IN THE UNITED STATES, Burma has long been a forgotten country. Unlike so many other countries in East Asia, our nations have not become interconnected through the ravages of war, the benefits of trade, or the movement of people seeking a better life. There are few Burmese in America -- only 16,000 or so as of the 2000 census, making their numbers a drop in the bucket even compared to Asian-Americans as a whole. As a result, even relatively learned people know little about Burma compared to their knowledge of -- well, pretty much everywhere else in Asia. (Nor did I see the latest Rambo movie.)
I must admit I fell into this camp. Although aware of the basics -- paranoid generals, military dictatorship, no freedom for its impoverished people -- I had no idea just how screwed up the country was until Cyclone Nargis hit it. The cyclone's destruction, you see, prompted me to do some reading up about the history and governance of the place. After reading that, along with increasingly desperate news accounts of the Burmese people's suffering, I feel confident in saying that Burma's present leader, Senior General Than Shwe, will be reincarnated as a dung beetle for the next 78 of his future lives, whilst in between suffering the torments of the damned in a very hot Naraka -- the Buddhist version of Hell.
Snr Gen Than Shwe will also undoubtedly have company, as his predecessors in the job were even worse than he is: particularly General Ne Win, who in 1962 started the process of running his country into the ground. The brutality with which Gen Ne Win ran things was not simply political in nature -- it was also economic, and the suffering those policies brought to the Burmese shouldn't be ignored. When you not only stifle people's hopes for political freedom, but also impoverish them through malicious economic controls -- such as demonetizing banknotes without any prior warning, thus making the little money your people have worthless -- you deserve nothing less than the worst punishment Hell can mete out.
It almost defies belief that any ruler -- even the head of a military dictatorship -- could be so monstrously cruel as to do nothing to help his suffering subjects, but Snr Gen Than Shwe's actions clearly are worse than that. Not only is the Burmese junta stopping aid from getting into the country, they're stealing the aid they have let in, and handing out rotten rice and spoiled food to cyclone victims while keeping the best stuff for themselves. That is so unbelievably wrong it makes me sputter with rage. I mean, they're making North Korea -- which is no slouch at wrecking the lives of its people -- look humane and competent. (China, in comparison, is smelling like roses for its excellent response to the devastating earthquake in Sichuan).
I do realize this situation is fraught with politics, and as a matter of course it is impolite at best for nations to act without regard for a country's sovereignty. That said, this is ridiculous.
The Burmese junta has had plenty of time to show it knows what it's doing in terms of rescue efforts. So we -- that is, the United States, and anyone with us -- should give the junta a reasonable deadline, say 24 or 48 hours, to start stepping up its relief efforts. I am sure we can track these via satellite. Then, if we're not happy, we start air-dropping survival packages to the people. After that, we park our ships in Rangoon's harbor and start off-loading aid. This presents the junta with two choices. They can a) accept the fact we're there and deal with it, or b) try to fight us off. Option B should be met with lethal and overwhelming force -- our air power should be more than a match for anything the Burmese military can put forward.
One would hope, of course, that the junta would not actively try to stop our efforts. But their callous indifference to the suffering of their people has cost them the Mandate of Heaven, and it is up to the rest of the world to do something. With hundreds of thousands of lives hanging in the balance, it would be nice if we didn't just sit around and wash our hands of the whole thing.Posted by Benjamin Kepple at May 19, 2008 12:45 AM | TrackBack