point.

Enjoy!

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