Burma and the shock doctrine

When the devastating cyclone hit Burma couple of weeks ago I pondered a blog post on the Shock Doctrine. I read Naomi Klein’s great book a few months ago and as soon as it was clear how devastated parts of Burma were, I thought: “this is a time for a shock doctrine intervention”. Well f*c( me with a spade, so it’s come to pass.

I first heard talk of a western military intervention this morning (15 May), so it’s time to join the blog chat on this topic. I found this interesting case for intervention on Slate, dated 12 May.Writing in Slate Anne Applebaum argues that the Burmese regime is xenophobic, irrational and only interested in maintaining its grip on power. So intervention is justified on “humanitarian grounds”:

Think of it as the true test of the Western humanitarian impulse: The international effort that went into coordinating the tsunami relief effort in late 2004 has to be repeated, but in much harsher, trickier, uglier political circumstances. Yes, we should help the Burmese, even against the will of their irrational leaders. Yes, we should think hard about the right way to do it. And, yes, there isn’t much time to ruminate about any of this.

But I would argue that the Bush administration in its final painful days, is just as irrational and power-mad as the Burmese generals and has been for the past five or six years. The invasion of Iraq is a bigger humanitarian disaster than Burma and a good example of the application of the shock doctrine.

According to some bloggers, the initial public outing of the idea that it might be alright to invade Burma appeared in Time magazine on 10 May. If it wasn’t so sickening it might be amusing; the Time piece talks seriously about “coercive humanitarian aid”, but there’s also some blog action on the downside of invading. However, I’m not clear that these people are necessarily against it and now a senior American diplomat in Rangoon (Yangon) are denying any suggestion that the US might invade, but the same diplomat told the New York Times that the Burmese regime fears an invasion is possible.

“These guys really believe we are planning an invasion,” Ms. Villarosa said. The United States said this week that several of its military ships were in the area and ready to provide help in Myanmar. “It’s nuts! We’re not! But if they hear that a large U.S. ship is off the coast, they don’t receive the message that it’s a genuine humanitarian effort,” she said.

There can be no justification for foreign military intervention in Burma, not even on so-called “humanitarian grounds”. This is where Klein’s thesis comes into its own. In Shock Doctrine she argues convincingly that for the past forty or so years “humanitarian” assistance has been a constant cover for large and sharp doses of both economic and political shock.

Most recently, Klein argues, this has been applied in Sri Lanka and Aceh (Indonesia) in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. It is well worth checking some of the historical precedents on humanitarian invasions. I’m not sure who the World Prout Assembly is/are (their rallying call is “Moralists of the world unite”, which is a bit weird), but I think their analysis of the shock doctrine just about nails it:

One should immediately pause and recall the outcome of similar “humanitarian” exercises. In 1999, the plight of Kosovan refugees was exploited by the US and its allies to wage war against Serbia and transform the province into a NATO protectorate largely “cleansed” of its Serbian minority. In the same year, Australia, with the backing of the US, used the violence of Indonesian-backed militias to justify a military intervention into East Timor to install a regime sympathetic to Canberra’s economic and strategic interests. After nearly a decade the local populations in both countries continue to live in appalling conditions, with none of their fundamental needs having been met.

The central tenet of the shock doctrine is simple – in conditions where a population has received a shock they are vulnerable to intervention and often too weak to resist. The shock can be “shock and awe” – a well established US military doctrine – or it can be a coup d’tat (Chile 1973) or it can be a natural disaster. As Naomi Klein explains so well, the secret of successful intervention and application of the shock doctrine in a nation like Burma is preparedness.

That is, being prepared to take advantage of the situation, even if it’s not of your own making and being prepared to brush aside all opposition through a sustained propaganda campaign.

In that context the floating of the invasion idea in Time is a lucky coincidence, or a first step in this propaganda offensive. Either way it has created the right conditions for military analysts and neo-cons to talk up the “humanitarian invasion” scenario at a time when the world is reeling at the scale of the disaster and the appalling human rights record of the repulsive Burmese regime.

Taken together these two factors lower the resistance of right-thinking people in the west to the idea of “coercive humanitarian” action. It’s a given that the Burmese population is totally shocked and unable to offer any resistance.

But we also know, from bitter experience that shock and awe can only be momentarily effective. The Iraqi people were subdued for some months, but resistance to the US occupation has grown steadily over the past three years and it’s the same in Afghanistan.

However, it seems that there is a loosely coordinated international campaign to put pressure on the Burmese government. It was reported thus in The Times of London:

World leaders indicated that they would ratchet up pressure on the military leaders to accept more help.

Samak Sundaravej, Thailand’s Prime Minister, announced he would fly to Burma this weekend after British and American envoys urged him to ask the ruling generals to open the door to Western aid.

Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, said he wanted Southeast Asian nations and China to apply more pressure on Burma.“The Burmese regime is behaving appallingly,” he said.

One political goal of the shock doctrine is to force reluctant regimes (particularly if they’re anti-West) to open up their borders. This is a classic example. Th ultimate goal is for the invading power(s) to seize control of the nation and open up the economy for global corporates. Bechtel, Halliburton and their ilk are no doubt wetting themselves with anticipation of the spoils of disaster that await them in a newly “liberated” Burma.

At the Kassandra Project there’s some good video footage of Naomi Klein talking about the shock doctrine, it’s worth taking a look.

5 Responses to Burma and the shock doctrine

  1. Bunnyhugs says:

    Interesting you brought this one up. I was tempted to write something about it myself but did not get around to it yet.

    Anyway, bad as the situation in Burma/Myanmar is, I can’t see that effectively invading the country to provide aid is going to make things better. I would question the motives of any aid organization that was unwilling to simply dump physical aid at a Burmese airport and leave the rest to the Burmese government. Obviously that is not perfect, but under the difficult circumstances it seems better than the alternatives.

    I reckon one thing authoritarian regimes like that in Burma are quite good at is disaster relief. If they are provided with materials they will probably do a reasonable job. It is in their interests to be seen handing stuff out anyway.

    I don’t know. . . I just think there has been too much politicization of this thing by the west. Obviously the Burmese not allowing aid workers in is also a political decision, but the use of this disaster to further vilify the regime there seems equally political – even worse.

  2. […] My previous post on this topic is here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Reporters sans frontieres – boycotting the OlympicsProtest Against Regime’s Business CroniesStorm Over Burma Could Spell Beijing Olympic BoycottFree Burma! […]

  3. It’s a tough call. Assuming te scale of the disaster is real and the need genuine, if one wants to be certain of helping those who need help, then the preset regime would have to be by-passed if it does not act in the best interest of all its citizens.

    There are a lot of unknowns in that statement. I wouldn’t want to think about invading anything unless and until the gaps in that knowledge were filled with reliable information. I’d cry no tears for the regime there….

  4. coventryrm says:

    I recommended reading the book shock doctrine on my blog and linked Klein’s site and the movie clip, have someone on my blog tearing the book down piece by piece, could use some help in the debate .. coventryrm.wordpress.com

  5. […] and Central America, Eastern Europe and Asia. Most recently we’ve seen it used internally in Burma and in China. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)summer reading #3: not for […]

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