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Crisis: Burma's Agony

by Suzanne DiMaggio, Director, Asian Social Issues Program (ASIP), Asia Society

Survivors of the cyclone Nargis wait under the rain to collect relief food in Kyaiklat, in the Ayeyarwady Division of south-west Myanmar [Burma] on May 12, 2008. (Khin Maung Win/AFP/Getty Images)

Survivors of the cyclone Nargis wait under the rain to collect relief food in Kyaiklat, in the Ayeyarwady Division of south-west Myanmar [Burma] on May 12, 2008. (Khin Maung Win/AFP/Getty Images)

Originally presented in the Pakistan Daily Times, May 12, 2008 via Project Syndicate

As the death toll from the cyclone that struck a densely populated area of Burma stretching from the Irrawaddy Delta to the capital city of Rangoon continues to soar, the country's military dictatorship is pressing ahead with efforts to consolidate its power. The junta leaders have done little to facilitate recovery efforts in the wake of the disaster. Indeed, they have gone ahead with conducting a national referendum to approve a new constitution, which they hope will entrench their power for decades to come.

Burma's rulers have said that the vote will be delayed in the areas hardest hit by the cyclone until May 24, but the referendum has still gone ahead as planned in other parts of the country. With this move, the military leaders have put their sham vote aimed at tightening their repressive grip on power ahead of the well being of the Burmese people.

This should be no surprise. For nearly five decades, Burma's military rulers have systematically undermined the interests of their own citizens. In this latest case, the junta-controlled news media failed to announce warnings about the approaching cyclone. The entry of United Nations humanitarian personnel has been delayed due to the government's refusal to allow aid workers into the country without first applying for visas. Moreover, the military leaders are dragging their feet on easing restrictions on the import of humanitarian supplies and allowing a UN assessment team into the country.

Some have urged focusing attention on bringing relief efforts to Burma instead of criticising its government. But the reality is that the two issues are connected and the magnitude of the disaster has been made worse by the junta's single-minded objective of preserving its power.

The military leaders have shown that they can mobilise their forces in short order when they want, as evidenced by their violent crackdown on thousands of monks and political activists last year. More than seven months on from this brutal suppression, political activists continue to be imprisoned and tortured. Human rights groups report that opponents of the junta's proposed constitution have been beaten and intimidated in advance of the vote.

The current pro-military constitution lacks credibility because Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has spent 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest or in prison, and other democratic and ethnic minority leaders have not been allowed to participate in the drafting process. Additionally, the new constitution would effectively bar Suu Kyi from running for president because she was married to a foreigner.

As the only international actor in direct dialogue with both Burma's generals and Suu Kyi, the UN is in a position to press for a genuine process of national reconciliation. But its current approach is not working.

To date, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been addressing the crisis through the use of his "good offices," with Ibrahim Gambari serving as his representative to Burma's rulers. In his March 2008 briefing to the UN Security Council, Gambari reported that his most recent visit to the country was "frustrating" and acknowledged that no tangible progress was made. He was denied meetings with senior government leaders, representatives of ethnic minorities, and political opposition groups. The outcome was a major step backward.

This lack of progress is less a reflection of Gambari's capabilities than of the fact that he has not been empowered by the countries that hold the most leverage over Burma's rulers, including China, India, and Burma's ASEAN neighbours. The "good offices" approach is effective when the weight of the world is behind it and, put simply, Gambari has not been given the clout he needs. Since the countries that carry the most sway with the junta also have strong commercial interests in Burma, we should not expect any of them to step up and take the lead on their own.

As Secretary-General, Ban has lived up to his self-styled vision of being the consummate diplomat, and has made some important gains in tackling the UN's bureaucratic bloat as well as dealing with the Middle East. But on other issues, Ban has failed to live up to the critically important precedent set by his predecessor as Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, who transformed the position to promote human rights and assumed the role of the "world's conscience" when necessary.

Burma's deterioration demands that Ban stop managing and begin to lead. He should begin by demanding that Burma's government fulfil its responsibility to protect the country's citizens and condemn the use of violence and repressive tactics.

Given the Burmese generals' hard line stance to date, it will likely prove to be necessary for Ban to go to Burma to meet face-to-face with its leaders. One idea is to pressure the generals to agree to multi-party talks based on the North Korean model, an approach that Ban helped to forge from his days as South Korea's foreign minister.

While the world watches, Burma's generals are consolidating their tyrannical rule as hundreds of thousands of the cyclone's survivors remain in desperate need of shelter, clean drinking water, and medical care. The situation demands the Secretary-General's direct involvement. Without it, the junta will continue to have a free hand to act against the human rights of the Burmese people.

Suzanne DiMaggio
is the Director of the Asia Society's Social Issues Program and former Vice President of Global Policy Programmes at the United Nations Association of the USA.

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