Abandoning Burma

What’s happening in Burma is a tragedy. Now Washington should step up to the plate.

The terrible destructiveness of Cyclone Nargis has uncovered a simple truth about Burma and the failure of the international community's policies toward that country: it's about the people.

The people of Burma have endured over four decades of man-made disaster. Once the rice-bowl of Asia, Burma struggles to feed its own people; rich in natural resources (including gas and oil) the country stagnates with many forced to live in poverty and the gap between the military super-rich and the Burmese people grows wider. Education and medical care have gone to hell, AIDS, tuberculosis and other diseases spread across Burma's borders to neighboring countries, along with exports of vast quantities of synthetic drugs and human-trafficking schemes abusing the Burmese desperate for a better life elsewhere. Nor has Burma's military made it easy for outsiders to help.

The harrowing images of villages torn asunder, of trees uprooted, homes demolished and long lines of ordinary Burmese queuing for drinking water and food now allows the world the opportunity to graphically reacquaint ourselves with the travails of Burma's people, long in desperate need of outside help which never came.

Rather they have been incessantly inundated with words, international resolutions and congressional imprecations about the very real iniquities of the Burmese junta but very little practical help. Indeed, the public discourse on Burma-this past month on the "sham" referendum next week on the military's "roadmap to democracy"-has been one-dimensional. While paying lip service to the human needs of the population, the vast majority of the policy-writing on Burma focuses on what to do about the ruling military junta-engage or sanction-how to bring about political change. That has been standard international fare for many years. But it has accomplished zilch politically and avoided focus on the practical problem of getting health and education services to the public through a regime that does not care.

Now with this new plague upon them the need for help is even more apparent. The immediate response has a certain familiarity. The White House had Laura Bush offer its initial response to the cyclone disaster. The United States pledged $250,000-indeed, Mrs. Bush was seemingly so embarrassed at the sum that she did not volunteer it in her press conference, but merely confirmed it following a reporter's query. Mrs. Bush indicated that more aid would be forthcoming, but that largely depended on the Burmese government first accepting an official U.S. DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team) to evaluate needs. The EU pledged an immediate $3 million-no great shakes but better.

Following the offer of aid Mrs. Bush went on the attack, criticizing the referendum, the iniquities of the military government, and the need for continued pressure-not likely to encourage Burma to open its gates to the American DART team. Nor will her announcement that President Bush will be signing legislation today giving Aung San Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal.

Once again how does all that help the Burmese people? For too many years nations have not come to grips with that question.

Natural disasters can be tremendous opportunities for change. The Asian tsunami and the US's heroic response is testament to that. Nor can it be precluded that Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath may also have momentous political ramifications inside Burma. We certainly hope so, but right now the focus should not be on politics but squarely on the people, and that must not be allowed to be submerged by incessant political posturing. And that focus must be more than on a short term basis, whatever the problems of dealing with a terrible government.


Morton Abramowitz is former Ambassador to Thailand, and senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where Jonathan Kolieb is research associate.