Prison massacre in stricken Burma

Burmese soldiers and riot police opened fire at Insein Prison in Rangoon, killing 36 and injuring 70, after 1,500 inmates there rioted the aftermath of the devastating cyclone Nargis, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPPB). The facility, which houses many political prisoners, is described by former inmates as “the darkest hell-hole in Burma.” AAPPB reported: “Even though prisoners requested prison guards to open the doors and move them to safety, the authorities ignored their request. Some prisoners set fire to the prison hall and a riot ensued.” KAAPPB’s Bo Kyi said: “The authorities are to blame for this situation. As soon as the storm hit, they should have moved the prisoners to safety.” (The Telegraph, May 7)

Burma’s military leaders seized a shipment of UN food aid intended for victims May 9, declaring that they would accept donations of food and medicine but not foreign aid workers. The junta continued to permit a small number of aid deliveries and promised to allow the first air shipment from the Pentagon on Monday (May 12). (NYT, May 10)

The neocons will assuredly exploit all this for US hegemonist propaganda. Romesh Ratnesar writes for Time May 10, an a piece unsubtly entitled “Is it Time to Invade Burma?“:

The disaster in Burma presents the world with perhaps its most serious humanitarian crisis since the 2004 Asian tsunami. By most reliable estimates, close to 100,000 people are dead. Delays in delivering relief to the victims, the inaccessibility of the stricken areas and the poor state of Burma’s infrastructure and health systems mean that number is sure to rise. With as many as 1 million people still at risk, it is conceivable that the death toll will, within days, 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 regime 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 made it through. Aid workers have been held at airports. UN food shipments have been seized. US naval ships packed with food and medicine idle in the Gulf of Thailand, waiting for an all-clear that may never come.

Burma’s rulers have relented slightly, agreeing Friday to let in supplies and perhaps even some foreign relief workers… But it’s hard to imagine a regime this insular and paranoid accepting robust aid from the US military, let alone agreeing to the presence of US Marines on Burmese soil — as Thailand and Indonesia did after the tsunami. The trouble is that the Burmese haven’t shown the ability or willingness to deploy the kind 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 devolve beyond anyone’s control. “We’re in 2008, not 1908,” says Jan Egeland, the former U.N. emergency relief coordinator. “A lot is at stake here. If we let them get away with murder we may set a very dangerous precedent.”

That’s why it’s time to consider a more serious option: invading Burma. Some observers, including former USAID director Andrew Natsios, have called on the US to unilaterally begin air drops to the Burmese people regardless of what the junta says. The Bush Administration has so far rejected the idea — “I can’t imagine us going in without the permission of the Myanmar government,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday — but it’s not without precedent: as Natsios pointed out to the Wall Street Journal, the US has facilitated the delivery of humanitarian aid without the host government’s consent in places like Bosnia and Sudan.

A coercive humanitarian intervention would be complicated and costly… The cold truth is that states rarely undertake military action unless their national interests are at stake; and the world has yet to reach a consensus about when, and under what circumstances, coercive interventions in the name of averting humanitarian disasters are permissible. As the response to the 2004 tsunami proved, the world’s capacity for mercy is limitless. But we still haven’t figured out when to give war a chance.

See our last post on Burma.