"No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy," Amartya Sen once wrote.
This, argued the Nobel-prize winning economist, was because democratically elected governments "have to win elections and face public criticism."
Sen’s words have a grim resonance as Myanmar faces a humanitarian disaster exacerbated by its lack of openness. The military junta began on Sunday by saying that Cyclone Nargis had killed 351 people; a few hours later it was forced to raise that to 4,000 deaths, with another 3,000 missing; by the end of the day government ministers privately admitted the toll could hit 10,000 — and were asking for emergency aid from abroad. And in the middle of this catastrophe — as residents of Yangon, the largest city, scavenged for food — state television showed opera, while the Web site for the military regime’s English-language newspaper, the New Light of Myanamar, had for its lead story: “Senior General Than Shwe welcomes back Prime Minister General Thein Sein on his return from Thailand.”
Even without the dictatorship’s downplaying, assessing the damage wreaked by last weekend’s storm was always going to be tough: power and communications are out across swaths of the country. As it is, the aid organization World Vision thinks that at least 2 million Burmese have been killed, made homeless or otherwise affected.
The damage is likely to be lasting: the Irrawaddy delta, which is now overwhelmed with water, was previously a fertile rice-growing crescent that supported millions. That the regime is now, however cautiously, accepting more aid from outside its usual donor list is itself a sign of the situation’s grimness; this is a marked change from its closed-door policy during the tsunami of 2004 (which did not have anywhere near as large an impact on Myanmar as on its neighbors).
Perhaps it is also an admission that police states do not make efficient rescuers. Already the tardy response of the military is being compared to the ruthlessly efficient way they put down last September’s uprising of Buddhist monks.
As the aid organizations begin their work, some campaigners are already pressing for their efforts to be matched by international pressure on the regime to open up. They have a strong case. After the Saffron revolution was crushed last September, the international outrage stirred afresh by the junta’s thuggishness died away yet again. Other countries — Zimbabwe and Tibet — dominated Western attention.
But any further pressure must be carefully choreographed: it would be naive to imagine that this natural disaster can foster something like Turkey and Greece’s “earthquake diplomacy” of 1999, when the two countries sent rescue teams to each other’s affected areas and established a warmth in relations that can still be felt.
No, what Western aid workers with experience of Myanmar describe is a suspicious apparatus that closely monitors, intimidates and obstructs them. In these circumstances, rushing in with political demands for Senior General Than Shwe and his ruling clique will only succeed in preventing aid reaching ordinary Burmese. This pressure should be put on the government later.
By neglecting the basic human needs of its people, the government has made it far harder for Burma to recover from Nargis. Before the cyclone, the average household spent three-quarters of its budget on food, while fewer than half of all children completed primary school. Yet when a UN agency pointed this out last year its representative in Myanmar was expelled. Even as the country was racked by this storm, the junta pressed ahead with preparations for next weekend’s referendum on a new constitution. These battles will have to come later.