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Myanmar in Crisis

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: May 12, 2008


A cyclone that ravaged Myanmar on May 3 has left tens of thousands dead and missing and many more homeless, exposing the vulnerabilities of a repressed population under an isolationist military regime. Even while the government sought international aid, its resistance to allowing entry to Western agencies has resulted in a delay in relief efforts (BBC). Daily estimates of the death toll have mounted, with some observers saying the total number of fatalities could surpass 100,000 (WashPost).

In response to the disaster, several countries, UN agencies, and international NGOs have offered assistance (AP), but Myanmar’s government has only allowed limited aid into the country thus far. After waiting for a week, Myanmar authorities allowed a U.S. military plane to land (al-Jazeera) in Yangon with relief supplies on May 12, the first major concession by Myanmar’s government. The United States offered $3 million and the use of U.S. Navy ships to help find the missing. India, China, Thailand, and other Asian neighbors, less critical of the regime, had been allowed (Reuters) to fly in supplies. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has suggested the United Nations invoke the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” civilians as the basis for a resolution to allow the delivery of international aid even without the junta’s permission (IHT). But the French proposal faced opposition ( from Security Council members Russia, China, and South Africa as interference in a domestic crisis.

Despite the rising death toll, Myanmar’s ruling junta pushed ahead with a controversial constitutional referendum on May 10, holding the vote in all areas except those worst-hit by the cyclone. Myanmar’s government says the constitution will pave the way for elections by 2010, but critics, including the U.S. State Department, have said it appears “intended only to perpetuate the rule of the existing military junta in Burma.” The Guardian reports the ballot was blatantly rigged by the regime. Before the referendum, experts had warned that it was unlikely the government will allow access to the country. “Like Mao’s China or Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, the Burmese regime would rather allow the deaths of tens or even hundreds of thousands than alter its pet political projects or allow foreigners free access to the country,” notes an editorial in the Washington Post.

Some, like Independent columnist Peter Popham, argue the cyclone may actually force the generals to open up the country to preserve their own rule and to “avoid an outbreak of violent disorder.” Last September, economic hardship prompted Buddhist monks and students to take to the streets to demand the overthrow of the regime. Some analysts feel the lack of access to basic necessities could spark additional anger among the population (Newsweek).

But as this Backgrounder points out, the junta is able to maintain its grip on power through extensive economic and military relations with its many Asian neighbors, notably India and China. Competing with each other to gain access to Myanmar’s vast natural resources and oil, China and India have each resisted criticizing the regime. China has consistently defended the government against UN efforts to press sanctions in the past. Coming to Myanmar’s aid after the cyclone, the Chinese government stepped up its initial offer (Xinhua) of $1 million to $ 5.3 million. CFR’s Adam Segal says this is a great opportunity for China, facing international ire over Tibet, to improve its image (ABC). But China may not be the best equipped to help Myanmar. As this recent congressional report points out, China’s disaster relief efforts (PDF) pale beside those of the United States.

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