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Letter to the Editor: Humanitarian Aid to Myanmar Urged

May 14, 2008

Dear Editor,

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 inaction."

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 and supplies.

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/.


Jeannie Sowers


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