WASHINGTON -- Six weeks after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, more than one million people severely affected by the storm have yet to receive any food, water, or shelter, and the so-called "second wave" of dying from disease, thirst, and hunger has begun in earnest. In the aftermath of the cyclone, some 134,000 Burmese are now dead or missing -- over 40 percent of who are believed to be children. And the United Nations has reported that more than one million affected victims have yet to receive any humanitarian relief.
The junta refuses to allow the use of any foreign military helicopters to deliver aid, even from such countries as Thailand and Singapore. Meanwhile, British, French, and American ships just offshore have been turned away with food, water, and personnel capable of helping hundreds of thousands. Almost four weeks after junta leader Than Shwe promised UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon that he would immediately allow in "all aid workers," to the affected areas, the junta has granted only 200 visas to UN workers and is imposing a new round of bureaucratic restrictions on foreign aid organisations to obtain access.
This is no surprise to long-time observers of Burma. Over the years the junta has made countless promises to the UN, labeled "breakthroughs" contemporaneously by diplomats, that the junta later breaks. For example, under immense pressure after last fall's Saffron Revolution, Burma committed to engage in meaningful negotiations with democracy-leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party and its allies won more than 80 percent of the vote in the country's 1990 democratic parliamentary elections. Once the world's attention had waned, the talks failed, both because the regime has no desire to engage in talks and it felt no pressure to make real concessions.
While the UN secretary general, the Burmese regime, and allies of the junta have urged that the question of humanitarian aid not be "politicized," the regime itself is taking every advantage of the cyclone to make permanent its grip on power to the exclusion of helping its own people. As is often the case, distraction and delay in discussing the fundamental issues in Burma only serve the interests of the regime.
The extension of Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest is the most high-profile example of this phenomenon. Notwithstanding the UN's four prior findings that her detention is illegal and that Burmese law itself does not permit house arrest beyond five years, the junta decided to give her a sixth year in prison. Sadly, tomorrow marks her 63rd birthday and she has spent more than 12 of the last 18 years in isolation under house arrest.
In the days following the cyclone, the junta also saw no need to delay its sham constitutional referendum. Postponing the vote only in the two areas hit hardest by the storm, the results obviated the need for those in the cyclone-ravaged regions to also cast ballots. Nevertheless, the junta rescheduled the vote in those other areas. The junta has now made the extraordinary claim that 98.1 percent of the population had turned out to vote, with 92.48 percent endorsing the junta's proposal. According to the state-run New Light of Myanmar, this suspicious outcome has "washed away" the 1990 election result.
It is deeply regrettable that both Ban Ki-moon and ASEAN chief Surin Pitsuwan declined to raise the fraudulent election result or Suu Kyi's expiring house arrest in their meetings with the junta, both of which occurred after Cyclone Nargis hit the country. In so doing, they sent a clear signal to the junta that as long as they held their own people hostage, it could press ahead with their campaign to consolidate power and be assured the United Nations and ASEAN would relax any pressure for political reform. Their fundamental error was to focus exclusively on the suffering of the Burmese victims of Cyclone Nargis and to fail to recognize the political situation is equally unconscionable.
There is no doubt the United States continues to have a crucial role to play in keeping pressure on the Burmese junta, but time is running out for President George W. Bush to follow up his strong initial response. First, he should urge Ban Ki-moon to return to Burma on an urgent basis to insist Than Shwe provide the access Ban was promised. Second, to keep the pressure on the regime, Bush should work with the United Kingdom and France to request that Ban come back and brief the Security Council about the results of the discussions. And finally, Bush should press ASEAN leaders personally to make clear to Burma that while it is eager to assist, this help will not include shielding Burma from further intervention should it persist in its callous disregard of its own people's welfare. While there are no easy solutions to the current crisis let alone the long-term challenges in Burma, now is the time for action.
Jared Genser is President of Freedom Now, attorney for Burmese democracy-leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.