Myanmar in Crisis

Jayshree Bajoria
Council on Foreign Relations
Thursday, May 8, 2008; 2:07 PM

A cyclone in Myanmar last weekend has so far left tens of thousands dead and missing and many more homeless, exposing the vulnerabilities of a repressed population under an isolationist military regime. Even while the government sought international aid, its resistance to allowing entry to Western agencies has resulted in a delay in relief efforts (BBC). Daily estimates of the death toll have mounted, with a U.S. diplomat saying the number of fatalities could rise up to 100,000 (WashPost).

In response to the disaster, several countries, UN agencies, and international NGOs have offered assistance (AP), but Myanmar's government has only allowed limited aid into the country thus far. While the United States waits to fly in aid supplies -- it offered $3 million and the use of U.S. Navy ships to help find the missing -- India, China, Thailand, and other Asian neighbors, less critical of the regime, have been allowed (Reuters) to fly in supplies. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has suggested the United Nations invoke the doctrine of the "responsibility to protect" civilians as the basis for a resolution to allow the delivery of international aid even without the junta's permission (IHT). But the French proposal faced opposition ( from Security Council members Russia, China, and South Africa as interference in a domestic crisis.

The cyclone comes at a time of extreme political sensitivity for the regime. The country is set to vote on a referendum May 10 to decide whether to adopt a new constitution. Myanmar's government says the constitution will pave the way for elections by 2010, but critics, including the U.S. State Department, have said it appears "intended only to perpetuate the rule of the existing military junta in Burma." Amid growing international skepticism about the referendum, experts say, it is unlikely the government will allow access to the country. "Like Mao's China or Kim Jong Il's North Korea, the Burmese regime would rather allow the deaths of tens or even hundreds of thousands than alter its pet political projects or allow foreigners free access to the country," notes an editorial in the Washington Post. The government has announced the referendum will go ahead despite the cyclone, except in the worst-hit areas.

Some, like Independent columnist Peter Popham, argue the cyclone may actually force the generals to open up the country to preserve their own rule and to "avoid an outbreak of violent disorder." Last September, economic hardship prompted Buddhist monks and students to take to the streets to demand the overthrow of the regime. Some analysts feel the lack of access to basic necessities could spark additional anger among the population (Newsweek).

But as this Backgrounder points out, the junta is able to maintain its grip on power through extensive economic and military relations with its many Asian neighbors, notably India and China. Competing with each other to gain access to Myanmar's vast natural resources and oil, China and India have each resisted criticizing the regime. China has consistently defended the government against UN efforts to press sanctions in the past. Coming to Myanmar's aid after the cyclone, the Chinese government stepped up its initial offer (Xinhua) of $1 million to $ 5.3 million. CFR's Adam Segal says this is a great opportunity for China, facing international ire over Tibet, to improve its image (ABC). But China may not be the best equipped to help Myanmar. As this recent congressional report points out, China's disaster relief efforts (PDF) pale beside those of the United States.

© 2008