Let Them Eat Frogs

Friday, May 30, 2008

"THE SEARCH for food begins just after dawn," the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday from a small, devastated village in Burma. "Each day, men, women and children fan out into paddies flooded by seawater, littered with corpses. Like prospectors working claims, they scoop up the muck in their bare hands and finger through it for grains of unmilled rice swept away by the cyclone. When their luck is good, they discover red chile peppers or small onions in mud reeking of the dead. Then, they can have condiments with their next meal of rotten rice and coconut meat."

If only those villagers had read the New Light of Myanmar! The official newspaper for the military junta in charge (Myanmar being the generals' name for the country) this week assured its readers that everything was returning to normal in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta. And, the junta also assured its readers, hunger could not be a problem, since farmers can gather water clover or "go out with lamps at night and catch plump frogs."

This might be funny were it not obscene. In fact, according to editor and columnist Aung Zaw of the exile magazine Irrawaddy, more than half of the 2.4 million people affected by the cyclone have yet to receive aid. Meanwhile, a U.S. naval task force consisting of the USS Essex and three other vessels has been steaming in circles offshore since Cyclone Nargis swept through Burma on May 2 and 3. According to Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, the task force could deliver 250,000 pounds of relief material per day, by plane, helicopter and amphibious landing craft. "And the kids out there, the young sailors and Marines, are desperate to provide help," Adm. Keating said Wednesday. "Some of them have experience with the tsunami at Aceh. Some of them have experience with Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh last Thanksgiving. So these guys, they know what they're doing and they know how much help they can provide just that quick. . . . And there would be significant materiel going ashore within an hour, I'd say."

So why are those villagers still scrounging? "As yet," Adm. Keating explained, "we don't have permission from Burma to conduct those operations."

That's right. Since the cyclone that left more than 100,000 people dead or missing, Burma's generals have found time to conduct a phony referendum to make military rule permanent; issue a decree extending the house arrest of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi; detain many other democracy activists and ordinary civilians and monks trying to deliver aid to cyclone victims; harry and repulse foreign correspondents (the Los Angeles Times reporter quoted above had to file anonymously); and complain that foreign governments are being stingy with "reconstruction" aid. But the junta continues to prevent the kind of large-scale relief operation that the country needs, allowing in just enough private aid workers to defuse international pressure.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was right to visit Burma and press the junta to admit more aid. But he was wrong, in explaining why he didn't say much there about Aung San Suu Kyi, to urge a "focus on people, not politics." It is politics -- the generals' politics -- that is killing uncounted numbers of children in Burma's delta. It is the generals' politics to rebuff emergency relief while demanding reconstruction loans that could make the junta richer. And it is the generals' politics that is forcing villagers to strain the mud for rotten rice while tons of clean food float unused not many miles away.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company