Every day, every minute, and every second the international community waits for the thumbs-up from Burma's sadist junta to deliver vital medical supplies and food aid into the country increases the possibility of worsening an already gargantuan humanitarian catastrophe. Even the Orwellian State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), Burma's ruling government, admits that 38,000 people have perished already. Meanwhile, the U.S. estimates that the body count could quickly rise to over 100,000. The Red Cross has also estimated that at least 2.5 million people across Burma could soon feel the effects of the cyclone in the form of extreme poverty, disease, or worse.
Despite these astonishing numbers, the international community has barely begun to respond to this crisis, which began in early May. It is not due to a lack of supplies or resources, but rather simply to SPDC's refusal to grant visas to relief personnel and to open its airspace. The U.S., for one, has parked the USS Essex off Burma's coast carrying thousands of tons of water and medical supplies, helicopters, and the most cutting-edge of logistical equipment. In neighboring Thailand, the U.S. has also stationed numerous cargo planes and helicopters ready to help, but they mostly remain grounded. The U.N., commonly criticized for its lethargic response to such crises, has engaged in intense diplomatic negotiations with Burma's dictator, General Than Shwe. While U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon may have secured a gentlemen's agreement with Than Shwe to let aid workers begin flowing in, details of the accord must still be worked out and Burma has a colorful history of playing political stalling games. Elsewhere in the region, an army of other states, NGOs, and humanitarian organizations continue to face a bureaucratic odyssey just so that their apolitical relief staff members can do their jobs.
At this point, the U.S. alone is in the position to end the suffering. Specifically, the U.S. should stop pandering to a criminally negligent regime and invade Burma by committing itself to a full-scale "carpet bombing" of water, food, and medical supplies. While some, including the SPDC, have played the national sovereignty card in regard to this option, it simply is not applicable in this situation. Remember the Berlin Airlift of 1948, the establishment of a no-fly zone in Northern Iraq after Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in 1992, and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's 1999 declaration that "no government has the right to hide behind national sovereignty in order to violate human rights"? All these events prove that sovereignty cannot and should not be viewed through a lens of all or nothing. During this exceptional crisis, a "soft invasion" of Burma has numerous advantages.
First and foremost, a comprehensive airdrop initiative would bring much needed supplies to the areas most affected by the cyclone faster than any other alternative. Even if the SPDC follows through on the U.N. deal, it is still anyone's guess if aid workers would have unfettered access to hard-hit areas like the Irrawaddy Delta region where aid is most sorely needed. There is also a high risk that the SPDC could steal or manipulate the resources at the distribution level, acting not only to block aid but to further increase the power of the government.
Second, the risk for international political fallout is minimal. Burma's armed forces, composed of gangs and thugs, may be effective at brutalizing Buddhist monks and stopping peaceful democratic demonstrations, but it is no match for a coordinated U.S.-led military effort to deliver aid to the country's people through an air campaign. Burma also continues to be a pariah in the international community with the exceptions of China and, to a lesser extent, Russia.China, however, is unlikely to raise serious public objections to the airdrop. With the Olympics so near and because of the recent earthquake disaster in Sichuan province, China does not want to open itself to more human rights complaints and charges of hypocrisy. Moreover, if the U.S. sticks to a purely humanitarian campaign, China would likely face significant damage to its geopolitical image by overreacting to food rations and medicine being dropped to help cyclone victims.
Finally, proceeding with the airdrop would be a critical first step in restoring America's human rights credibility and leadership in the world. Instead of employing a foreign policy reliant upon the end of gun barrel, the U.S. would be using what has historically been considered its greatest strength: generosity and commitment to human rights.
The time for the U.S. to act is now—every second could make the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands of people in Burma who are struggling to survive. Crewmembers aboard the USS Essex have reported that they may have to begin dumping supplies overboard if they are not permitted to enter the country soon, and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated that he may ask the USS Essex and other forces in the area to withdraw if the situation remains static. Please visit the U.S. Campaign for Burma website and send a letter to the leaders of the U.S., U.K., and France telling them to begin dropping emergency aid into Burma even without the junta's permission. Tick, tock.
Ryan Kaminski is a fourth-year in the College majoring in international studies and political science. He is a member of the Free Burma Project.