FOR YEARS, jaded diplomats and academics have rebuffed Burma's democracy activists with one question: Why don't the people of Burma rise up? For the past month, they have been doing exactly that, against unimaginable odds and with unimaginable courage. So now a different question arises: Is the world -- its leaders, diplomats, academics and others -- going to stand on the sidelines or offer some help?
Yesterday, more than 1,000 Buddhist monks marched peacefully along the rain-soaked streets of Burma's largest city, with thousands of spectators encouraging their protest. At the head of the procession a monk carried an alms bowl turned upside down, symbolically refusing to accept any more support from the military regime, one of the world's most repressive. In an overwhelmingly Buddhist Southeast Asian nation of 50 million people, this was a withering rebuke. The echoes of the last great uprising, in 1988, must be alarming the country's corrupt ruling generals -- the roots in economic discontent and the slow stirrings from students to monks to the general population and from the capital to smaller cities across the nation.
The regime -- so frightened of its own people that it had already transplanted its capital in the dead of night, to a desolate inland spot, on the advice of an astrologer -- has responded in some ways more desperately than it did in 1988. Though the monks have for the most part not been blocked, virtually every student leader is in prison, many tortured. Cousins, siblings and even children of demonstrators have been swept up, too. Anyone with a camera is suspect, as the regime seeks to block news of the protests from traveling. Yet brave Burmese with cellphones continue to relay photographs, and brave unarmed civilians continue to interpose themselves between protesters and regime vigilantes.
The global response thus far has been lackadaisical. The U.N. Security Council held a briefing Thursday, but the U.S. representative emerged with no message of particular urgency. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy has yet to announce a date to visit Burma. Some talk about the need for more studies of the humanitarian situation inside Burma -- as if the humanitarian disaster, and even more its cause in political misrule, were not already well known.
What needs to be done is clear. The regime must release all political prisoners, starting with Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, so that a negotiation toward democracy can begin. President Bush, who has spoken eloquently of Burma's struggle for freedom, needs to engage in strenuous diplomacy -- above all with China -- to make clear that this is a U.S. priority. And China, which has more influence in Burma than any other country has, needs to decide whether it wants to host the 2008 Olympics as the enabler of one of the world's nastiest regimes or as a peacemaker.