Can Indignation Alone Move A Junta?

Myanmar family, who survived last week's destructive cyclone Nargis, stay in a temporary shelter in the outskirts of Yangon
Myanmar family, who survived last week's destructive cyclone Nargis, stay in a temporary shelter in the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, on Sunday May 11, 2008. (AP Photo)
AP Photo

By CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey.

Several years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had a poster which sums up the plight of an estimated 2.5 million victims of the Myanmar cyclone.

It showed a hungry African child sitting with an empty bowl before him. The headline read: "I was hungry and you formed a committee to discuss the matter." Across the bottom of the poster was the simple message: "Thank you."

The refusal of the ruling military junta to allow international relief workers to assist in the disaster has provoked frustration, moral outrage and righteous indignation - but no concrete action. What is needed now is a serious consideration at the highest levels, both United Nations and governmental, of forced intervention.

French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner has argued that Myanmar (also referred to as Burma) is a legitimate case for such coercive involvement under a principle called "responsibility to protect" which was unanimously endorsed by 150 heads of state at the 2005 U.N. World Summit.

The proposal (sometimes referred to as R2P) is concerned with protecting vulnerable populations from "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

Kouchner is more gung-ho than is usual for foreign ministers, an attitude born out of the zeal that led him to found Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), the relief agency with arguably the best record of any NGO for being first-in/last-out of some of the most dangerous and needy places in the world.

But he has a point.

The definition of "crimes against humanity," as laid down in the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, as well as in customary international law, embraces widespread or systematic torture and other such persecution and "other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health."

There is a danger of overstating or misinterpreting the case, to the detriment of intervention is future crises, according to Gareth Evans of the International Crisis Group, who helped draw up the R2P doctrine.

But as Evans wrote in a recent article:

"If what the generals are now doing, in effectively denying relief to hundreds of thousands of people at real and immediate risk of death, can itself be characterised as a crime against humanity, then the responsibility to protect principle does indeed cut in. The Canadian-sponsored commission report that initiated the R2P concept in fact anticipated just this situation, in identifying one possible case for the application of military force as 'overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes, where the state concerned is either unwilling or unable to cope, or call for assistance, and significant loss of life is occurring or threatened'."
With UNICEF warning of starving children, health officials fearfully monitoring cholera, and a body count that even the regime was forced to admit was at least double its original estimates, the Myanmar's government's intransigence is approaching that definition by any reasonable interpretation.

The case is slowly being made.

Interviewed on the BBC over the weekend, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the sluggish response of the generals who make up Myanmar's ruling junta as "inhuman." Brown said that a natural disaster "is being made into a man-made catastrophe by the negligence, the neglect and the inhuman treatment of the Burmese people by a regime that is failing to act and to allow the international community to do what it wants to do."

Part of the problem may be that the generals are not even really aware of just how dire their situation is. The junta's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, is the only one who can make the decision to let foreign relief workers in, according to U Win Min, a lecturer at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and an expert on Myanmar's military.

As far as is known, General Shwe has not left his remote capital of Naypyidaw to look at the storm-damaged delta in the south, and the chances are good that even if his underlings understand the gravity of the situation, they are not telling him what is going on.

"They do not dare to give their ideas to the top general," Win Min told CBS News in an interview. "They live in the air. They are out of touch with reality. I mean, they don't want to hear about bad news. So the people under him are not reporting accurately what is happening on the ground."

The reclusive regime's paranoia about surrendering even a modicum of its control has held up tons of water, food, blankets, tents, mosquito nets, tarpaulins and medicine in the overburdened main airport - victims of poor infrastructure, bureaucracy and other chokeholds.

Win Min suggested that it was up to world leaders, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and especially the Chinese leadership, to tell the junta what is going on (although there is no guarantee, of course, that the generals will listen).

"What they are trying to do," Win Min said, "is limit the international assistance to the level that people just barely survive." That way, the chances of open dissent are minimized.

But it may not be working.

In a report datelined Yangon, The New York Times reported on Sunday that a banner hung on the outside of a seven-story apartment building in Yangon read: "We don't want gold, we just need water." The Times report pointed out that "in the Burmese language, the written words for gold and water are nearly identical. The banner also took a swipe at General Shwe. In Burmese, shwe means 'gold.'"

The international community seems to fear that any unapproved intervention will provoke General Shwe and his regime into the kind of violent reaction it has shown towards internal dissent.

Along with a French ship loaded with relief supplies and 11,000 U.S. sailors and Marines in a task force off the Myanmar coast already, British, French and Australian warships are converging on the area. Thai and Indian military missions have also been approved by their governments.

Whether or not a Myanmar child replaces the African urchin on a poster may well depend on whether or not they replace righteous indignation.