Natural disasters can have a reconciliatory effect on relations between unfriendly states. Two examples are the Izmit earthquake in Turkey in 1999, which helped to improve ties between Ankara and Athens, while the Indian Ocean tsunami in late 2004 helped to bring Aceh separatists and the Indonesian government to the negotiating table.
As horrifying as the death tolls for natural disasters can be, one upside has always been the expression of support and sympathy from other countries and the provision of emergency aid and services to the afflicted. The political gains that derive from reducing acute human suffering allow dueling states to admit to their limitations and join hands in the service of higher principles and practical need.
Then there’s Myanmar.
Cyclone Nargis wrought terrible destruction on the south of that country last week, and the death toll is of such staggering proportions that Myanmar’s military regime must be held directly responsible for much of the suffering.
The Myanmar regime knew Cyclone Nargis could hit sensitive areas, yet virtually nothing was done to prepare for what was in store. Even allowing for the region’s poor infrastructure and vulnerability to flooding and storm surges, the reaction of the authorities to the drowning of the Irrawaddy delta has been appalling in its negligence. In the civilized world, these authorities would warrant prosecution for manslaughter.
The UN has already described the Myanmar junta’s obstructionism over visas for relief workers as “unprecedented” in the context of “modern humanitarian relief efforts.” The junta’s rejection of US aid and services, while not surprising, is even more irresponsible, especially given the splendid work of the US military in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami.
The dire situation facing survivors would challenge even the best equipped relief teams. With Myanmar refusing to admit aid workers — even those with UN accreditation — and demanding that donor countries naively entrust the military with money and supplies, it therefore appears all but certain that the death toll will rise dramatically and unnecessarily.
Myanmar has a number of friends in the region who have helped it weather the other storm of trade sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Even China, which has been one of the junta’s staunchest supporters, might be wondering whether the incompetence and negligence of the Myanmar government during this disaster — rivaled in scale only by North Korea’s mishandling of famine — will damage its interests if the junta does not pick up its game. Even so, there is little sign that Myanmar will take any notice of the growing anger at its ruinous conduct.
Locking up democrats and rigging constitutional ballots are reason enough to rebut the Myanmar junta’s legitimacy. But with this latest natural disaster, and the man-made disaster to follow, there is no other choice for the world community to make: the junta must be censured in the UN for spurning the most basic responsibilities of government.
Punishment is another matter: How to deal with the junta without hurting ordinary people or offending its allies is a dilemma that has haunted responsible nations for some time. It is clear, however, that the current strategy of tolerating the junta’s excesses and rewarding suppression of dissent with trade that bolsters the military are of no benefit to the Burmese.