Saturday, January 01, 2005



Ugh. The death toll from the tsunami is unbelievable. My thoughts go out for the survivors and for the relatives of the dead.

Keith Suter wrote in an opinion piece on aid delivery in war zones:
Meanwhile, the undemocratic Burmese Government is playing down the number of deaths. It is internationally unpopular and the subject of economic sanctions. Its tally of less than 100 victims is probably untrue. But it is a closed country, so it will be difficult to get at the true figure.

I suspect Keith is right here. But what can we do? Threaten to punish Burma's regime unless it allows us to help its people? Maybe satellite photos can be used to show that Burma isn't being entirely honest about the extent of devastation.
The country is a complete "free market": no government, no security, individuals rely on their guns to protect themselves in the clan warfare. One of the world's poorest countries has again suffered another calamity.

A free market, for better or for worse, never meant the absence of government protection against violence and theft. In addition, you could argue that the clans are a form of government.
Here is a checklist of the flashpoints to watch out for in the current crisis:
First, there is a temptation by governments and their opponents to try to exploit a natural disaster for their own political purposes. They may try to restrict relief aid from going to areas controlled by their opponents to help starve them into submission.

This is a real enough risk - this has been reported as happening in Zimbabwe.
Second, relief operations run by the military carry the risk that they become a ruse to conduct military operations under the guise of supposedly providing help. Military personnel are employed to conduct military operations.
They may be deployed temporarily on relief operations, but their prime purpose is warfare and they will not want to miss an opportunity to continue their core business if the targets should appear.

This may vary from government to government, but I'd rather think that military operations are viewed by governments as a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
Third, there is a new danger arising out of the blurring of the traditional distinction between military personnel and relief personnel. Traditionally both groups of personnel were distinct. However, in recent years defence forces have been encouraged to provide their equipment to help transfer relief supplies.
For example, relief convoys in the new warfare state are now targets for warlords and bandits. Some relief organisations have had to resort to armed guards to protect the convoys.
The problem with this new level of co-operation is that warlords have been less careful about their targeting. The experience in Chechnya, for example, showed that relief workers were regarded as targets by warlords. In the previous era of international conventional warfare relief workers may have been killed accidentally but rarely deliberately.

I'd have to disagree with his analysis here.

First, international warfare wasn't always Geneva-compliant, Marquis de Queensberry-like combat. In many international conflicts, there were simply no relief workers at all. One would have to assume that it wouldn't be safe for a relief worker to be there.

Secondly, he doesn't seem to explain how the military assisting relief workers would lead to deliberate targeting of relief workers. Perhaps a more plausible explanation for the change of policy is that irregulars are less concerned about negative PR than governments are (even governments that are not concerned about human rights may be concerned about PR).

Mark Steyn argues in Being sad isn't enough that negative PR seems not to be a problem with some "Chechens" even compared to other non-state-actors:

When your asymmetrical warfare strategy depends on gunning down schoolchildren, you're getting way more asymmetrical than you need to be. The reality is that the IRA and ETA and the ANC and any number of secessionist and nationalist movements all the way back to the American revolutionaries could have seized schoolhouses and shot all the children.
But they didn't. Because, if they had, there would have been widespread revulsion within the perpetrators' own communities. To put it at its most tactful, that doesn't seem to be an issue here.

Keith also notes a potential problem not discussed much:
Finally, there is the problem of unexploded ordnance. During the Vietnam War three decades ago I noticed that the downpour of monsoonal rains meant that previously "cleared" areas ran the risk of landmines and other unexploded ordnance being moved from one rice field to another. It remains to be seen how the tsunami may have likewise shifted unexploded ordnance. All of the conflicts in the countries affected by the tsunami have experienced the use of landmines. (Australia and Antarctica are the world's only two continents that have no landmines.)

Keith sees some reasons for hope:
Are there any "good" developments to watch out for? One might be the scope for "earthquake diplomacy". In 1999 Greece gave help to its traditional rival Turkey when it suffered from an earthquake. This helped improve relations between them.
There is a hope that opposing sides to an internal conflict may be drawn together to deal with the common problem of the tsunami. Having then seen how much they can gain from co-operation, this may provide an opportunity for political progress. All of the conflicts in the area affected by the tsunami are long term and intractable. The tsunami may provide an opportunity for building peace.

I'll answer with a emphatic "maybe". Food aid given to Afghanistan (both pre and post September 11) didn't lead to Osama's extradition to the USA, and North Korea worked on its nuclear program while the USA has and is giving food aid to it. I doubt the aid we'll be giving Aceh will lead the hard-core Islamists to like us, but it may make the ordinary Acehnese more sympathetic to us, and more likely to volunteer useful information if some of them commit a terrorist attack against Australians.

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