[Overseas view]The urgency of helping Myanmar

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[Overseas view]The urgency of helping Myanmar

When disasters strike, political leaders in most countries know they will be judged at home and abroad by how quickly they respond to their people’s needs. Following an enormous earthquake centered in China’s Sichuan Province on May 12, the Chinese government’s emergency response planners moved swiftly into action. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was on the scene within hours.

The military men who rule Myanmar, on the other hand, have hardly stepped outside their bunkers since a cyclone devastated the country’s lowlands in early May. What they have chosen to do ? and not to do ? reveals much about how they maintain power.

Governments that fail to react quickly to calamity usually pay a price. An inadequate state response to an earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 drained much of what was left of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s political capital, and the country’s military took much of the blame.

That’s one reason why Musharraf, who must now share power with an elected prime minister and a hostile parliament, can no longer count on the army to back him in a tight spot.

After Hezbollah pushed Lebanon into war with Israel in 2006, it was Hezbollah, not the Lebanese military, that appeared first on the scene with food and medicine to ease the suffering. Fouad Siniora’s government took a black eye, and Hezbollah played hero. This phenomenon, of course, isn’t limited to the developing world. The Bush administration’s catastrophically slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 dealt the president’s popularity a blow from which it has not recovered.

In Myanmar, the cyclone’s destructive power inflicted deeper wounds than most outsiders realize.

Reports from the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta, scene of the worst destruction, suggest that major roads, bridges and airstrips were washed away, preventing emergency relief supplies from immediately reaching those who needed them most. Foreign aid agencies estimate that more than 100,000 have died. A million more face starvation and disease if help is not delivered soon. It will take time before the true scale of death and destruction is known.

But we do know that early international attempts to provide Myanmar with relief supplies failed, largely because Gen. Than Shwe’s government rushed to confiscate them. Why would the generals do this, even as the desperate were dying? Because they have staked their legitimacy on claims that they alone can provide for Myanmar. They use official media every day to tell the people of Myanmar that their country does not need foreign help.

International relief supplies might prove them wrong ? and foreign aid workers might tell Myanmar’s people that they deserve better from their government.

In short, the junta seized the aid containers for the same reason that Kim Jong-il’s regime often insists that foreign aid shipments reach North Korea’s needy via North Korean trucks: Kim wants the credit. He wants a public demonstration of his power to meet his people’s needs, because if he were forced to admit that his government relied on outsiders to deliver his people from their misery, he might no longer seem quite so indispensable a tyrant.

When disaster strikes countries like North Korea and Myanmar, foreign aid is sometimes welcome, but foreign aid workers are not.

Will Myanmar’s government pay a price for its cruelty? Probably not. In fact, the generals’ political control, established in 1962, will likely remain as solid as Kim Jong-il’s.

Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, and Myanmar’s decimated opposition poses little threat to the regime.

Few countries have as firm a grip on national and local media, which provides its captive audience ? at least those with electricity ? with a steady diet of images of smiling citizens gratefully accepting shipments of food, water and medicine from soldiers unloaded from crates stamped with the generals’ names.

Yet, international pressure on the junta to open the country to relief workers must continue, because the scale of the humanitarian disaster extends well beyond the Myanmar government’s ability to respond and because the storm’s secondary damage may well spill across the region. At a moment of spiraling global food inflation, the cyclone slammed directly into an area that accounts for about two-thirds of Myanmar’s rice production ? and during the heart of harvest season.

Myanmar is Southeast Asia’s fourth-largest rice producer. If rice storage facilities have been destroyed and if roads and other infrastructure cannot be rebuilt in time for the June planting season, other countries in the region, particularly Indonesia and the Philippines, could face food shortages that are even worse than expected.

That’s why Myanmar’s disaster is not simply Myanmar’s problem. Outsiders will not change the generals’ bunker mentality, but relief organizations and foreign governments must do all they can to ensure that no matter whose name appears on the containers, badly needed supplies reach the cyclone’s victims ? and efforts to rebuild roads and bridges are well under way before the crisis crosses the border.

*The writer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. He is the author of “The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall.” He can be reached via e-mail at research@eurasiagroup.net.

by Ian Bremmer
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