An Offer Burma Can't Refuse

In the midst of disaster, Burma's rulers have resisted outside help. It's time for the world to force it on them

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Prashant Panjiar / Livewire Images for TIME

The wreckage of a school in Kaw Hmu.

The disaster in Burma presents the world with its worst humanitarian crisis since the 2004 Asian tsunami. The ruling military junta says that more than 30,000 people are dead; the U.N. estimates the figure at perhaps 100,000. The number of Burmese at risk of starvation and disease could reach nearly 2 million. Unless the victims receive immediate help, the death toll could conceivably approach that of the entire number of civilians killed in the genocide in Darfur.

So what is the world doing about it? Not much. The military junta that runs Burma initially signaled it would accept outside relief but has imposed so many conditions on those who would actually deliver it that barely a trickle has gotten through. Hundreds of foreign aid workers have been denied visas and blocked from visiting the stricken areas. Shipments of food and medicine have been seized. After more than 10 days, the U.N. World Food Program said it had been able to deliver only a fraction of the food required for the emergency. "I've never seen anything like this," said Julio Sosa Calo, an official for the German relief group Malteser International. "We need a huge humanitarian response. What we're doing now is too little compared to the need."

It isn't close. Even the sight of U.S. military cargo planes landing in Rangoon failed to quell the frustration. The U.S.'s top commander in the Pacific offered to "put Burmese officials on our planes and ships" if they allowed U.S. forces to bring relief supplies into the country. But there's little chance a regime this insular and paranoid will let that happen. The trouble is, the Burmese lack the kinds of assets needed to deal with a calamity of this scale--and the longer Burma resists offers of help, the more likely it is that the disaster will degenerate beyond anyone's control. "A lot is at stake here," says Jan Egeland, the former U.N. emergency-relief coordinator. "If we let them get away with murder, we may set a very dangerous precedent."

So what other options exist? Here's one: if Burma's rulers continue to refuse help, the world should impose it on them--even if that requires military force. The Bush Administration has so far resisted the idea of a coercive humanitarian intervention--"I cannot imagine us going in without the permission of the Myanmar government," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said--which is somewhat surprising, since this is the same gang that unilaterally invaded Iraq. (Though considering how that turned out, maybe it shouldn't be.) But others have taken up the cause. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has called for the U.N. Security Council to authorize outsiders to bring in and deliver aid no matter what the junta says; David Cameron, leader of Britain's Conservatives, advocates direct airdrops to the Burmese people. The European Union's foreign policy chief said, "We have to use all means" to get aid to those still at risk.

A coercive humanitarian intervention in Burma wouldn't be without precedent: the U.S. funded and helped coordinate the delivery of aid without the host governments' consent during the wars in Bosnia and southern Sudan. Nor would it be illegal: according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1674, member states have a "responsibility to protect" populations from genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, if their own governments fail to do so (or are responsible for committing the crimes themselves). Burma's crisis--hundreds of thousands of innocents at risk of death because of their rulers' willful neglect--easily meets that standard.

But is an uninvited foreign intervention likely to happen? Any relief operation would be fraught with risk. Air-dropping food into the Irrawaddy Delta could cause even more chaos, in the absence of military or relief personnel on the ground who can distribute supplies. And given the junta's xenophobia and insecurity, it's a safe bet any outside troops--or worse, foreign relief workers--would be viewed as hostile forces even if the U.S. and its allies made clear that their actions were strictly for humanitarian purposes. To save the Burmese people without their rulers' consent, in other words, we may not have much choice but to shoot our way in.

All of which is to say that the junta can probably rest easy. The realities are that states rarely undertake military action unless their national interests are at stake, the world lacks consensus about when coercive measures in the name of averting humanitarian disasters are permissible and the war in Iraq has given interventions of any kind a bad name. But try telling that to Burmese like San San Khing, who has lost her money, home, food and two children and now suffers in a refugee camp in Kaw Hmu township. "We urge the U.N. and foreign governments to provide assistance ... without waiting for permission of the military junta," pleads a Burmese alliance of political activists and Buddhist monks. "Just come now." What, exactly, are we waiting for?

Cyclone Nargis For more images of the disaster in Burma, go to