Burmese Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi a few years ago admonished international relief groups to withhold aid to her country as long as the ruling Junta eschewed democracy and trampled on human rights. On that basis, a number of groups who would otherwise have mounted aid and development programs refocused their attention to the plight of 250,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand. While they did so, an increasingly powerful human rights campaign for Burmese democracy grew and began to greatly influence world public opinion.
Unfortunately, as they did in Sudan over genocide in Darfur, those in power are basically ignoring millions of voices in opposition to their government's behavior. Their isolation from the world's media is nearly total and their ability to accept criticism is nil.
Most people think everyone engaged in relief, development and human rights basically have shared goals and common approaches. Many are shocked to learn that there has been a growing split as to tactics among the human rights and relief communities.
The Save Darfur Coalition failed to attract a number of major relief NGOs who felt concerned at the wild imbalance in fund raising between the celebrity-fueled Stop The Genocide appeals of the Save Darfur Coalition and the necessity for the relief groups to raise adequate funds to care for Darfurians inside and outside Sudan. George Clooney, a key architect of Save Darfur, himself admonished his peers not to forget the necessity of saving lives while hammering the government of Sudan.
The cyclone which hit Myanmar 10 days ago has brought to the fore similar concerns as the relief community races to help in the face of a hostile or indifferent military Junta which denies access to both relief experts and relief cargo. The Burmese democracy movement at the same time apparently feels the cyclone has provided a golden opportunity for public education, advocacy and fund raising. The money would likely be spent -- as was Save Darfur's -- on advocacy ads in various media and a legion of staff at the various groups.
I hope the advocacy groups realize the immediacy of the terrible suffering inside Myanmar where over 100,000 have died and an estimated 1.5 million are in immediate jeopardy from a lack of water, food, shelter and health care. The advocacy groups should partner with the relief NGOs and quietly help raise the private funds necessary to put Myanmar back on its feet without replaying Laura Bush's incendiary talking points in the days following the storm.
At the least, they can buy a Myanmar cyclone t-shirt online from Von Dutch (www.vondutch.com) and support direct aid to the millions who are waiting for help.
[Richard M. Walden is President and CEO of Operation USA, a 29 year old Los Angeles-based int'l relief agency, www.opusa.org]