Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, is promoting military intervention in Burma. This is dangerous imperialist idiocy

We seem to be living in a time-warp. The mentality that has informed British and western attitudes towards the humanitarian crisis in Burma rests on the belief that we are the only ones that can really help. I suggest that David Miliband, our foreign secretary, whose elevation to the Foreign Office seems to have been conducted in such a seamless fashion that he is still singing exactly the same old tunes of his former prime minister, should take a crash course in “the modern realities of East Asia”. In an interview with Radio 4’s World Tonight, he managed to speak about the crisis in Burma (more of that name anon) without, as far as I could hear, a single mention of cooperation with Asian powers. What age does he live in?

He talked about not excluding military action in whatever form might be appropriate. Air drops: they should certainly not be ruled out. A military convoy to escort any aid: that should be considered, though the Burmese army has 400,000 troops. Warming to the prospect, he spoke enthusiastically about HMS Westminster being moved to the area, the fact that the French had also deployed a warship in the vicinity, and that the Americans had warships nearby.

As I closed my eyes, I could feel the past closing in on me, the days when Burma was ours, when a few of our warships brought the Chinese to their senses and allowed the opium trade to continue unfettered (with Hong Kong thrown in as well). Prompted by Robin Lustig, the interviewer, Miliband agreed that the UN’s “responsibility to protect” might be invoked as a means of obtaining UN support for military intervention, though he admitted, reluctantly, that some nations would probably be opposed.

Of course, Miliband is living in dreamland. One of the characteristics of New Labour – and Miliband is irredeemably of that species – is that, in the guise of a new liberal language, it has adopted the age-old default mode of British foreign policy, namely military intervention. There is not a chance of this happening in Burma (we still call it Burma, unlike most of the rest of the world, which describes it as Myanmar: sooner or later, we will wake up to the modern world and do likewise, just as we use Guangzhou not Canton, and Mumbai, not Bombay, but colonial ways die hard).

Just look at a map and see where Myanmar is and who its neighbours are. First, there is China, which shares a long border with Myanmar, remains its closest ally and is deeply involved in its economy; China, one might note, is a vehement advocate of national sovereignty and opposes military intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, including in Myanmar. Second, there is India, another rising colossus, which similarly shares a border, and is also significantly engaged, with Myanmar. Third, there are the ten members of Asean, including Myanmar itself, which by statute are opposed to outside military intervention. These are all countries that are deeply involved with Myanmar, not just in the aftermath of the cyclone, but year in year out.

All the talk of military intervention is thoroughly irresponsible. Above all, it is a disgraceful distraction from the overwhelming priority, which is how to help the people of Myanmar in their hour of need. Sure, the regime, in its paranoiac isolation, is a major obstacle to the kind of relief effort that is required. But that is a reality: this is hardly the time for regime-change. We have to deal with the situation as it is, not as we think it should be.

Any military intervention would be a disaster: the consequence could easily be armed conflict, perhaps the subsequent fall of the regime, chaos at least as serious as that in the Iraq debacle, and the united opposition of the whole region. But then we seem to have learned precious little from what happened in Iraq. Miliband chose to ignore Lustig’s question about its lessons. In fact, all the new foreign secretary seems to have to say about Iraq is the following: “I understand the doubts about Iraq and Afghanistan, and the deep concerns at the mistakes made.” Period. What mistakes? Silence. Best to move on and speculate about military action in Myanmar. Think not, learn not.

Any serious debate about how to help Myanmar would never have chosen this diversion. The military junta’s hostility towards the west is well-known and deeply-rooted. It is hardly surprising – if wrong-headed – that it does not want to allow western personnel into the country, given the fact that the west has boycotted the regime for decades (though those western aid organisations like Save the Children and the Red Cross that have been operating in the country for many years continue to work on the ground and be accepted).

If the west finds itself denied – and genuinely wants to do more – then why doesn’t it seek a working relationship with those countries that do have an amicable relationship with Myanmar – namely, China, India and the other nine member-states of Asean (Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines and Brunei), all of whom have a much greater stake in Myanmar’s fortunes than the distant west. They also happen to be far more familiar with the country and knowledgeable about its needs.

Miliband never managed to mention this possibility in his interview – his discourse was entirely and exclusively western-centric – though Gordon Brown, to his credit, did make a belated reference to the importance of the Asian countries in the House of Commons yesterday.

In fact, these countries have been very active since the cyclone struck. China – not normally a major aid donor – offered $1 million of aid in the immediate aftermath, compared with an initial American offer of $250,000, and China has upped this more than fivefold since. The Thai prime minister visited Yangon (Rangoon) for discussions with the junta this week. A special Asean mission is presently in the capital discussing what further might be done. There will be an emergency meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Singapore on Monday, including the foreign minister from Myanmar, to draw up further plans for aid and financial assistance.

Instead of railing from the sidelines – and dark mutterings about military action, which is bound to have an entirely counter-productive effect on Myanmar and its neighbours – if the west is serious, it should organise its relief effort with and, if necessary, through these countries. All else is posturing.

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