After cyclone Nargis hit Burma and the outside world realised the 12 generals who call themselves the State Peace and Development Council actually were just going to sit back and watch people die, there have been calls for a humanitarian intervention.
I guess the idea is that a battalion of Marines would somehow fight their way through the Irrawaddy delta, handing out food and blankets as they march on, until finally a biblical catastrophe is averted and we can for once say it was worth it.
Here’s the thing, though:
Even if, for some unforeseen reason, the junta would collapse, and even if the resulting power vacuum wouldn’t lead to anarchy but would give way to rudimentary democracy, even then we would have in our hands another failed state in desperate need of aid and assistance for years to come.
What the people calling for regime change don’t realise is this: the least likely scenario is that Burma will make a quick, peaceful transition from decades of tyranny, mismanagement and civil war to a healthy parliamentary system run by enlightened civilians.
Whoever inherits the mess will have to deal with a ruined economy, a defunct bureaucracy, a society with no rule of law, and a host of ethnic insurgencies that, if the underlying grievances are not addressed quickly, will threaten the very fabric of the fragile union.
So, if you think that the international community, with the attention span of a two-year old and willpower of a heroin addict, this time would have the patience and wisdom to see through what it has started, to make a commitment to decades of nation building and not abandon its charge at the first sight of trouble, then by all means, advocate intervention.
But before you do, please read this excellent paper by Priscilla Clapp, the U.S. chief of mission in Rangoon 1999-2002. Let’s hope her words don’t turn out prophetic:
[…] Many of the same expectations held by senior officials in the Bush Administration that regime change would allow democracy to spring forth and flourish in Iraq may be just as misguided in the case of Burma, because decades of politically repressive and economically regressive military rule have left the population without the tools to navigate the troubled waters toward stable, pluralistic, democratic governance.