The Burmese Cyclone, Nonviolent Action, and the Responsibility to Empower

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Authors: Patrick Meier

Patrick Meier is a Ph.D. student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts and a Doctoral Research Fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. His fellowship involves studying the role of communication technologies in responding to humanitarian crises. Meier blogs at www.irevolution.wordpress.com.

Full Article:

Repressive regimes continue to play the sovereignty card regardless of international condemnation, and the military regime in Burma is no exception. Prior to the cyclone disaster, the regime maintained an effective information blockade on the country, limiting access and communication while forcefully cracking down on the pro-democracy resistance movement.

The military regime's decision to block humanitarian aid following the cyclone disaster should really come as no surprise. The international community clearly remains at the mercy of regimes that scoff at the Responsibility to Protect.

The Responsibility to Protect (or R2P, as endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 1674, affirming the responsibility of all to prevent or stop genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity) is a noble principle: sovereignty is contingent upon the state's ability to protect its citizens. Burma's military regime has shown absolutely no interest in doing so, but quite the opposite -- even in the case of a "natural" disaster. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has advocated that the principle of R2P justifies overruling the Burmese military junta's right to territorial sovereignty.

Originally, Gareth Evans, Director of the International Crisis Group, strongly disagreed, arguing that Kouchner's approach would create a precedent to intervene in post-disaster environments, which would potentially undermine the general consensus that currently exists in the developing world vis-à-vis R2P. Many other humanitarians have also voiced their opposition to engaging in non-authorized intervention. They (mistakenly) assumed such intervention requires the use of force. The result? An international community yet again bowing down to the wishes of a repressive regime; a terribly inadequate in-country humanitarian response to save lives; and an increasingly high death toll. It is high time that alternative approaches to humanitarian intervention be considered that depend less on potentially resistant governments -- approaches such as people-centered tactics and nonviolent action. In other words, what nonviolent options exist for civilian protection and non-consensual humanitarian intervention?

Supplying Civilians In Defiance of Governments: the Berlin Airlift and Biafran War

Turning to history provides some insights. The Berlin Airlift, for example, is renowned for its logistic bravado and accomplishment but not appreciated enough as an imaginative and in many ways last-ditch effort to avoid a descent into what might have become a third world war. The division of Germany under Allied Occupation after World War II took place under increasing tensions between the Allies and the Soviet Union.

Berlin, geographically isolated in the Soviet-controlled section of Germany (East Germany), remained under four-country jurisdiction (France, Great Britain, US, and the USSR). In 1948 these tensions came to a head as Stalin sought to force the Allies from the city of Berlin by blocking all land (road and rail) and water access to the city. From June of 1948 through September of 1949 -- under orders from President Truman -- food, fuel, and emergency medical material were flown into West Berlin by air. In spite of some extremely harsh weather, the US Air Force, with some British support, managed to fly more than two million tons of goods into West Berlin in 270,000 flights. Granted, the Berlin airlift was carried out by the military under conditions of nuclear brinkspersonship, but the airlift itself demonstrated that even a large city could be supplied through surprisingly nonviolent means.

Another example of non-traditional intervention was in response to the military blockade of Biafra in the late 1960s. The political leadership of the southeastern Biafra region of Nigeria, inhabited largely by members of the Ibgo ethnic group, attempted to secede after a dubiously-conducted Nigerian national election. Biafra declared independence in 1967. The Nigerian government responded with a military blockade to retake the secessionist and oil-rich territory.

Thus began the catastrophe of Nigeria's civil war. Western governments simply stood by, more concerned about access to oil than about the unfolding atrocities. Unlike the Berlin Airlift, the intervention in Biafra was led by a group of faith-based organizations. According to an article by Hugh McCullum on AfricaFiles.org, for almost two years their unsanctioned airlifts "kept a small, breakaway West African state alive, refusing to allow starvation to be used as a weapon of war." This was perhaps one of the most audacious and activist leadership roles ever taken on by non-state actors.

The effort, called Joint Church Aid (JCA), flew over 5,000 missions (up to 50 flights per night) delivering some "60,000 tons of humanitarian aid and saved millions of lives." Each flight violated one or more international laws. The pilots remained undaunted despite the extreme danger posed by the guns and bombs of the Nigerian forces intent on enforcing the Biafran blockade. According to a 1999 account of the mission published in Flight Journal magazine:

"Each night their pilots would be given a new password for clearance to land at Uli airfield… As many as 20 aircraft at once, in total darkness, would circle a directional beacon hung from a tree… they were allowed only dim kerosene lantern runway lights for the final few seconds of their approach. The instant their tires touched, the lights were extinguished."

Biafran workers took just 20 minutes to unload each flight; the commodities then made their way to a network of more than 2,000 feeding centers. The JCA lost 25 pilots and crew. "Despite JCA's best efforts," says McCullum, "it is estimated some 2 million Biafrans starved to death." Without significant political pressure from the West, Nigeria's central government prevailed.

Technologies for Nonviolent Humanitarian Interventions

Airdrops are another option and need not be limited to material supplies. Trained personnel could be parachuted in and picked up again at designated sites to ensure that medical services are provided in addition to the material. High-resolution satellite imagery is already available for Burma, which would greatly facilitate the coordination of non-authorized, nonviolent intervention. Days after the cyclone, cargo planes loaded with food and medical supplies still remained grounded on the tarmac of Bangkok's international airport while the death toll in Burma increased.

Conversations among several non-profit organizations are taking place about the potential use of un-piloted aerial vehicles, or UAVs, for humanitarian response. SnowGoose, for example, is a UAV designed for cargo delivery. The aerial vehicle can carry more than 500 pounds and has a range of 200 miles. The UAVs could be used to support the informal humanitarian response network in Burma, which the Wall Street Journal (May 23, 2008) reports has sprung into action to fill the vacuum left by the inaction of the military junta.

The response network includes Buddhist monks, Internet-savvy activists, and pro-democracy students. UAVs are increasingly affordable and easy to fly. Indeed, a group from Torino, Italy, has developed a prototype that costs less than $12,000 and uses Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to fly to designated points. Furthermore, one would not need to enter Burma to use the UAVs, but rather could operate the planes from the Thai-Burmese border. Indeed, UAVs could be used to monitor the movement of military units within Burma and to communicate this information via radio to local villages or via mobile phones and SMS to members of the informal network distributing food and medical supplies. In addition, UAVs can provide evidence of human rights violations and atrocities.

Inflatable satellite communication devices also exist. GATR-Com, for example, is an "ultralight, ultraportable antenna tucked inside an inflatable shell that can pull down a superfast broadband satellite connection at any location," according to Popsci.com. The beach-ball-like device easily fits into a backpack and is inflated with a small pump. While only for short-term use, GATR can be used to provide additional geospatial imagery and communication channels for Burmese relief workers to coordinate the distribution of supplies.

Mobile phones and radios can also play an important role in coordinating non-authorized humanitarian response. Even before the cyclone, the Burmese opposition was coordinating their efforts using these technologies. According to a Burmese dissident in hiding speaking to the Asia Times in February 2008:

"The phone and the radio are very important now. I always take them wherever I go. They are next to me when I sleep. The radio has become a social weapon for me and for our movement. It is how the messages against the military regime are broadcast by us and others against them."

Groups like InSTEDD.org, a new nonprofit organization, are already developing technologies that integrate Google Earth, Global Positioning Systems, and mobile phones. This means that anyone in Burma with a mobile phone and GPS unit could text an alert in real time, which would immediately be geo-located on a password-protected Google Earth interface. With one click, the text message can be automatically forwarded to any number of mobile phone users within a given perimeter, allowing for truly networked communications and real-time situational awareness.

These text messages can also be encrypted as needed to ensure data security, and different SIM cards can be used to ensure that the military is unable to trace the phones to their users. The current resistance movement in Burma is particularly savvy in using such tactics. Furthermore, activist communications networks like DigiActive, Frontline SMS, and MobileActive continue to identify and/or develop new tactics that successfully ensure data security.

It is not acceptable to let regimes like Burma's military junta dictate the rules of humanitarian intervention. With each day that cargo planes were forced to remain grounded, thousands of additional lives were lost. When a coercive regime like Burma's fails to uphold its responsibility to protect, the obligation becomes squarely ours, which means that we, the humanitarian community, also failed in Burma. Diplomatic pressure, lobbying, and advocacy are certainly important and necessary actions. However, this top-down pressure needs to be complemented with nonviolent, tactical, proactive, and bottom-up response measures that draw on existing networks, local capacities, and available technologies.

Helping Burmese

Post-cyclone, global nonprofit organizations are struggling to help Burmese meet their needs.

The American Friends Service Committee (www.afsc.org) is assisting the monastic school network, providing medical supplies, food, fuel, shelter materials, and water purification equipment. Donations are needed.


Regions: Myanmar