On 2 May 2008, the southeast Asian country of Burma (Myanmar) suffered its worst ever natural disaster when Cyclone Nargis hit the country. About a week after the disaster, United Nations officials estimated the death toll at 100,000, with the number of people severely affected approaching 2 million. Entire towns and villages have been washed away.
Burma is an impoverished country, the majority of whose people live in dire poverty at the best of times. Clearly there is a need for considerable international assistance to help the afflicted people. Such aid has been provided by Burma’s neighbours, including its fellow members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with China, India and even Bangladesh, itself one of the most poverty-stricken nations on earth.
But, for the imperialist powers, the humanitarian catastrophe has proved a golden opportunity to play cynical political games aimed at further tightening the stranglehold of economic sanctions on the country or even engineering a pretext for a military invasion and occupation of the country along Iraqi lines.
The military junta that rules Burma is staunchly nationalist and has, since the country won independence from British colonial rule in 1947, resisted all attempts to undermine its sovereignty or to make it hand over control of its natural resources. It has also resolutely refused to join the neo-colonial Commonwealth.
Today, US and other imperialists are desperate to lay their hands on Burma’s immense oil, gas, teak and other natural resources. Burma’s stridently independent stance is also a major obstacle to Washington’s strategic imperative of encircling, containing and threatening the People’s Republic of China.
Faced with the undisguised hostility of all the major imperialist powers – Washington actually considerably tightened its economic sanctions on the country in the week before Cyclone Nargis struck and when US spy satellites had already gathered considerable information regarding the inevitability of the impending catastrophe – the Burmese government, whilst welcoming humanitarian aid, is understandably reluctant to allow any sort of imperialist military or intelligence presence in the country.
This patriotic stand is also in the interests of the Burmese masses. Burma’s willingness to accept humanitarian aid from its adversaries is in marked and positive contrast to the attitude of the Bush administration after Hurricane Katrina, which struck the largely poor and African-American city of New Orleans at the end of August 2005. Offers of aid and medical personnel from Cuba and Venezuela were refused by the US, as were doctors and nurses from China.
French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner proposed that the United Nations Security Council invoke a “responsibility to protect”, ostensibly formulated to deal with cases of genocide, to override Burmese sovereignty and provide a fig leaf for military intervention.
This outrageous suggestion was firmly rebuffed by China, whose Ambassador, Liu Zhenmin, stated: “The current issue of Myanmar is a natural disaster. It’s not an issue for the Security Council. It might be a good issue for other forums of the UN.”
On 17 May, Gordon Brown told the BBC World Service: “We have an intolerable situation created by a natural disaster. It is being made into a manmade catastrophe by the negligence, the neglect and the inhuman treatment of the Burmese people by a regime that is failing to act and to allow the international community to do what it wants to do.”
For this revolting Labour imperialist, the greatest crime of the Burmese government is that it dares to refuse the right of the ‘international community’ (ie, the United States, Britain and a handful of other imperialist powers) to ride roughshod over its sovereignty.
Writing in the online publication Asia Times, Shawn W Crispin brazenly made the US neo-conservatives’ case for an invasion of Burma:
“A unilateral – and potentially United Nations-approved – US military intervention in the name of humanitarianism could easily turn the tide against the impoverished country’s unpopular military leaders, and simultaneously rehabilitate the legacy of lame-duck US President George W Bush’s controversial pre-emptive military policies …
“Should the junta continue to resist foreign assistance while social and public health conditions deteriorate in clear view of global news audiences, the moral case for a UN-approved, US-led humanitarian intervention will grow.” (The case for invading Myanmar, 10 May 2008)
While the imperialists were busy scratching around for a pretext for yet another war of aggression, China was getting on with the job of providing aid to the suffering people. On 7 May, Chinese news agency Xinhua reported:
“A special big aircraft carrying 500,000 US dollars worth of relief materials from China arrived at the Yangon International Airport Wednesday afternoon as part of China’s one million dollars emergency relief aid to cyclone-devastated Myanmar.
The 60-ton relief supplies, carried by a Boeing 747-400 aircraft, include compressed food, tents and blankets.”
China subsequently pledged an additional $4.25m in aid, considerably more than the amount of aid the US is ‘offering’ to provide, by force of arms if necessary.
It is especially noteworthy that Chinese aid has continued to arrive in Burma even after the catastrophic earthquake that struck Sichuan on 12 May. Six days later, on 18 May, Xinhua reported the arrival in Burma of a 50-strong medical team carrying relief aid equipment and medicines. Medical aid teams had arrived from India and Thailand the previous day.
Moreover, on Saturday 24 May, having just visited Burma, the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined Comrade Wen Jiabao in Sichuan, where the Chinese premier was making his second extended visit to the disaster area. Speaking amid the devastation in his own country, Premier Wen pledged a further $10m to help the Burmese people.
There can be no doubt that the Burmese people are suffering grievously and are in urgent need of greater humanitarian aid. The working-class movement must demand that this be provided without strings and must resolutely oppose any move to trespass on the country’s sovereignty and independence, no matter what the pretext.
Hands off Burma!