Saving Tigers, Killing Christians?


Over at The New Republic, Joel Whitney argues that conservationists are propping up Myanmar's military regime:

Based in New York, [The Wildlife Conservation Society] has been working in Burma since 1993 as part of its overall mission to save wildlife and wild lands around the globe. In that time, [Director Alan] Rabinowitz has posted a number of conservation successes–establishing the world's largest tiger reserve, for example, and discovering a new, rare species of deer. The splashy headlines, however, have come at a price. WCS's work in Burma has provided the regime with money, information, and political cover for its abuse of ethnic groups, all while downplaying its human right violations. WCS has stood not against the regime but with it.

I interviewed Rabinowitz three or four times for the Myanmar Times, and it's true that he tends, in conversation, to apologize for the regime. It's easy not to see the brutality in Burma, and he faults incompetence rather than cruelty for the military's behavior. And when you're working in conservation, it's a hell of a lot easier to deal with a dictatorship than a democracy.

But propping up the regime? Please. Whitney accuses Rabinowitz of helping the regime to "gain some measure of acceptance from the international community"–what some activists call "conferring legitimacy" through engagement. "Conferring legitimacy" is a bullshit accusation thrown at anyone who visits a country led by a rogue government. The Red Cross "confers legitimacy." So does the German embassy, Medecins Sans Frontieres, UNICEF, and USAID. They're not doing a very good job of it, apparently, as mention of Myanmar generally does not generally convey impressions of stellar medical care and progressive conservation practices. You can't atone for ethnic cleansing by saving a tiger.

Whitney's more serious charge is that Rabinowitz, by setting up a string of huge reserves, has "given the regime strategic advantage over Burma's battered ethnic groups." Um, wow. That might be true, but it'd be extremely difficult to verify–these aren't areas where foreigners are allowed to travel. You'd have to find either someone Kachin or someone in the military to corroborate that cordoning off wildlife was actually helping to control the Kachin (a Christian minority group), and, well, good luck with that. My impression, after speaking to staff from the Ministry of Forestry, is that there are virtually no staff to police the reserves anyway—it's as if no one had ever established them. It may be that the Ministry, which clearly wanted the reserves, sold them to the generals as a way to gain greater control over the country. But I don't see any evidence that the reserves have exacerbated the conflict.

A more likely explanation is that Alan Rabinowitz is a naive American who wants to save some animals, and he has little to do with a longstanding, bloody conflict between a loathsome government and a Christian minority. The regime has never been less concerned about its international reputation as it is right now, so there's little reason to believe it would bother to hide behind an NGO. The whole scenario Whitney sets up is possible but not plausible, and a few quotes from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) and other sanctions-boosters do not make it so.