IF THERE IS A DEFINING mood about the catastrophe that has engulfed Burma, it is the sense of denial. When a devastating cyclone ripped through the country over the weekend, the military regime reported that the storm had killed 351 people. While residents of Rangoon, the largest city, scrambled for food and shelter, state television broadcast an opera. At least a million people have been made homeless in the storm's wake--and none of them will be going to the opera. As of this writing, the death toll is expected to reach as high as 100,000.
Yet the air of self-delusion which the Burmese regime breathes so freely is shared by others, particularly those in the cloistered confines of the United Nations. For years, as the military junta has brutalized and impoverished its population, U.N. officials either have ignored its atrocities or imagined they could be negotiated away.
Indeed, the same U.N. institutions that have accommodated and "engaged" the Burmese government are stupefied by how sluggishly the regime has responded to this disaster. Meteorologists in India say they warned Burmese officials at least 48 hours before the cyclone slammed into the country. Yet state-run media failed to issue timely warnings to villagers in the storm's path. As thousands of tons of relief assistance sat idly along its border, the government dithered over whether to issue visas allowing relief organizations into the country. A U.S. offer to divert three Naval ships in the Gulf of Thailand to assist relief efforts was rebuffed. Earlier this week, many aid workers were still being denied visas.
"Running the country on a combination of internal repression and xenophobia," writes Kenneth Denby in the Times (London), "the junta seems not to have made up its mind that this is a tragedy that it cannot remedy on its own." The government's craven disregard for the survival of its own people in the midst of this catastrophe, the worst since the 2004 tsunami, should surprise no one. It is the easily predictable reflex of a brutal and paranoid regime--aided and abetted by U.N. apologists and a culture of human-rights hypocrisy.
For all its secrecy and isolation, the government's track record is well known. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDP)--another child of Orwellian imagination--ranks as one of the most repressive regimes in the world. It rules by decree, suppresses virtually all basic human rights, maintains thousands of political prisoners, and is conducting a campaign of terror against ethnic minorities. Last September, the military fired into crowds to quash a non-violent, pro-democracy demonstration led by Buddhist monks. In February, the regime is believed to have assassinated Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, the general secretary of the Karen National Union, a leading democratic opposition group. Following an investigation earlier this year, Benedict Rogers, a human rights officer with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, reported appalling conditions in the country and among Burmese refugees. "Burma continues to deteriorate into further political, human rights and humanitarian crises," Rogers writes. "Forced labor, rape, torture and the destruction of villages . . . continue to be perpetrated on a widespread and systematic basis."
Yet reports of this kind are met, at best, with empty proclamations by U.N. institutions charged with upholding human rights protections. As anti-Americanism has become the raison d'etre of various U.N. member states, attempts by the United States to ratchet up international pressure against Burma have gone nowhere. China and other human-rights abusers make sure that tough U.N. Security Council resolutions--an arms embargo, for example, or sanctions on banking transactions targeting top leaders--never see the light of day. U.N. special rappateours, who have volumes to say about the treatment of prisoners at Guantanomo Bay, are mostly mute about the ethnic cleansing of the Karen and other indigenous groups. The plight of tens of thousands of refugees, fleeing persecution and living in "severe and desperate poverty," receives almost no international attention. The corrupt Human Rights Council--which confines most of its moral outrage to the state of Israel--has yet to unequivocally condemn Burma's chronic human-right atrocities.
The Burmese government reluctantly signaled its acceptance of international aid earlier this week. But the regime's relative indifference to the fate of thousands of its own citizens during this crisis seems to have stirred little consternation among U.N. officials. Sir John Holmes, the U.N.'s Humanitarian Affairs chief, called the international relief effort "slower than ideal"--but claimed that cooperation from the junta was "going in the right direction." French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was less diplomatic, suggesting that the U.N. Security Council authorize the use of force to get assistance to people in need.
The French proposal, an impossible gambit for the United Nations, nevertheless suggests the depth of frustration with the institution: the monstrous contradiction between U.N. ideals and its willingness to implement them. The U.N. General Assembly has approved a "responsibility to protect" doctrine, for example, which authorizes states to intervene to protect civilian populations from gross human-rights abuses. Burma--a tiny, corrupt, desperately poor state--is a standing rebuke to the U.N. doctrine and to the notion that the United Nations alone possesses the moral legitimacy to enforce it.
The cyclone that has laid waste to much of Burma, then, is not only a natural disaster. It is a calamity partly of human design--the result of deliberate moral ambiguity and quiet complicity with terror. Such problems will linger long after the relief organizations have completed their work.
Joe Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.