The death toll from Cyclone Nargis, which swept across Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta May 2–3, has soared above 50,000. It is likely to rise further still. Tragedy is here compounded by evil: The ruling junta, brutal beyond words, has refused to allow aid workers into the country in sufficient numbers for them to be effective, fearing that this would highlight its own maladministration. What aid has reached Burma — some of it on U.S. C-130 cargo planes, which have landed in the country with the junta’s permission — has reportedly been diverted to the military. The small number of NGOs that the junta has allowed in are no match for the apparatus of the state, which after all has never been deployed for the benefit of the Burmese masses.
What, then, to do?
The sad answer is that there is little we can do — or at least little we can do prudently. Well-meaning commentators have called on the U.S. to drop food among affected populations, circumventing the local authorities, or even to mount a kind of naval invasion along the affected coastline. But, as we have learned from similar efforts elsewhere, little good and much mischief is the likely result when we have no control over distribution. If the military and other regime officials didn’t pilfer the food first, local gangs probably would. The benefits to those who suffer would therefore be minimal.
And there are risks. When the U.S. dropped food to Kurdish populations in 1991, some of the falling pallets caused injuries and deaths. Were something similar to happen in Burma, it would be lamentable not just in human terms, but as a matter of diplomacy. The regime would use any such incident to discredit our forced intervention, and to justify its own talon grip on power.
The “international community,” too, can do little. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the U.N. would hold a summit on the matter (time and location to be determined). But any action of which the junta disapproves will be vetoed by China, which is both a Security Council member and the chief ally of Burma’s rulers. What the U.N. can do is bring attention, marginally increasing the degree to which the junta is embarrassed before, and isolated by, the liberal-democratic nations of the world. This should be our goal.
What’s difficult about the political situation in Burma (or “Myanmar,” as the junta has renamed it) is that there is no effective opposition to the murderous generals. There is, to be sure, an opposition. The pro-democratic reformer Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide majority in a 1990 election — only to see the results nullified, and herself kept under house arrest ever since. Her supporters have never succeeded in mobilizing mass resistance. Burma’s monks led countrywide protests last year, but the regime cracked down, and the rest was blood. Then silence: “There won’t be demonstrations [this time],” Reuters quoted a Burmese taxi driver as saying recently. “People don’t want to be shot.”
The U.S. has a clear interest in seeing the junta gone. Through Burma, China has naval access to the Indian Ocean. This affects the strategic calculations of other countries in the region, making it more difficult for the U.S. to achieve its goals. The interests of India, for instance, should make it want to counterbalance China and align itself with the United States on a host of security issues. But in practice it tends to accept the reality of Chinese power (and has accordingly gotten on swimmingly with the junta, serving as one of its chief arms-dealers). Burma’s army of 400,000, meanwhile, is a standing threat to neighboring states, and a potentially powerful deterrent to their cooperating with the U.S. in ways that the junta, or China, dislikes.
Precisely how to wrest power away from Burma’s rulers over the longer term is a question with no clear answer. But in coming months, the U.S. should work behind the scenes to build a consensus among its allies that the world would be better with this regime gone. The U.S. will surely be aided, in making its case against the generals, by their staggering callousness in the face of this catastrophe.
In the meantime, alas, there will be much more suffering.