- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Everybody has their price. In the case of the military junta that runs Burma (the country they insist on calling Myanmar), the cynical price for allowing aid workers free access to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis was by their own account $11.7 billion in reconstruction aid. At the donor’s conference this weekend in Singapore to help the victims of the natural disaster that occurred on May 2-3, which swept thousands of villages away in a 12-foot storm surge, the Burmese regime demanded from foreign governments that they fork over an amount roughly equivalent to the annual GDP of the country. These demands are nothing but extortion that should not be countenanced, where there is no transparency and accountability for where the funds are going.

Countries from around the world have been quick and generous in offering much-needed disaster relief and aid amounting to as much as $100 million in pledges. However, the intransigence of the Burmese regime in allowing foreign aid to reach the victims has blocked most efforts, especially in the first weeks after the disaster struck. Needless to say, the death toll has been greatly increased. This behavior is par for the course for a regime that has ruled the country brutally since 1962.

The numbers are startling. The initial death toll was 32,000 by official figures. The current count stands at 134,000 dead and missing. According to the United Nations, 2.4 million people have been affected by the disaster, with 1 million still urgently in need of food, water, medicine and shelter. The frustration felt by the international community at being unable to provide the massive amounts of aid needed in an awful situation like this is entirely understandable.

Nevertheless, under the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United Nations, limited numbers of relief workers and flights are gradually being permitted access. The numbers are far from sufficient, but better than nothing. The fear of the Burmese regime is clearly that giving Western nations access will cause them to lose political control, which is very possibly a well-founded fear.

Much of the international attention - and indeed criticism - on the plight of Burma has focused on the role of the military junta. This is a natural disaster exacerbated by human behavior. When openness could have saved lives, controlling information proved an obsession with the regime. The Burmese meteorological service held a press conference 24 hours before the storm hit, saying that the winds were expected to be only about 35 mph.

As a consequence, many people did not flee inland where they might have been saved. The U.S. Navy’s Typhoon Warning Center predicted the cyclone’s winds would be over 100 mph days before it hit land. Three days before the storm struck, the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia started broadcasting warnings in Burmese that could be picked up on short-wave radio. That was the only real information available to the Burmese people.

After the storm had landed, washing away entire villages, the military continued to assure the United Nations and international relief agencies that it had the situation in hand. Few aid workers were allowed in, and international frustration mounted as relief supplies became available for distribution but were stuck on ships off Burma’s shores.

What the international community should do in a case like this has been the subject of intense discussion. The international community should in the interest of the victims use every bit of leverage, an approach is indeed happening and working to some degree.

We should avoid two traps, however. The first is to hand the generals a blank check, which almost certainly would not do the Burmese people any good. The second is to persuade ourselves that military intervention over the objections of the Burmese military to deliver the aid is the only way forward. This has been proposed by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, citing the U.N. doctrine adopted in 2005 called the “responsibility to protect” - that is, protect the citizens of countries whose government is unwilling or unable to do so. A military confrontation might well end up exacerbating the situation and creating more refugees.

We know from the interventions in Haiti and Somalia of the Clinton years that only where U.S. national security interest is at stake do we have the commitment to stay the long course needed to rebuild a country - as we are currently doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. And even then, the going is tough.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.



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