Myanmar Three Months Later

In a Washington Post op-ed the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs reflects on a recent visit Myanmar, three months after Cyclone Nargis killed an estimated 140,000 people and displaced millions more. He reports that progress is being made.

The international response has helped save lives and reduce suffering. While it is impossible to be sure all survivors have been reached, I am confident that the overwhelming majority have received help, even if many still need a good deal more.

Crucially, a much-feared second wave of deaths from starvation or disease has not happened — no small achievement, given that 75 percent of hospitals and clinics in the affected areas were destroyed. The people’s resilience has been remarkable, as was the degree of help and solidarity from individual citizens and organizations in Myanmar.

So what does this mean? For one, it shows that pundits who said that only forced intervention could help the people of Burma were wrong:

[t]he aid operation in Myanmar — as is true everywhere we work — had to be about helping vulnerable people in need, not about politics. In this post-Iraq age, I am concerned that humanitarians are often pressured to choose between the hammer of forced intervention and the anvil of perceived inaction. Was there a realistic alternative to the approach of persistent negotiation and dialogue that we pursued? I do not believe so. Nor have I met anyone engaged in the operations who believes that a different approach would have brought more aid to more people more quickly. (Emphasis added)

John Holmes does not name names. I will. Here in the United States, those who conflated toppling the odious Burmese junta and delivering aid to the vulnerable Burmese people included Robert Kaplan. This Washington Post editorial made basically the same point. Three months later it’s clear that they were wrong. We never had to choose between forced intervention and doing nothing. Fortunately, they were ignored. And in the meantime, lives were saved.