Hunger is the question facing people across Burma since Cyclone Nargis tore through the Irrawaddy Delta on 3 May. The 5,000 square kilometres where 1.5 million people are now destitute provided almost two-thirds of the country’s annual rice harvest. Preparations for planting this year’s main crop in June have already been wrecked, and any seeds that survived the deadly tidal surge, which early reports suggested killed 22,000 people, may not grow if the thunderstorms expected for the rest of the month fail to wash out the salt left in the paddies by seawater. Infections such as malaria and dengue fever, which thrive in stagnant floods, are further risks. Outbreaks of cholera and dys entery are also feared.
Officially the Burmese government admits to 34,000 deaths so far. The United Nations estimate is 100,000. But a poor harvest this November means either famine or importing rice at a time when world supplies are tight and increasingly expensive. This, in a country that was the world’s top exporter of rice in 1946.
It might still be so, had the military not seized power in 1962 and, convinced the country was under siege, splurged on guns, tanks and warplanes. Its sense of insecurity has deepened with two decades of condemnation and sanctions by the west after thousands of protesters calling for democracy in Rangoon were slaughtered in 1988. But Saddam Hussein has swung from a rope and Slobodan Milosevic been brought to court, so the regime’s frosty reaction to western offers of help should not come as a surprise. Whether the timing was coincidental or not, George Bush did not help matters by awarding the iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal, while urging the regime to open up to offers of international aid. “Our hearts go out to the people of Burma,” he said. “At the same time, of course, we want them to live in a free society.”
That US air force transporters have been allowed to land at all is something of a breakthrough. However, might the green light have come earlier if America had put its aid on civil aircraft? The difficulties faced by western diplomats pleading with the obdurate generals bring home the fact that 20 years of sanctions have done nothing to bring better rule to Burma. If anything the regime has become stronger, reaching accommodations and ceasefires with warlords and liberation movements in the borderlands where the trade in drugs, timber, gems and people is big business. China and Thailand are now big customers for Burmese gas and will be for the hydroelectricity it will soon produce.
Engagement might have brought better results. South Korea and Taiwan were ruled by cruel and corrupt, albeit competent, tyrants, but as avowed western allies they were not slapped with sanctions. In the 1990s both flowered into vibrant democracies. Realists will argue this is not a coincidence. Still, the door is now at least ajar. Persistent talk of forcing aid on Burma from European leaders might make it slam shut.
Assuming they don’t invade – and if they did they would face a host of other problems: who would do the fighting? Who would stick around to ensure that Burmese taking up aid were not later targeted as traitors by government thugs? Would China simply shrug off a military incursion within its zone of influence? – western governments must still deal with more prosaic difficulties. How can they ensure aid is distributed according to need rather than to acolytes of the junta or into the army’s warehouses? Aid from Thailand is already being passed off as the largesse of one general or another. But should the west even be leading the aid charge at all?
Thailand should surely be in the donor vanguard. Its elites have courted vast investments in Burma during the past decade. If gas stops coming from Burma, expect dim lights in Bangkok. Thailand, however, like Burma’s other Asian pals, looks like a fairweather friend. Government cash and the state-owned energy giant PTT’s donations total less than $2m; the Bank of Thailand holds reserves of roughly $50bn. Indonesia, which benefited tremendously from global charity when the tsunami struck in 2004, has given $1m and blocked a Security Council resolution against Burma. Singapore helps the junta with trade and banking, and is a playground for the children of the Burmese elite. The super-rich island offered . . . $200,000. Even more disgraceful is the response of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), of which Burma is a member. An “emergency meeting” will be held by ministers to discuss aid on 19 May, almost three weeks after the cyclone blasted Burma.
China, Burma’s patron, has managed to rustle up $5.3m. Even with attention now on the earthquake in Sichuan, there is plenty of scope for more. A week after the tsunami struck Indonesia in 2004 Beijing pledged $82m. But internal politics in Burma might be staying China’s hand. A struggle is taking place to succeed the ailing junta head Senior General Than Shwe. Four years ago he toppled the prime minister Khin Nyunt, in part, it was said, because he was considered too close to Beijing. Than Shwe’s first foreign visit, on the other hand, was to Delhi, which would like to overtake China’s influence in Burma. Meanwhile, as aid struggles to reach the victims of Nargis, the farmers and their families in the Irrawaddy Delta can but pray in the rain.