Burma's Criminal "Malign Neglect"

05/14/2008 09:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Burma is making China look like a world leader on human rights. The troops in China are pitching in to help Chinese earthquake victims, while in Burma the troops have blocked the way to relief from the Nargis cyclone. Now, 11 days since the cyclone, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the BBC today that the junta was guilty of "malign neglect" and that he would be amazed if 100,000 Burmese have not already died, with "hundreds of thousands" more at risk of starvation and disease. He says that a natural disaster is turning into a "humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions." Afraid that epidemics may already be starting, relief agencies have thrown themselves into the logistics of the enormous challenge, especially in the Irrawaddy Delta, only to find soldiers blocking their way at the behest of the Burma's ailing xenoparanoid dictator, Senior General Than Shwe.

Gen. Shwe in 1992 purged his rivals among the 11-person junta that seized power in 1989 and he now uneasily clings to power with two other generals who make up the Orwellian-named State Peace and Development Council: (1) a heavy-drinking crony of druglords, Deputy Senior General Maung Aye, 68, and (2) General Shwe Mann, 60, who is said to have been involved in wide-scale ethnic cleansing in Karen.

The global spotlight on Burma (or Myanmar, as the junta renamed it) in the aftermath of the cyclone is unwelcome to the generals. They would apparently rather see up to a million of their people suffer and even perish than allow in too many foreigners who might uncover more of the miseries of the Burmese people. This is a perfect illustration of Amartya Sen's thesis that mass famines are most likely under dictatorships that lack a free press.

The U.N. is frustrated at the lack of cooperation from Burma's government, and unapproved airdrops were recommended by the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and others under the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) provision passed by the 2005 UN General Assembly. Under the R2P provision, the UN has a duty to intervene to protect vulnerable populations from "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity" and in these cases national sovereignty may be pierced.

The practical problem with invoking R2P is that airdropped aid is just not very effective. Medical supplies, for example, require considerable expertise to use properly. A major lesson from the 2004 tsunami is that delivery of humanitarian aid can't succeed without support from the local government.

The belated good news is that some aid has started to get through via CARE, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Mercy Corps, the Salvation Army, Save the Children (40 percent of Burma's victims are reportedly children), the UN Population Fund and World Food Program and World Vision. Australia, China, France, India, Indonesia, Thailand, UK and the United States have delivered or provided aid.

Trucks are heading south from Rangoon and the UN reports that one-fourth of the victims are getting the aid they need. But it's more than a day late and more than a dollar short.