Burma Without Blinkers

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

ON THE OPPOSITE page today, we publish the views of a senior U.N. official, John Holmes, on progress in Burma since a devastating cyclone struck more than three months ago. His rather upbeat assessment comes as President Bush and first lady Laura Bush, during a visit to Thailand, are about to draw the world's attention to persistent problems in Burma (also known as Myanmar), Thailand's neighbor in Southeast Asia.

You may recall that after Cyclone Nargis swept through Burma's Irrawaddy Delta on May 2, leaving 138,000 people dead or missing, Burma's dictator, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, refused almost all offers of international aid. U.S. Navy ships loaded with tents, food and other humanitarian supplies steamed in circles offshore but were never given permission to help. After weeks of begging and pleading, Than Shwe allowed more aid workers to enter, and they have been at work since. Having traveled to Burma twice, Mr. Holmes, who is U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, reports the good news that "the overwhelming majority" of survivors "have received help, even if in many cases they still need a good deal more."

It is difficult to know the true conditions in the delta, since the regime won't let foreign journalists look and imprisons any Burmese journalists who seek to report accurately. Just this week, a popular Burmese comedian and blogger and a sports journalist were brought up on charges -- "disturbing public order" -- that could bring two years in prison because they tried to help cyclone victims and talked about their plight. Aid agencies, meanwhile, tend to play down negative news because, understandably, they want to preserve their access. Still, a joint assessment last month, including from U.N. agencies, reported that most households in the hardest-hit delta region still lacked access to clean drinking water, a situation posing a risk of disease, and that more than half had food stocks for one day or less and faced "an increasing risk of acute malnutrition."

We agree with Mr. Holmes that the United Nations did the best it could -- for the simple reason that countries with influence in Burma, such as China, Thailand and India, were more interested in preserving their commercial and military ties to the Burmese regime than in pressing it to allow its people to be helped. We also understand Mr. Holmes's desire to separate humanitarian considerations from politics. But Burma, before and after the cyclone, was and is a humanitarian disaster because of politics: because its regime systematically impoverishes much of the population, conscripts children into forced labor, sends its army on internal campaigns of mass rape and ethnic cleansing, and persecutes monks and others who seek to help their fellow citizens. To consider such issues, or the criminal neglect of cyclone victims, as separable from politics is similar to hailing visits of U.N. human rights ambassadors as successful simply because they take place, even as the number of political prisoners -- 1,900 at latest count -- steadily rises.

So we think it is highly useful that Mr. Bush will meet with Burmese exiles tomorrow while Mrs. Bush visits a camp that houses 40,000 Burmese refugees. We hope their visit will be a reminder that by almost every measure of human misery and political repression, Burma in the past year has gone backward. Friday will mark the 20th anniversary of Burma's massacre of 3,000 democracy protesters. We hope that when Mr. Bush travels onward to Beijing, he will tell his Chinese hosts that history will not judge kindly their unstinting support of Burma's misrule in the 20 years since that black day.

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