GENERAL TAN SHWE (Tan Who?) is not exactly a household name. But Myanmar's military strongman, in power for 16 years, made a strong claim to the ‘Dictator of the Year' title for the way he and his ruling junta reacted to the cyclone that hit his country, the former Burma, on May 2, killing 135 000 people and endangering the lives of several million.
Consider the following, which could be from the pages of a Manual for the Perfect Third World Tyrant: Warned of the cyclone on April 30 by India's meteorological department, the Myanmar military regime did nothing to warn the population or otherwise gear up for the approaching storm.
Once the country had been hit by Cyclone Nargis, instead of prioritizing emergency relief, officials continued to channel most of their energies into organising a referendum to be held a week later to legitimize the junta's rule.
General Tan Shwe, Myanmar's junta leader, second left, is greeted by survivors of Cyclone Nargis at one of the few emergency relief centers that were set up to house victims.
Rather than getting himself quickly to the scene of the tragedy - the fertile Irrawaddy Delta in southwest Myanmar that produces two thirds of the country's rice crop - to get a sense of what was going on and provide succour to his people, the 75-yearold Shwe stayed upcountry for more than two weeks. Only on May 18 did he finally deign to descend from his Olympus and show his face to the 2.4m surviving storm victims.
Far from opening the doors of his largely closed-off country to international relief co-operation, he adamantly refused to do so. He denied visas to international NGO and UN staff who were ready to come in and help out. ‘Give us the stuff, and we'll distribute it,' said the government. Judging by the way the military has run Myanmar, this was a sure recipe for not getting blankets, food and medicines into the right hands quickly - or at all.
This was ironic. Seldom has the international community been as ready to help out, after the steep learning curve of the 2004 tsunami that hit South and South East Asia. After that disaster, Indonesia and Sri Lanka immediately opened themselves to international aid and made the most of it. The notion of the American warship USS Essex with a 2 200 crew and a fleet of 60 helicopters stationed a few kilometres from Myanmar, ready to help but not allowed to do so, boggles the mind. As The Wall Street Journal put it: "The Essex alone has the capacity to turn 200 000 gallons of sea water into fresh drinking water every day... Clean, fresh water is one key to survival for more than one million people displaced by the cyclone."
Three weeks after the disaster, the general relented and was reportedly ready to receive Ban Ki Moon, the UN's secretary general (whose phone calls he refused to take) and to selectively give visas to some Asian NGOs to help out in post-disaster relief.
Yet, however stark the tragedy in Myanmar, long subjected to a harsh and reclusive military dictatorship, its true significance reaches well beyond its borders.
As climate change makes weather less predictable, natural disasters will become more frequent. For example, the monsoon in Delhi was six weeks early this year. The way governments react to these disasters is key. And this is not confined to the developing world. Hurricane Katrina in the US in August 2005 was a predictable and avoidable disaster, and an object lesson in how governments of the North can fail abjectly in the task as well - both in prevention and in post-disaster relief.
By and large, though, it is the poor in the developing world that suffer the most from such calamities, and it is their plight that the Burmese junta's ‘denialist' approach has highlighted.
French foreign minister, enfant terrible and founder of ‘Medicins sans Frontieres,' Bernard Kouchner reacted to the obstruction of foreign relief efforts in the Burmese delta by suggesting the international community consider moving inunilaterally, invoking the principle of ‘responsibility to protect' (R2P).
Conceptualised by the Canadian-funded International Commission on State Sovereignty and Intervention (of which Kouchner was a member and which delivered its report in late 2001 when world attention was otherwise engaged), R2P reflects an emerging consensus that the world cannot stand idly by while hundreds of thousands of people are killed or allowed to die, or have their human rights trampled upon.
Triggered by tragedies such as those in Rwanda, Srebernica and East Timor in the 1990s, and given fresh impetus by Darfur, the notion of ‘humanitarian intervention' took the world of international law by storm and quickly became a controversial concept. Its key proposition is that ‘human rights trump sovereignty' and that the idea that the world must stand idly by while governments proceed to massacre (or, alternatively, allow to die of famine or other natural, albeit preventable, causes) vast numbers of their population, is no longer acceptable.
Not surprisingly, the juxtaposition of ‘humanitarian' with ‘intervention' - which for some constitutes an oxymoron - led to the concept being recast in more politically correct terms by the said commission. Hence R2P. Although the main responsibility for the protection of a population lies with its government, if the latter abdicates that responsibility and vast and systematic human rights violations take place (either condoned or instigated by the government nominally in control of that territory), the international community has the right to intervene to protect that population.
Although the notion is still controversial, and many states, especially big powers like the US, China, India, and Russia are quite leery of it, it was formally adopted by the UN in a 2005 resolution, thus giving it official standing. Most recently, the UN Security Council approved a unanimous resolution to intervene in Darfur, largely on the strength of R2P-like reasoning. However, perhaps revealingly, no Western country has yet come up with troops to reinforce those from the African Union in Sudan and effectively end the genocide.
If not now, when?
Should R2P have been invoked after Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar and the junta turned away international help and endangered hundreds of thousands of lives?
‘If not now, when?' That is the question being asked by many who believe that the development of new concepts in international law are hardly worth the effort if they are to remain in the somewhat ethereal domain of high-level conferences and university seminars. If not in the case of an obscurantist military regime that has shown wilful disregard for its own people, to the point of denying visas to health and relief workers and not allowing helicopters with supplies to fly in, when?
Others, like my colleague Ramesh Thakur, one of the creators of the concept as a leading member of the above-mentioned commission, are more circumspect. They point out that although ‘natural disasters' was originally among the categories mentioned by the commission as qualifying for R2P, by the time the UN adopted the notion in 2005 the item was dropped, and is therefore no longer pertinent. Chinese opposition in the Security Council to any such initiative in Myanmar does not help either.
The jury is therefore still out on what to do when dictators mismanage disasters to the point of inflicting severe suffering on their own people. Interestingly, China, not exactly a bastion of democracy, was much more open to international cooperation and relief after the earthquake in Sichuan that left 70 000 dead a few days after Nargis hit Myanmar. But there is little doubt that, more and more, dictators around the globe find themselves under the magnifying glass. They can run, but they cannot hide.