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.
Given the unflinching paralysis of the U.N. Security Council over Burma, what should the United States do? The United States, with a democratic coalition that could include Great Britain and France, should prepare immediately to intervene in Burma to ensure humanitarian aid reaches the tens of thousands of cyclone victims whose lives are still at risk. Defense Secretary Gates recently ruled out such action, but President Bush could overturn his judgment, given the ongoing humanitarian disaster.
U.N. apologists would decry a U.S.-led intervention as a breach of international law--but only by ignoring the "responsibility to protect" doctrine adopted by U.N. member states nearly three years ago. Under the U.N. doctrine, nations agree to take all possible measures--including the use of force--to protect civilians from gross human rights abuses. If the deliberate and calculated failure to protect and assist its own population in the face of a devastating catastrophe does not invoke the U.N. mandate, what does?
An intervention of this kind, even with its humanitarian objective, would not be without its risks. Yet the costs of inaction--the deaths of thousands of people, the emboldening of a murderous regime, the perception of American weakness--must also be weighed.
"Intervention will be seen as divine intervention by the Burmese people, not only to help the cyclone victims but also to finally free the entire nation from the military yoke," wrote a coalition of Burmese democracy groups to President Bush. "Please do not compare Burma with Iraq, because Buddhist monks, students, Burmese patriots will happily assist you with whatever you need to go inside Burma and help the cyclone victims and entire nation Many concerned Burmese citizens are willing to join the intervention. Please do not waste precious time."
Burma represents an opportunity not only to save lives, but to rescue the principle of humanitarian intervention from the forces of cynicism and moral cowardice. That may not amount to a final vindication of the Bush doctrine. But it could prove to be one of the most important legacies of his administration.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights officer with the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide and author of A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People. Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.