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A Couple Thoughts on Invading Burma

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1. It’s a terrible idea.

2. It’s a terrible idea because…

The problem with Burma right now is that the civil service infrastructure is by turns unable and unwilling to manage the disaster that resulted from the cyclone. Offers of foreign assistance are dangerous, because they put the inability of SLORC to handle the crisis into stark relief, thus loosening the regime’s hold on power.

The threat of an invasion could have two purposes. First, if we take the idea seriously, an invasion could attempt to ensure international access to the disaster area, thus enabling international assistance efforts. This is nothing less than a recipe for disaster, however. Any military attack will invariably disrupt current disaster management efforts on the part of Burmese authorities; such efforts have been insufficient but hardly nonexistent. These management efforts would be replaced at some time considerably (by crisis standards) in the future by international capabilities that would have greater resources, but that would undoubtedly be hampered by an unstable security environment and, more importantly, by an unfamiliarity with local conditions. As such, international efforts would almost inevitably be less effective even than than the current local disaster management. The international community would need, in an extremely short time frame, to essentially replace the entire civil bureaucratic structure of Myanmar; this is an enormous administrative task, and one that the IC is incapable of accomplishing in the time allotted. Long story short, it’s quite likely that an invasion would cause a lot more people to die than are likely to die sans intervention.

The idea of a threat of an invasion in order to force SLORC compliance with international aid efforts is a little bit better on its face, but collapses when subjected to scrutiny. The primary interest of the regime is survival; it cares more about survival than the lives of the Burmese people. Allowing itself to be forced at gunpoint to accept international assistance strikes me as considerably more dangerous to regime survival than to simply allow the disaster to run its course. The regime, undoubtedly, also has a strong sense of the difficulties that any invasion would face, especially one with a humanitarian objective. In other words, SLORC has a) reason to believe that the international community is bluffing, and b) strong incentive for calling that bluff. Again, the threat of military intervention in the short term is likely to lead to more, not fewer, dead Burmese.

The best case that can be made for an invasion would be to wait for the end of the crisis, then attempt regime change. I think that the prospects of successful regime change are slightly better for Burma than for Iraq; it’s twice the size of Iraq, but a relatively strong domestic opposition is already in place, and as such it’s possible to imagine a smoother shift to a new government. Burma’s neighbors would also likely be altogether more tolerant of intervention than Iraq’s neighbors. However, SLORC would undoubtedly fight, meaning that whatever force the international community cobbled together for the invasion would face a hostile environment. Given current US deployments, I can’t imagine that the US could provide much in the way of ground forces, although I suppose we could lob cruise missiles and hope that the regime just fell of its own accord. Aside from the practical difficulties, an invasion of Myanmar would set a somewhat disturbing precedent; the international community would now be forcibly intervening in countries to ameliorate a) levels of political repression that are serious, but that don’t approach genocidal, and b) poor disaster management. As criteria for intervention go, these seem to be lacking…

So, no, I don’t really see the case for an invasion of Burma. Mark Goldberg has more…

UPDATE: Read Barbara Stocking on why airdropping supplies is a fantasy.

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