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Debate Storms Over Burma Aid

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In February, while touring a memorial to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, President George W. Bush decried the potential horrors of international inaction in the face of humanitarian crises. “It reminds me that we must not let these kind of actions take place,” he said.

Three months later, another humanitarian crisis exacerbated by another brutal regime has stricken Burma, where the ruling junta has refused to allow Western access to victims of Cyclone Nargis. With estimates of the dead already topping 100,000, and an estimated 2.4 million of a nation of 55 million at risk of starvation and disease, Washington lawmakers of both parties are pressuring Bush to take his own advice. Echoing the calls from some humanitarian groups, these lawmakers are urging a sort-of humanitarian invasion, allowing the distribution of supplies despite Burma’s objections.

But on the world stage, regretting inaction is much easier than acting, and the political implications of such an intervention make it unlikely. China has strong ties to Burma, renamed Myanmar by the junta, and an encroachment on Burmese sovereignty would strain U.S. ties with Beijing at a time when America’s economy is ever more reliant on smooth trade relations with Asia’s economic giant. Instead, the White House seems poised to punt the negotiations to the United Nations and Burma’s neighbors rather than pressure the junta directly.

The unusual nature of the crisis has turned politics on its head. Critics who have blasted the White House for a lack of diplomacy in relation to Iraq are suddenly calling for an intervention that ignores negotiation — not to mention the sovereignty of a foreign nation. The Bush administration, in turn, seems prepared to leave the responsibility to the same United Nations it has skewered, on occasions, as inept, impotent or both.

But on the world stage, regretting inaction is much easier than acting, and the political implications of such an intervention make it unlikely.

But the difference in approaches, some aid groups warn, could be thousands of lives. “This is really a crime against humanity,” said Jennifer Quigley, advocacy coordinator for U.S. Campaign for Burma, which favors an immediate intervention. “We really don’t have time to sit around waiting for China’s cooperation.”

A number of lawmakers agree. In a letter delivered to the White House last week, 43 House members urged Bush to strategize with Europe to intervene even without Burma’s consent.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.), though she didn’t sign the letter, now supports a humanitarian intervention in Burma, her spokesman, Drew Hammill, said.

The letter was strongly worded. “Continued attempts to reason with the regime will not lead to an immediate increase in emergency aid reaching the most vulnerable population,” the lawmakers wrote. “Burma’s military regime is effectively denying relief to more than two million people at real and immediate risk of death.”

In their push, the lawmakers invoke a U.N. agreement, adopted in 2005, that the international community use any means necessary “to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), who spearheaded the House letter, said the negligence on the part of Burma’s ruling junta in the wake of Nargis could be grounds for criminal prosecution. “They’ve obviously put politics above the welfare of the people,” he said, adding that much of the initial assistance was confiscated by the junta and remains unaccounted for.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y), a close Bush ally, also took a lead in drafting the letter.

The reports leaking out of Burma seem to support the lawmakers’ concerns. Though the official death count hovers somewhere near 78,000, the Red Cross estimates that figure will move closer to 130,000, and other humanitarian groups expect the number to top 200,000. The World Food Program reported yesterday that the group has distributed enough food for roughly 250,000 people, but “entire communities exist where survivors are living without any outside assistance. Food, drinking water and shelter remain immediate necessities.”

Despite a breakthrough agreement yesterday allowing some members of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, entrance into the country, thousands of tons of food, medicine and other relief supplies remain floating unused on U.S. and European ships, just 30 minutes off-shore from those in need. The leaders of Burma’s junta fear that allowing Western aid workers into the country will create a foothold for proponents of regime change.

Shari Villarosa, Charge D’Affaires for the U.S. embassy in Burma, mentioned some of the practical implications of withholding that aid. “There’s people out there that I fear have no food, no drinking water, and they’ve been like this for more than two weeks,” she told PBS’s “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on Monday. “So I think it’s increasingly important that we get to these people quickly.”

Such statements have made the immediate intervention strategy that much more attractive. In a May 14 op-ed piece for , Robert Kaplan, an magazine correspondent and an influential voice on foreign affairs, advocated that the United States — as part of a broader Western coalition — deliver supplies with direct military support.

“[A] carrier strike group, or even a smaller Marine-dominated expeditionary strike group headed by an amphibious ship. could get close to shore and ferry troops and supplies to the most devastated areas on land,” Kaplan wrote.

“The magic of this is that an enormous amount of assistance can be provided while maintaining a small footprint on shore, greatly reducing the chances of a clash with the Burmese armed forces while nevertheless dealing a hard political blow to the junta.”

A editorial Tuesday echoed that message, saying the situation “long ago moved from the tragic to the criminal.”

But a number of aid groups warn that the political upheaval resulting from an unwelcome intervention could cause more harm than good for the victims of the storm. “The primary goal right now should be to get the aid to people who will die without it,” said Julia Fromholz, advocacy council at Human Rights First. “In order to do that, politics should be kept as far away as possible.”

Jacob Kurtzer, congressional advocate with Refugees International, agreed. He said that the safest bet for Washington is to establish an emergency fund specific to Burma and funnel the cash into the country through Burma’s neighbors. “In this situation, we have to take a look at who is achieving the best effects,” Kurtzer said, referring to the ASEAN development. “We should stick with what’s working.”

But Quigley, of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said that the lessons of Rwanda reveal a more immediate — and direct — intervention strategy.

“There it was — the international community knew it was going on and didn’t step in to prevent it,” she said of the 1994 genocide. “We view this along similar lines.”

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