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Complicated Compassion: Trusting the Junta with Foreign Aid

Publié le 1 juillet, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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Cyclone Nargis is not the first tragedy to befall the Burmese. The oppressive, violent rule of the military junta has been under international scrutiny for the past twenty years. Now, after Cyclone Nargis, that same regime is responsible for providing relief to those affected by the cyclone and managing millions of foreign aid. But does the reality of the military junta mean that we should temper our compassion?

 Feed The Hungry
Mikey G Ottawa, Feed The Hungry, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

Burma’s political history is rife with turmoil and struggle. In the 1980s it saw political uprisings and student movements in favour of democracy. Violent military action under General Maung quelled these uprisings; the house arrest of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (which continues to this day) also heralded the end of political radicalism. Even after 1990 elections that revealed an overwhelming majority vote for a democratic political party, the junta did not allow the democratic regime to rule 1. Internationally, it has been acknowledged that the military junta is oppressive, unjust, holds political prisoners, trades opium, uses forced labour, stifles the free press, and shows a general disinterest in the welfare of its own people 2. The international community’s attempt to affect political change in Burma through the imposition of economic sanctions has come to naught because, as Judge writes: “the worse the government, the less effective are the sanctions, precisely because despotic regimes ignore the suffering of the people.3” As we can see from the junta’s reign, Cyclone Nargis was not Burma’s first introduction to widespread suffering and injustice, and the plight of those affected by the cyclone under the junta has now complicated how exactly the international community should assist the Burmese.

Aid & inadequacy

On May 2nd, Cyclone Nargis swept Burma back into the international spotlight and revealed again the true state of political affairs in the region. The initial unwillingness of the government to accept foreign aid reinforced the popularly-held opinion that the well-being of its people is a secondary concern. Cyclone Nargis left 135,000 people dead or missing and another 2.4 million survivors in need of immediate assistance 4. Attempts to remedy the situation failed. First, and most obviously, the junta has refused external aid, believing they could sustain the food and water needs of their people 5. Second, the government has added insult to injury by being hostile to them. The Junta continues to brutalize its own populations, with their desire for absolute control stymieing ad hoc efforts of Burmese to help fellow citizens6. As past demonstrations by the Burmese have been met with military violence, it is unsurprising that villagers are acquiescent even in their most desperate time of need.
What little aid the government is supplying has only provided for a quarter of those most affected by the natural disaster 7. In addition to the insufficiency of the domestic aid, it is also misplaced. Sayadaw Otamma, a monk at the Kanna Pariyati Monastery told reporters for the New York Times:

The people from the foreign embassies go to see the people in the blue tents, who are the families of people in the Government […] The officials there tell them how to answer the questions: ‘We like it here. We have enough to eat.’ The Government does not bring the foreigners here because they know that if they spoke to us we would tell them the truth8.

Just recently, the junta rescinded its original position and has finally agreed to allow foreign aid into the country; the worry now is that it will not go to those most in need. The Burmese government has requested a donation of approximately $10 billion for reconstruction. This aid, once pledged to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, is set to be administered by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; Asean’s core group of governors, however, includes three members of the Burmese junta 9. The oversight of funds, therefore, does not necessarily lend itself to the transparency and accountability desired by the international donor community, lending to another troubling reality: can the junta generals be trusted to ensure a just flow of aid to their people? It seems unlikely. What the junta will do with $10 billion at their disposal is a worrying question.

Some members of the international community remain hopeful. After meeting with junta chief Senior General Than Shwe, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon told reporters: « We have seen that the Burma government is moving fast to implement their commitment. My sincere hope is that they will honor their commitment—that we have to see.10 » Ban Ki-Moon’s hopes are not reassuring. Ban asks a lot: trust the junta and believe they will follow through on their commitment. This puts the international community in a tight moral dilemma: either give money to a government that has so far not been responsible to its people and trust it to use that aid fairly and justly, or continue to watch those affected by the cyclone suffer. Can we show compassion to the Burmese while upholding our principles of fairness and justice?

Conflicted compassion

As Martha Nussbaum has argued in her article “Compassion and Terror”, compassion has the capacity to transcend differences in the interest of empathizing, helping or caring for another and is based on the perception of suffering in another. Nussbaum lists three main criteria that precede feeling compassion: 1) the perceived suffering is acute; 2) the suffering is undeserved; and 3) the suffering could conceivably happen to the one feeling compassion 11. In other words, we think what happened is bad, we wish it wouldn’t have happened, and we hope it will not happen to us.

In the Cyclone Nargis, we can see that the unpredictability of the natural disaster is surely an undeserved tragedy for any person. Nature is unpredictable and capricious; it does not discriminate between nationalities. Because we know the suffering inflicted by natural disasters can happen to anyone, because we can imagine ourselves in the situation of the Burmese, we feel compassion. Maureen Whitebrook in her article “Compassion as a Political Virtue” also similarly points out that one of the benefits of compassion is that it is the foundation from which just actions follow 12. That is, because we have the ability to feel compassion, we also have the capacity to be just.

However, problems arise when our compassionate reaction is fallible. Nussbaum points out the weaknesses of compassion: “it can get the judgment of seriousness wrong, ascribing too much importance to the wrong things or too little to things that have great weight.13” Is Burma a case study of ‘too little compassion’ in the right place? In other words, are we showing more compassion to extraordinary victims of a cyclone than to everyday victims of a despotic regime? Is it because we cannot imagine ourselves, members of a free liberal democracy, under an authoritarian military junta that we have not concretely aided the Burmese before now? Or, perhaps, this is a case of conflicted compassion. Do you give your brother’s forgotten lunch to the class bully to deliver safely to him?

Charles Rarick’s comments about economic sanctions on Burma reflect a similar moral dilemma. The international community wants to help the Burmese but are economic sanctions the best method of doing so? Rarick notes: “economic sanctions by the United States are […] working to destroy a country in order to save it.14” This kind of ‘tough-love’ approach to international politics Rarick finds reprehensible and useless, doing more harm than good. The people suffer even further and the government refuses to change its behaviour. If undeserved suffering evokes our compassionate response, then imposing economic sanctions is un-compassionate and markedly unjust. At this point, Burma doesn’t need any more help destroying itself—Cyclone Nargis has done a fine job already. At the risk of seeing hundreds of thousands more people die perhaps the international community has to take a calculated risk and trust that their aid will not be mismanaged. But the question remains: after the destruction of the cyclone is repaired, who will save the Burmese from the junta?


1. Charles A. Rarick, “Destroying A Country In Order To Save It: The Folly of Economic Sanctions against Burma.” Economic Affairs26(2), 2006: 60-63.
2. Rarick, op.cit.: 61.
3. M. Judge, “Are Sanctions Evil?” Wall Street Journal 19 July 2004: A11.
4. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/27/world/asia/27Burma.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper&oref=slogin
5. “In Myanmar, Loss, Grief and, for Some, Resignation.” The New YorkTimes 27 May 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/27/world/asia/27scene.html?ref=todayspaper
6. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/26/world/asia/26Burma.html
7. “In Myanmar, Loss, Grief and, for Some, Resignation.” The New York Times 27 May 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/27/world/asia/27scene.html?ref=todayspaper
8. “The two faces of Burmese aid: a starving village and a state lie.” The New York Times 27 May 2009 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article4009946.ece
9. “Sizing Up Burma’s Junta”, Wall Street Journal, 27 May 2008 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121183607816720879.html
10. “UN: More boats, helicopters to Myanmar”, The Washington Post, 26 May 2008 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/26/AR2008052600488.html
11. Martha Nussbaum, “Compassion: The basic social emotion.” Social Philosophy and Policy 13(1), 1996: 31.
12. Maureen Whitebrook, “Compassion as a Political Virtue.” Political Studies 50(3), 2002: 529–544.
13. Martha Nussbaum, “Compassion & Terror”, Daedalus 132(1), 2003: 10.
14. Rarick, op.cit.: 63.

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