Letter to the Editor: Humanitarian Aid to Myanmar Urged
May 14, 2008
The tragedy unfolding in Myanmar/Burma in the wake of Cyclone Nargis is not
simply a natural disaster, but a political one. The military junta that rules
Myanmar has refused to allow aid workers access, confiscated UN supplies, and
hindered international relief operations.
The government failed to heed reliable warnings sent by India and Thailand
a week in advance of the cyclone, using early warning systems strengthened
after the devastating 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Countries such as Bangladesh,
poor and vulnerable like Myanmar, have made much more progress investing in
early warning systems, evacuation plans, and disaster preparedness.
The central government lacks the capacity to deliver aid to rural areas and
the will to allow the international community access to such regions, particularly
in areas with long-standing ethnic insurgencies. The generals in power issue
conflicting statements and directives, perhaps reflecting confusion and disagreement
within the regime itself.
Unless there is a significant change in direction, the result of this failure
of governance will be many, many more deaths in the coming weeks and months
as lack of clean water, sanitation, and food take their toll. As the former
relief coordinator for the United Nations observed in the New York Times on
May 10, "children are going to die from diarrhea because of this government's
What can we do in the face of such suffering and shameful political behavior?
The major powers, namely the United States, the European Union, and neighboring
India and China, have pursued various and often conflicting policies towards
the Myanmar regime, ranging from sanctions to engagement. These approaches
need to be coordinated and sustained, combining targeted sanctions with intense
regional pressure and diplomacy. More immediately, the U.S. can work with China
and India to escalate pressure on the generals to accept humanitarian experts
What we can do right now is to assist humanitarian agencies that have an existing
presence in Myanmar and are desperately seeking funds to support the expansion
of such efforts should political conditions permit. For instance, UNICEF, the
United Nation¹s Children Fund, has personnel inside Burma delivering aid
to three of the worst-hit areas, and has issued an emergency appeal for $8.2
million to support relief efforts. To find out more about the work of UNICEF
in Myanmar and to support the United States Fund for UNICEF, go to http://www.unicefusa.org/.