Thursday, May 15, 2008

Myanmar's imperfect storm

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as adopted by the United Nations. This year also marks one of the most wrenching collisions of meteorological catastrophe and man-made calamity — the cyclone in Myanmar and its aftermath, a tragedy that's proof of both the damaging powers of nature, and of human nature.

We're witness every hour, it seems, to the growing death toll connected with Cyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar on May 3: Estimates have changed often and dramatically. Myanmar state radio reported Wednesday that the death toll was 38,491, Agence France-Presse reported, with 27,838 people still missing. The United Nations' official estimate places cyclone-related deaths at more than 60,000. The International Red Cross estimated Wednesday that the cyclone death toll was between 68,833 and 127,990 people killed.

Various aid organizations swung into action almost immediately, followed by governments around the world. All rallied in short order to assist the millions of people believed to be now homeless in the cyclone's wake. And all remain stymied by another disaster: the disaster of the Myanmar government.

News reports have surfaced of the junta's attempt to control emergency food supplies. The New York Times reported Wednesday that "some of the international aid arriving into the country for the victims of Cyclone Nargis was being stolen, diverted or warehoused by the country’s army."

"Although aid flights are now regularly seen arriving at the Yangon airport, international rescue teams and disaster-relief experts for the most part are being kept away from the country," The Times reported. "[D]iplomats and representatives of aid missions said that visas for overseas experts were still being denied."

The Times reported that "the junta has barred all foreigners, including credentialed diplomats and aid workers, from accompanying any donated aid, tracking its distribution or following up on its delivery."

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The actions of the Myanmar government aren't totally surprising. This is the same repressive government that for more than 20 years has frustrated the work of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, held in continual house arrest by the junta, despite the outcries of the world.

Now the junta's paranoiac tendencies have combined with natural disaster to create a tragic perfect storm: the velocities of nature have combined with the follies of men, making victims of millions.

The cause of human rights has many dimensions, the war to support and elevate those rights occurs in many theaters around the world. But the monstrous blunders and policies of the Myanmar government must be called to account.

The junta must end the roadblocks to the influx of international aid and the workers necessary to monitor its impact in the region. The nations of the world must aggressively petition the junta, through their diplomats and charities, to permit access to the areas hardest hit, and facilitate flights of relief agencies into Myanmar.

The U.S. State Department must use its stature, its leverage and the powers of moral suasion to both directly apply diplomatic pressure and to persuade Myanmar's neighbors to do the same, the better to open the bottleneck that's aiding and abetting nothing less than a humanitarian crisis of global scale.

The United States of America — the same nation whose secretary of state called Myanmar one of the world's "outposts of tyranny" in January 2005 — must be prepared to elevate the Myanmar crisis to the status of a front-burner concern, realizing that the natural disaster of today could metastasize into an untold catastrophe, creating a region ripe for overthrow, or attempts at insurrection and a government violently at odds with its people — the ideal breeding ground for terrorism.

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And the three contenders for the presidency of the United States of America must step forward and demand action, individually or collectively. We need to hear their proposals, their action plans for dealing with this disaster, another kind of challenge to world order.

A challenge to HIllary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama: Request your online supporters to divert one of their regular contributions to your respective presidential campaigns to one of the international aid organizations now in the region. Nothing could send a clearer signal, not from Democrats or Republicans but from Americans, that this nation means to turn a page on relations with its global neighbors. If there were ever an opportunity for America to exercise its soft power in the world, this is it.

Human rights. Among the most basic of them, in a world of societies, is the right not to be at the mercies of the elements and your government at the same time. There are few opportunities to effect change like this one. It's challenge enough to rescue a people from the merciless calculus of natural weather events. That tragedy is compounded when victims of acts of God are victimized again, by the acts of men. With the strong possibility of another cyclonic-scale storm heading for the area by this weekend, the time to speak, to act, is truly, literally immediate.

There is no fierce urgency like the fierce urgency of Right Now.

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