The Blog

Burma and the Bush Administration

It's time to intervene.

12:00 AM, Jun 5, 2008 • By BENEDICT ROGERS and JOSEPH LOCONTE
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London
THANKS LARGELY TO THE INHUMANITY of Burma's military dictatorship, the cyclone that devastated the country a month ago has left about 133,000 people dead or missing. Delayed and obstructed by the ruling junta, international assistance has yet to reach about a quarter of a million people affected by the storm. While the hopes and livelihoods of many have been swept away, there remains a lingering delusion: the notion that the "international community" retains either the moral sensibility or political will to confront the most despotic of regimes. The crisis in Burma confirms the indispensable need for American leadership.

The Burmese regime is guilty of atrocities far worse than the "criminal neglect" Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ascribes to them. It is guilty of crimes against humanity. Prior to the cyclone, the regime received dozens of warnings from India that the storm was on its way--yet did nothing to prepare its citizens. When the cyclone struck, the government sat on its hands and refused international help. Neither material aid nor aid workers were allowed to reach the victims, causing the needless deaths of tens of thousands. A trickle of assistance has gotten in, but aid workers are still restricted and much relief has been seized and sold on the streets. The junta now declares the relief phase is over: Its military thugs are forcibly evicting thousands of people from their shelters, even though they have no homes to return to. An estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced by this crisis.

While the United Nations has mostly ignored Burma, the Bush administration has put a spotlight on the regime. Apart from some helpful actions by the European Union, though, the United States has acted virtually alone in opposing the regime and supporting democratic resistance groups. The Bush White House has applied targeted sanctions against the government and brought numerous resolutions before the U.N. Security Council. In 2005, Bush met with a Burmese democratic dissident, Charm Tong, for 40 minutes in the Oval Office, to show solidarity and discuss the human rights situation in her country. Last September, in his annual address to the United Nations, Bush announced a new round of U.S. sanctions. Last month he again called for the release of all political prisoners and negotiations with democratic leaders. Meanwhile, First Lady Laura Bush has spoken out in defense of the Burmese people. She has written op-eds, held press conferences, hosted U.N. briefings, and pressed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to take a harder line. The United States has the toughest and, in reality, the only meaningful foreign policy to confront the Burmese government.

Few nations match Burma for its record of atrocities. The ruling junta has carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against its ethnic minorities, involving the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, the forcible conscription of child soldiers, human minesweepers, torture, murder, and the destruction of over 3,200 villages. More than a million people have been internally displaced by military offensives aimed almost exclusively at civilians. Hundreds of thousands have fled to camps in Thailand or into India and Bangladesh.

While U.N. human rights bodies have given lip service to the cause of democracy, the Burmese leadership has assaulted its nation's fledgling democratic movement. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won elections in 1990 with more than 82 per cent of the parliamentary seats, but the junta rejected the results and imprisoned the victors. Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Laureate and leader of NLD, has spent more than 12 years under house arrest. Last month her detention was extended yet again--a fact loudly criticized by the Bush administration. More than 1,800 Burmese languish as political prisoners.

President Bush's "democracy agenda" is widely criticized for its failings and inconsistencies: Oil-producing autocrats, for example, get little attention. Yet the White House has made a significant, and surprising, investment in Burma's struggle for democratic freedom. It is surprising because Burma represents little strategic value to the United States. Domestic political pressure for U.S. engagement is, at best, minimal. Indeed, until the "Saffron Revolution"--in which peaceful demonstrations by Buddhist monks were brutally put down--Burma seldom received media attention.

The spectacle of Burma's self-induced catastrophe may yet prod political and media elites to admit an unpleasant possibility: There may be a certain moral necessity to Bush's democracy agenda after all.